Tuesday 24 May 2011

'Somehow it should be easier than this.'

Briar Rose and Spanking The Maid 
by Robert Coover

Robert Coover is a writer's writer, a prose stylist with a hugely inventive and influential body of work behind him that has earned him prizes, fellowships and the admiration of countless other wordsmiths. My only previous experience of his work was a story contained within McSweeney's 16. Called Heart Suit, the story was printed on 14 oversized playing cards and by beginning with the King and finishing with the Joker the other 12 cards could be shuffled and read in any order. It was a nice idea although the self-contained nature of each card meant that there wasn't an awful lot to be gained narratively speaking from the shuffling. Four works of his are now getting the Penguin Modern Classics treatment with new introductions and I began with this collection of two novellas (at about 80 pages each are they long stories, novellas..?) billed as 'darkly playful introductions to Coover's writing.' John Banville provides the introduction to this volume and points out that
Any reader who cared to know just what it is like to write a novel will be well instructed here, and will come away from the experience suitably chastened, cheeks aglow from a lesson expertly administered.
He is talking here about Spanking The Maid, a brilliant piece of writing on writing, presented as the interactions of a maid and her master. Each morning it seems they are doomed to follow the same pattern of events; she determined that today will be the day that she gets everything right, he that he will manage not to end up where he always does, administering the usual punishment. He is the writer, she the writing and the frustrations of the process are brilliantly illustrated through this master/ servant relationship. The bond between them couldn't be closer of course 'for though he is her master, her failures are inescapably his.'
He sighs unhappily. How did it all begin, he wonders. Was it destiny, choice, generosity? If she would only get it right for once, he reasons, bringing his stout engine of duty down with a sharp report on her brightly striped but seemingly unimpressionable hinder parts, he might at least have time for a stroll in the garden. Does she - CRACK! - think he enjoys this? 'Well?' 'Be . . . be faithful, honest and submissive to him sir, and -' Whish-SLASH! 'And - gasp! - do not incline to be slothful! Or-' THWOCK! 'Ow! Please, sir!' Hiss-WHAP!
Both novellas have the same slightly disorientating feel, alternating between the two viewpoints but not following a traditional linear structure. There is lots of repetition; of action, reaction and even text; but the subtle differences each time mean that it doesn't feel repetitious but rather like a piece of music that returns to its themes with different instruments. And the very act of writing is repetitious of course and Coover fully exploits his set-up to show the frustrations of trying to get it down right, recalling in his efforts the famous quotation of Beckett's - 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

Perhaps he should back off a bit, give her a chance to recover some of her ease and spontaneity, even at the expense of a few undisciplined errors. Perhaps . . . yet he knows he could never let up, even if he tried. Not that he enjoys all this punishment, any more (he assumes, but it doesn't matter) than she does...but he is committed to a higher end, his life a mission of sorts, a consecration, and so punish her he must, for to the extent that she fails, he fails.

And that of course is why he cannot give up, must try again each day even if it does end up with the same punishing conclusion. His life is consecrated to hers and so even if it is her in the traditional role of subservience, and she who receives the spanking each day, he is no more free than she is, committed to his role of master even though that too ends in failure each day.

Briar Rose is Coover's play on the fairy-tale of Sleeping Beauty. A maiden bewitched to sleep for the last hundred years awaits the kiss from the questing prince that will awaken her. So far so familiar, except that Coover's story plays with conventions a little. Our maiden is accompanied by an old crone who seems to be both good and bad fairy, filling her sleep with tales of her rescue where her prince is sometimes exactly as you might expect but can also be married to someone else, or violent, or just one of a group that arrives to defile her. There is something very chilling about these different versions of awakening, coming as they do in sleep so that she, and even we, struggle to know what is real and what imagined, what conscious, what unconscious.

Our hero meanwhile has found the beginning of his quest to be almost laughably easy but it isn't long before he is mired in his task and beginning to question why he is bothering at all.

Still, he wishes he could remember more about who or what set him off on this adventure, and how it is he knows that his commitment and courage are so required. It is almost as though his questing - which is probably not even 'his' at all, but rather a something out there in the world beyond this brambly arena into which he has been absorbed, in the way that an idea sucks up thought - were inventing him, from scratch as it were (he is not without his lighter virtues): is this what it means 'to make one's name'?

Once firmly caught up in the briars that surround the fabled tower, and give the heroine her name, he realises that he is compelled to continue 'not for love of her alone, but for love of love, that the world not be emptied of it for want of valor.' Just as the maiden dreams different versions of her rescue so too our hero imagines the many ways his story might play out so that even as he remains trapped in the briars, as much a prisoner as the woman he seeks to rescue, he can transport himself to her chamber and their romantic union.

In both stories it seems, it isn't the characters who are in control of their destinies but some other force far more capricious. The illusion of satisfaction continuously eludes both master and maid, and for prince and princess it is that old crone, the fairy, the storyteller who may have created not just the narrative but the characters themselves.

The good fairy's boon to this child, newborn, was to arrange for her to expire before suffering the misery of the ever-after part of the human span, the wicked fairy in her, for the sake of her own entertainment, transforming that well-meant gift to death in life and life in death without surcease. And, in truth, she has been entertained, is entertained still. How else pass these tedious centuries?

I opened by saying that Coover is a writer's writer and by that I mean that as a reader I appreciated rather than really engaged with both of these novellas. They don't offer up the usual narrative comforts (and a good thing too), something that I expect to be repeated in the other story collection Pricksongs and Descants, so I shall be intrigued to see what he achieves within his novel, Gerald's Party. The playfulness is enjoyable and that sinister undertone keeps it always interesting. No wonder there are so many who want to see Coover's reputation cemented.


Stewart 24 May 2011 at 09:38  

The thing I like about Coover is that he does playfulness in a way that I can enjoy, rather than stand at the side and scratch my head and say, "People like this?" the way I do when I've tried other Americans like Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme.

Briar Rose, when I read it a couple of years ago, was a winner in my eyes. I understand what you mean when you say you appreciated rather than engaged with the work, but I found myself quite caught up in it all, finding myself forced to think about the staid nature of tropes.

His Noir, which came out last year, is another that scratches at the confines of genre, this time taking on classic detective fiction.


William Rycroft 24 May 2011 at 11:21  

I got far more caught up in Briar Rose than Spanking The Maid, it was genuinely unsettling and creepy at times. I'd encourage anyone reading these comments to follow the link to Stewart's review as it's really good (better than mine).

Annabel 29 May 2011 at 09:39  

Excellent - I just got this too. I only experience with Coover til now has been the collection in the Penguin Mini Modern series which had three stories in (my link here - The Babysitter was brilliant from this set.

William Rycroft 29 May 2011 at 19:17  

Ah yes, The Babysitter is considered a classic, from Pricksongs and Descants isn't it? I have a copy of that too and look forward to it. What I'd really like to do however is go to the talk being held at King's Place on Mon 13th June involving Coover, John Banville and Tom McCarthy. BUT I CAN'T!!!!!

If you can, then go, Go, GO!


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