By Lance Olsen
I don’t remember much about the particular circumstances surrounding my stumbling upon Robert Coover’s Pricksongs & Descants (1969), except that I was in college, maybe eighteen or nineteen years old, and, as was my wont, picking through the stacks that housed contemporary fiction at the campus library on a Friday night.
What I do remember is that that collection of broken-spined fairy tales and jackknifed narratology arrived as sparky revelation. It carried the same aesthetic firepower for me as did thumbing into the midst of my first Donald Barthelme story in the New Yorker, back when the New Yorker was the New Yorker, several years earlier; as did lifting off nearby shelves in that same campus library Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing (1971), Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and Ronald Sukenick’s 98.6 (1975).
You know how sometimes one moment you’re one person and the next you’re another?
I’ve read most of what Coover produced since then, once wrote a critical essay about The Public Burning, still my favorite Coover novel, for Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction—because that’s why criticism exists: to show works that you care about them; share them with the universe; meticulously, thoughtfully, professionally, jump up and down about them.
What I’d like to do here, however, isn’t paint with wide brushstrokes how much I adore his indefatigably fiery imagination and gorgeous prose, but rather drill down into a single story—“Going for a Beer,” which initially appeared in the New Yorker (back when the New Yorker was for an hour or two briefly itself again) on 7 March 2011, and which I had the pleasure of hearing Coover read twice (once at AWP, once when he visited the University of Utah a few years ago)—to relish aloud the circus of its mind in motion, admire just how much work has gone into compressing a man’s entire life into three pages, maybe a thousand words.
(I’ll be referring to the piece as it appears in New American Stories —edited, by the way, by one of Coover’s former students, Ben Marcus—which is the version I use regularly to introduce that piece’s mechanics and marvels to my advanced undergraduate fiction-writing students.)
What’s most extravagant about the story, of course, is its denarration of time. That is, “Going for a Beer” jams conventional narrative temporality. In part, it does so to capture the experience of life’s rush from alpha to omega, that sense of time smear that seems only to accelerate as we get older, that feeling my mother had, dying of cancer, as we sat together in her living room on a rainy day and she looked out the window, contemplating, and said after a long pause: So that was it? That was all?
Meaning the last seventy-three years.
Coover enacts that denarration in several ways. First, he has his story compact what would normally take, say, a full scene—or at least a few robust sentences—to delineate and, as it were, reverse the Newtonian impulse built into received syntax. Look at the opening line to see what I mean: “He finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar drinking a beer at about the same time that he began to think about going there for one.” We could talk a lot about those first twenty-six words, how they make the protagonist nameless, and hence into a kind of Everyschlemiel, or how he abruptly discovers himself sitting somewhere, as if waking into a dream…and not a particularly nice one. We could talk about the generic quality of the setting that reflects the generic quality of his life. But perhaps most remarkable and disorienting is the transposition of sequence: he is at the bar before he considers leaving his digs for it.
Second, Coover deploys what I think of as temporal jumpcuts—not between scene and scene, per routine writing, but rather within single sentences. So a half page later our protagonist takes out a woman for a nightcap to the same bar as mentioned in that first line, the place where they originally met (note the cliché of the soi-disant life our protagonist is living), “where a brawny dude starts hassling her. He intervenes and she turns up at his hospital bed…” The fight with said brawny dude, the protagonist’s subsequent pummeling, and the trip to the hospital are contained, as it were, in the second sentence’s conjunction. Or, better, that conjunction marks a narrative void, a befuddling leap ahead in time, a stutterstep on which the reader by necessity trips and thereby awakens.
The effect is Kafka on amphetamines. In other words, we read sentences that look like they should behave, seem to be doing a perfectly good job at acting like respectable sentences, but that in fact generate through their matter-of-fact dislocations a radical epistemological static. Coover further suffuses that shock-structure with a language of doubt. In addition to the six question marks threaded through the story (a relatively high frequency deployment of such a punctuation mark), note the proliferation of such words and phrases as he can’t remember, he’s no longer sure, maybe, or so he supposes, wondering, uncertain of what part of town he is in … or what part of the year.
Given the sexual shennanigans and doltish masculine violence rendered through Coover’s signature energetic hyperbole, one often initially reads “Going for a Beer” in the key of bawdy comedy. But another tone simultaneously and inextricably intertwines with that one. As with so much Kafka (think Metamorphosis; think Gregor, all alienated big bug and bourgeois worker bee, trying to figure out how to disembark from bed so he can get dressed and hurry to work on time [we never want to displease our bosses, do we?]), we are aswim in a night lake of hole-in-the-heart disorientation and sadness.
In some measure, I think that’s because “Going for a Beer” can be read, not only as fun denarrational romp, an exercise in formal (and hence social) misbehavior, and/or a concomitantly sober clownish reminder of how every story ends in that white scramble of death following its final period, how every life scrambles at breakneck speed toward the silence of the white sheet tugged up over its face, but also as an exploration of a consciousness—the protagonist’s? the narrator’s?—blurring into the bewildering atemporality of early dementia.
Or we might instead want to translate our reading into political terms. Do so, and we can read “Going for a Beer” as a biting critique of our present economic catastrophe, an invesigation into how capitalism doesn’t work, again and again. Through such an optic, “Going for a Beer” mimics capitalism’s speed of mass production. It simulates a narrative assembly line set on fastforward, which would be one loud slapstick laugh, except for the fact that the nameless widget it chews up and spits out is called a human being.
I recently finished Jenny Erpenbeck’s extraordinary un-memoir, Not a Novel, in which she reminds us that literature’s job is to show “that what we know is never the whole truth, but literature also tells us that the whole truth is waiting for us, if only we could read.” Yet the more we read, the more we learn, the more we recognize truth never occurs in the singular outside of religion, psychotherapy, and other reductionistic, Lilliputian modes of thought and being.
That interruption in our certainty about Truth with a capital T, which is to say that interruption in our certainty about stable language and narratology in which such an Ur-truth could somehow be housed all pristine and speakable, has been one of Coover’s primary obsessions since that first book of his I plucked off my campus library shelf—and one of its stories in particular, “The Babysitter,” which has proven to be so many readers’ darling. In it, Coover dishevels centered certainty primarily by means of shrapneling both point of view and the boundaries between reality and the other thing. In “Going for a Beer,” he does so primarily by means of shrapneling our most basic assumptions about time’s arrow: that we can somehow easily chart and articulate it from start to stop; that its trajectory will add up to something we can refer to in the end as sense, even wisdom; that its yield will therefore always be cogently, comfortably narrativizable, which is to say cogently, comfortably livable.
Wrong, Coover’s indecorous architectonics say, wrong, and wrong.
Note: This essay is part of Big Other Folio: Robert Coover.