Assault, rape, brutal domination, exquisite torture—such activities figure largely in what might be called the higher pornography (L’Histoire d’O, for instance), where they are the expected lot of the heroine-victim. But there is another kind of novel (perhaps not unrelated) in which the palpably aggressive component is directed not so much at a character as at the reader. Here the intention seems to be to enslave the reader’s imagination, to subdue it to every twist, extravagance, or ramification of the writer’s imagination. A number of brilliantly executed contemporary works—Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, Gaddis’s JR—come to mind. Wooing or seduction plays no part in the strategy of such novels; as Ogden Nash wrote somewhere, seduction is for sissies, a he-man likes his rape. The inflatio ad absurdum of the species is no doubt Ancient Evenings. Often there is a paranoid coloration to fiction of this kind, as if the impulse to total control reflects the fear of such control from outside—by a network of omniscient spies, perhaps, or some universal “system” from which there is no escape.
Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) is a good example of a novel in the bullwhip-and-manacles mode. Prolix, dazzling in its reproduction of American speech patterns, wildly and often farcically inventive, it is also remorseless in its determination to hold the reader captive in a situation that includes not only the prolonged agony of Ethel Rosenberg but the sodomization of Richard Nixon by that raunchy, goat-bearded old windbag, Uncle Sam. Though Coover’s new novel lacks the political savagery of its predecessor, Gerald’s Party is equally relentless in its pursuit of outrage and its attempt to reduce the reader to a condition of helpless and exhausted voyeurism. It is also a work of considerable comic vitality, full of inspired mimicry and parody, gleeful in its unabashed sadism.
“None of us noticed the body at first”—so the novel begins. The party at Gerald’s house has been under way for hours, though only one guest has so far passed out. Gerald is busy refilling drinks and his wife (who is never given a name) is busy supplying food—activities which they will both conscientiously pursue throughout the ensuing chaos. The victim, Ros, has been lying on the living-room floor while the guests mill around her obliviously. The host has turned his attention to a lovely woman, Alison, who has challenged him by saying, “You know, I’ll bet you’re the sort of man who used to believe, once upon a time, that every cunt in the world was somehow miraculously different.”
The discovery of poor Ros is indeed sensational, but it by no means totally preoccupies either Gerald or his guests:
Ros’s front was bathed with blood—indeed it was still fountaining from a hole between her breasts, soaking her silvery frock, puddling the carpet. I could hardly believe my eyes. I had forgotten that blood …