Other People’s Wives

John’s Wife

by Robert Coover
Simon and Schuster, 428 pp., $24.00

The Debt to Pleasure

by John Lanchester
Henry Holt, 251 pp., $20.00

What’s a tour de force? A show of strength, with an emphasis on the show, the performance, the bedazzlement. The strength is artistic, but there is still perhaps an element of arm-twisting. Does the phrase necessarily imply that we like the show less than we admire it? Or only that there are shows we like more than this one, scenes where dazzled admiration is not the main feeling we have?

The tour de force in both of these new novels involves a certain kind of wager with the expected, in which everything is the way we imagined it would be, only more so. This is partly a question of style, of waking weary old idioms to new life and driving them over the edge; but it is also a matter of playing with mythology. What if the world just is the way we think it is? What would it mean for reality meekly or wildly to live up to our largely stereotyped assumptions about it?

Neither of the novels under review is just a tour de force, as I think several of Robert Coover’s recent books have been, notably A Night at the Movies and Pinocchio in Venice. Of course it’s absurd to speak of any brilliant work as just a tour de force, when most of us would be glad to manage a tour of any kind, even of relative faiblesse, and it is no small thing to reimagine Casablanca, for instance, as comic pornography, as Coover does in A Night at the Movies, or to combine the reinvention of Pinocchio with the re-creation of Mann’s Death in Venice. The very ideas are worth the ticket, and there is never anything less than verve and endless fluency in Coover’s fiction, always the pleasure of a furious narrative energy. But verve and energy can be tiring, or more precisely, aimless, and you don’t always know why you are continuing with these books, if you are continuing. John’s Wife is different, although at first sight it looks the same.

Its mode might be described as hearsay soap opera, or Our Town scored as a scabrous fairy tale. “…Once,” it begins, “there was a man named John….” “Once…” it ends, inviting us to start again, retrace our steps through the magic forest where nothing is what it used to be. John is the developer and pretty much the owner of this “quiet prairie town,” also described as “this sad little town,” the man who chooses the mayor and the police chief, builds the malls and the airport, destroys the old city park, erects the new civic center. When asked by a friend what the principal activity of the town is, John says, “Ass scratching. Two-handed.” But then he adds, “Like every other place I know.” It is a haunted place, “everyone’s lives so intertangled, no way to get rid of anything, it all just kept looping around again, casting shadows on top of shadows …

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