Since coming to CalArts, I’ve frequently taught a class I call Fairy Tales, Myths, and Fables. The only contemporary writer I consistently find myself teaching in any iteration of that class is Robert Coover. For more than half a century now, Coover has been examining the dynamics and roles of fairy tales in a way that, somehow, has remained seemingly inexhaustible. Rather than allowing a methodology to function as a kind of cookie-cutter to pattern his critique and transformation, Coover always offers different ways of looking at the notion of the fairy tale, and different opportunities to allow it to be transformed.
When Coover reworks a fairy tale, he does so in a doubly articulated fashion. First, he is interested in the way fairy tales both create and magnify a shared sense of community, the way that fairy tales give voice to shared and collective (and often unstated) myths. Second, he explores the idea of fairy tales as a genre, and the way this genre enunciates a set of problematics and solutions that define acceptable behavior within a community. In other words, on the one hand, fairy tales can bring people together and give them a sense of community. On the other hand, they regulate behavior: they operate as mechanisms of judgment and control.
The myths that form communities break down and stop being efficacious well before the stories that arise from these myths stop being told. Indeed, the myths we tell about who we are can become mistaken for reality itself, which is why someone can find themselves still believing, after having conducted an assault on the Capitol, that they are being patriotic. And then, when arrested, they will, through an elaborate but subconscious form of mental gymnastics, grasp desperately for the next myth that will allow themselves to believe they are other than they are, believing for instance the story that Antifa was “really” there, despite a President and his entourage egging them on, despite all sorts of video evidence to the contrary. Exhausted myths become excuses for Sartrean bad faith, and if they are not questioned and revised, they end up leading a culture to its own collapse.
Coover’s approach to the fairy tale is committed to breaking down old myths that have lost their efficacy. For Coover, “the fiction maker’s function is to furnish better fictions with which we can reform our notion of things” (Gado, 150). This disjunction between things themselves and our notions of them is precisely the space in which manipulation and control of the individual can take place. In this sense, the writer is the opposite of a propagandist. The writer “tears apart the old story, speaks the unspeakable, makes the ground shake, then shuffles the bits back together in a new story. Partly anarchical, in other words, partly creative—or re-creative” (Wolff, 54).
Coover looks at the slippage of a fairy tale across its different versions and then makes it slip even more. He recognizes that there is no original ur-version of a fairy tale that should be returned to, that should be held sacrosanct. Indeed, Coover’s work as a whole is about taking the sacrosanct and rendering it profane, about questioning the smooth surface of cultural assumption in a way that makes the ground buckle and allows us to better see what is actually there.
Every new Coover story takes a different approach to this. “The Gingerbread House” (1969), for instance, presents the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” as the equivalent of a self-destructive kinetic sculpture, separating the tale we know into forty-two snippets, shifting focus, engaging in rhythmic iteration, focusing on color patterns, and ending the tale on the threshold of what we usually think of as the heart of the tale rather than pursuing the predictable arc that we know. It replaces the children’s outsmarting of the witch with the immanence of that encounter, and mires itself in existential helplessness. It concludes when the gingerbread house is about to be entered, but has stacked the deck by laying the groundwork for what follows (which never appears) in a decidedly different way than we are used to, so that we are left standing outside the door with a question hovering: “but beyond: what is that sound of black rags flapping?” And yet, through what has been obliquely revealed in the previous sections, we have some inkling of what that flapping is, as well as a realization that the witch is not something that can be contained exclusively within her candied house in the woods.
On the surface, the strategy of “The Goldilocks Variations” (2013) seems similar. It offers thirty-two sections, and each section tells or retells a portion of the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” overlaps different versions, contradicts or corrects the versions that come before and after. But where “The Gingerbread House” is about immanence and dread and truncates its narrative before it begins, in “The Goldilocks Variations” the characters (G, B1, B2, and B3) have heard the stories before and know the possible narratives that they might expect: “G has read and been read stories about such cottages and their beastly occupants and has been guided by them, and is guided by them now as she tastes the pots of porridge with wooden spoons to test their temperature.” It should be no surprise that the guidance these stories provide fails her, since this encounter has something quite a bit more unsettling in store, something which, if G had read more books about bear behavior than she had fairy tales she would be better equipped to handle. As everything goes sideways, the bears feel “a certain wistful nostalgia for the stories as they used to be told, the lies that made life easier.” These lies are precisely what Coover is committed to debunking. In addition, Coover consciously structures his narrative around J. S. Bach’s The Goldberg Variations with the narrative gestures actively speaking to the thematic gestures and recursions of Bach’s music, allowing one form of narrative-shaping (musical) to comment on the other (verbal) and vice versa. “The Goldilocks Variations” is the narrative that exists after the stories have been told and surpassed; and looks back from a place of dark knowledge on a more innocent time.
Briar Rose (1996), which to my mind is perhaps Coover’s most accomplished critique of fairy tales, lies somewhere in between: this is not a story about being on the threshold of a fairy tale or at the end of an exhausted story looking back, but about being frozen in the middle of a tale. Or, rather, being stuck in all parts of it at once. And also being stuck in all versions of the tale at once, from Giambattista Basile’s “Sun, Moon, and Talia” to the Brothers Grimm’s “Brier Rose.” It focuses on the prince trying to rescue Briar Rose, the sleeping and dreaming princess, and the fairy (who is also a crone) who guards the princess, attends her, and listens in on her dreams. The prince can’t seem to move his part of the tale forward: as the novella progresses and the prince continues to struggle, it becomes clear that he might remain trapped forever in the briars entwining the castle. The princess clings to the narrative she has been told, dreaming of the prince and of a “happily ever after,” but perhaps these very dreams, these expired myths, keep her naïve and prevent her from awakening. The fairy enters the princess’s dreams and tells her stories that are versions of the princess’s desired and potential story but always twisted, deformed, as a way of trying to teach the princess not to cling to the old myths (in this, the fairy resembles Coover himself). But by the end of the novella, the prince is still trapped, the fairy still bored, and the princess seems to have learned nothing: she is still clinging to the exhausted myths of the happily-ever-after.
This is only to scratch the surface of what Coover’s revisionary fairy tales manages to do. For instance, Stepmother (2004), instead of examining an individual tale, takes the fairy tale trope of the stepmother and explores it alongside other character tropes. What happens, Coover asks, if we take a usually secondary character role and make it central: how does this disrupt or deform the comfortable narratives fairy tales have hitherto offered? “The Crabapple Tree” (2015) takes the fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” and moves it forward to a small twentieth century gossipy American town, and with that shift in setting makes it feel entirely different, a kind of commentary on small town America. “The Enchanted Prince” (2018) crosspollinates film and fairy tale, using the great mythmaking form of times past to critique and be critiqued by the mythmaking form of our present. How does the fairy tale change, it asks, as it is made, and remade, and remade again, in film? And how, too, does film change from its contact with fairy tales?
In all cases, Coover’s writing is illuminating, and keeps exposing to us the way in which words can paper over the reality of what is actually there, causing us to interact with a fictionalized version of the world rather than the world itself. Coover’s work is about tearing away that paper, fracturing our myths, so that we can stop clinging to the past.
“Robert Coover” in Frank Gado, Ed., First Person: Conversations on Writers and Writing Schenectady, NY: Union College Press, 1973), 142-159.
Geoffrey Wolff, “An American Epic,” New Times, 19 August 1977, 49-57.
Note: This essay is part of Big Other Folio: Robert Coover.