Robert Coover
Robert Coover; drawing by David Levine

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, giving hidden meanings to everything that happened by day, turning dreams into nightmares by night.”

Coover conveys this nightmare effect by giving his characters first names but no second names, and by telling all the town’s stories in a breathless, thinly punctuated prose almost imperceptibly divided into nineteen unnamed, unnumbered sections. The text is not hard to read but it requires a readjustment of reading habits. Instead of trying to remember individual characters and backgrounds, or looking them up in the kind of chart you are often given at the beginning of Russian novels, you learn to wait for them to come round again, with their attendant reminders of who they are, and you come to know them the way you know gossip, fragmentary, repetitive, familiar, hazy, going blank, suddenly returning to sharp focus.

Waldo, one of John’s managers, is mostly drunk and always randy; his wife Lorraine is stranded in self-disgust. Old Stu, the used-car dealer, is very happy with his wife Daphne, although not as happy as she is with the young mechanic Rex. Trevor is the nervous accountant, Marge is his politically active wife. Lenny is the laid-back preacher and Beatrice is his spaced-out wife. Floyd, who runs the hardware store, has a psychopathic past which is waiting to sandbag him. Oxford, the pharmacist, is deeply disappointed in his sons, because one is dead in Vietnam, another is gay in California, and the other is a halfwit at home. Oxford has a daughter, but how could that help?

Certain old stagers float about: Mitch, John’s father, amiable, well-off, bigoted, complete with capitalist’s cigar; Barnaby, John’s father-in-law, parting company with his mind in an old folks’ home; Opal, John’s mother, who keeps visiting Barnaby because he is one of her few links to a world she can recognize; Alf, the widowed doctor, still competent but short of sleep, and drinking too much. The young children dream of sexual experiences which are beyond their reach; and then suddenly, comically or calamitously, they are within their reach after all. Various out-of-towners get to play a role: John’s rich, thrill-seeking friend Bruce, the frantic French painter Marie-Claire, the fitness freak adventuress Nevada.


On balance, John’s description of his town’s principal activity doesn’t seem quite fair. What folks do there, compulsively and out of all proportion to anything except our fantasies and travelers’ jokes, is screw. They also drink. If they have any time or mind or motor ability left, they then get back to ass scratching. Like any other place, this town has its habitual incest and child molesting, its high-tech voyeur, and a man who blew his brains out in despair. The riotous doings at and after the stag party on the eve of John’s wedding form a central part of many people’s memories. The novel climaxes at John’s annual Pioneers Day picnic.

Here is how John’s wedding is announced:

The entire area at the time was in something of a recession, lying dormant, waiting for something to come along and wake it up, and the wedding was like a fresh breath of life, a real pickup for everyone.

Scarcely a phrase there that isn’t past its best, chosen for its blur, like the stuffy, dragging sentences of the “Eumaeus” chapter in Ulysses. Sometimes the spoof is a little more elaborate—“Meanwhile, back at the center of the dying day’s doings in John’s backyard…”—and often the characters think in the language of their trade or persuasion (“Stu was aware all along of Rex’s hatred, thought of it as a sick streak in the boy, a transmission failure of a sort”). We are told that when old Floyd talks about the fires of hell it sounds “more like the farce of hail.”

But Coover has another style, in which he releases himself from parody and mimicry and goes for straight jokes or sharp images—“it was disgust at first sight,” “his misery’s sour peace,” “For God so loved the world that he eschewed mere abstractions”—and there are moments when he enters a territory which seems to lie somewhere on the other side of parody:

In such manner the entire town might be said to have been shaped, its streets laid out by what, though against all probability, might yet be, its daily dialogue sustained by what had not, as though it might have done, come true….

Thus, John’s annual Pioneers Day barbecue drew, somewhat abruptly, toward a close, for some a pleasure, others not, some lives changed by it, most merely in some small wise spent, a few wishing it could go on forever, others that it had never happened, or, having happened, that it could be forgotten, of all wishes wished, the one most likely to be granted….

What makes these passages elusive is the sense that the faint, drawling familiarity of their language conceals some sort of urgent message about possibility and desire and oblivion. At one point late in the book Opal is caught in what she calls a conundrum, represented by the conflicting points of view of two of her dead friends: everything that happens has happened before, and nothing ever happens twice. What if both of these propositions are true? How could they be?

Kate, the pharmacist’s wife, is one of those dead friends, but when alive she took her job as town librarian to mean she was the town sage and epigrammatist, and the novel is littered with echoes of her saying, all a little flowery, but many of them shrewd and evocative: “When the edge becomes the center, Opal, then the center becomes the void.” The town does seem to be unusually well supplied with mouthpieces and surrogates for the artist—there is also Ellsworth the newspaperman, who is writing a novel which is most of the things this novel is not, and Gordon the photographer, whose quirky pictures represent the town’s secret history—but it may well be that mirrors are everywhere, if you’re looking for mirrors.

What’s central to the novel, thoroughly internalized by the characters and inventively pursued by Coover, is the notion of story. “All life’s an artifice,” Kate says. “We are born into the stories made by others, we tinker a bit with the details, and then we die.” “If John’s a story,” Bruce modestly remarks, “then I’m an anecdote.” “She didn’t want one story to have to cancel another,” we learn of Daphne, caught in a murder plot she is too stewed to understand.


Why couldn’t life be spread out like memory was, with past and present all interwoven and dissolving into one another, so you could drift from story to story whenever the mood struck and no one really hurt by it?

And closest to home, in a sentence which seems to name the challenge Coover has set himself, Ellsworth worries about the sheer mass of narrative that even a small, ass-scratching town throws up:

More than anything it was the mind-numbing volume of mazy detail, the surfeit of story, life’s disorderly abundance not death’s neat closure, that defeated him.

Yet what holds John’s Wife together and makes it such a weirdly persuasive picture of America picturing itself, what gives it the aim it appears to lack, is neither the surfeit nor the management of story, neither the lurid appeal of the stories themselves nor the final portrait we get of John’s town, but the sense of stories overwhelming everything, leaving nothing in their wake. They are like time itself. History, memory, personality, flesh, forest, buildings—all are swallowed up in legend, some of them while they are still standing, like the truth about the man who shot Liberty Valance, in John Ford’s film of that name.

The book is dedicated to Angela Carter and to Ovid, and a number of its stories involve transformations: a sexually abused woman into a voracious giant, an aborted foetus into the snarling cartoon baby out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a womb into a version of 42nd Street, and an anxious and innocent young girl into an anxious and innocent prostitute. Not all of these transformations are dreams or fantasies. But the subtlest and most significant form of shape-shifting in the novel, and one which most firmly underlines the endless disappearance into story, concerns John’s wife, never otherwise named. She is beautiful, kindly, thoughtful, proper; everyone is in love with her; and she keeps vanishing, as if she perhaps doesn’t actually exist. “This was a strange thing about John’s wife: a thereness that was not there.”

This is clumsily put; and more than we need to know. But elsewhere in the book, in much more interesting fashion. John’s wife keeps suffering the opposite of sightings. Her car seems to drive itself around, and gets left in unlikely places. At one moment she is at the bridge table, the next she is not. “She seemed almost to dim as a light might do, and for a strange moment, Marge could not even be sure she was there.” The photographer wonders whether “anyone besides himself” has noticed “that she seemed to be vanishing, not as when someone leaves town, but as an image might fade from a photographic print.” She is John’s exact complement. He has made the town what it is: she is what keeps fading from it, she is what the town isn’t. Later in the novel she starts to appear at people’s sides when they need help or encouragement, the calm voice and presence of what they want and can’t have. We shouldn’t allegorize her more than she is already allegorized, but we can scarcely miss the implication of what it might mean to live only as a story.

“Perhaps I am getting soft,” a distinguished (imaginary) British sculptor says in John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. “I’m more interested than I used to be in beauty and less interested in force. Force of the imagination, tour de force.” The sculptor’s brother. Tarquin Winot, the spectacularly insufferable narrator of this unblinking book, knows better. He would tell the sculptor, if the poor fellow were still alive, that force, when it is subtle and indirect enough, is beauty. That is why, as Tarquin says in one of his many brilliant and deeply fallacious disquisitions, the murderer rather than the artist is the paradigmatic cultural figure of our century. The artist wants to leave a mark on the world, while the murderer wants to leave a gap where a mark used to be.

The murderer…is better adapted to the reality and to the aesthetics of the modern world, because instead of leaving a presence behind him—the achieved work, whether in the form of a painting or a book or a daubed signature—he leaves behind him something just as final and just as achieved: an absence…. Hitler a failed painter, Mao a failed poet; the same urges underlay their earlier and their later careers; but we’re so used to this boring perception that we fail to see its true meaning, which is not that the megalomaniac is a failed artist but that the artist is a timid megalomaniac, venting himself in the easy sphere of fantasy rather than the unforgiving arena of real life—Kandinsky a failed Stalin, Klee a Barbie manqué.

As with all inspired comedy, the travesty here is entangled in all kinds of truths: that modern art is much concerned with absence, that art and power are not unrelated, that many would-be Oscar Wildes, including Oscar Wilde, have tried to convert life itself into an artwork. The style is important too, the imitation of bland plausibility, the insidious detail. Stalin is predictable, but Klaus Barbie? How did he get picked out of the plentiful gallery of modern butchers? Because his first name alliterates with Klee and Kandinsky? Because of the joke about the doll lurking in his second name? Because Tarquin’s (or John Lanchester’s) unconscious has a project of its own—needing to shift the implied scene to France, for example? Winot is presumably pronounced “wino,” although “why not” might do just as well.

The Debt to Pleasure is Lanchester’s first novel, but the poise of the book makes this hard to believe. It offers all kinds of pleasures, and creates corresponding debts, some more easily accounted for than others. “This is not a conventional cookbook,” it opens, and indeed it is not, and not only because it is a work of fiction. Even within the fictional frame, our narrator is busily subverting, often intentionally, several other genres, notably the detective story, the true confession, the false confession, the literary essay, and the tale which reveals, between the lines, most of what it is meant to conceal.

Even the book’s recipes, full of arcane and lip-smacking detail—when did you last meet anyone who regularly used “esculence” and “esculent” as if the words needed no introduction?—are as much pretexts for memory as they are evocations of food. When Tarquin tells us that the organization of his book is “based on the times and places of its composition,” and you see that its four sections follow the order of the seasons, starting in winter, with menus to match, you think, erroneously, that you know where you are. The cookbook is Tarquin’s philosophical model, but his story concerns his obsessive pursuit of a recently married couple, and the fate they meet when they finally fall into his trap. They are admirers of Tarquin’s brother’s work, and Tarquin is an irrepressible admirer of the bride. She is writing a biography of the brother, and combining her honeymoon with a visit to some of his scattered works. Unfortunately, she doesn’t fancy Tarquin quite as much as he thinks she should. Apart from its frequent flashbacks, the whole narrative takes place in a single summer, and, after a brief prelude in Portsmouth, is set entirely in France. “Based on the times and places of its composition” turns out merely to mean following Tarquin’s train of thought wherever he is: St. Malo, Lorient, driving down the Loire Valley, at home in Provence. It’s true that the seasonal ordering reflects Tarquin’s belief that “the menu lies close to the heart of the human impulse to order, to beauty, to pattern”; but then there are other impulses closer to Tarquin’s heart.

It would be a shame to describe the unfolding of the plot of The Debt to Pleasure, since it is a thing of beauty in its devious self. It will be enough to say that Tarquin is an expert not in disguise but in the buffoonery of the very idea of disguise—at the end of the first chapter we learn that he is wearing, as he takes the air on the cross-channel ferry, a deerstalker and a false moustache—and that most of the creatures he has known more than casually—parents, brother, friend, cook, maid, neighbor, visiting hamster—have died sudden deaths. Freud, Tarquin feels, “underestimated the role of malignity in human affairs.”

Tarquin’s self-admiration frequently gets the better of him, and then the would-be mastermind becomes a helpless, pompous figure of fun. He has always disliked being called a genius, he says. “It is fascinating to notice how quick people have been to intuit this aversion and avoid using the term.” It is just possible that he is indulging in a double bluff here, that he sees how far the world is from recognizing his genius, with or without the avoidance of the term. He certainly sees that the phrase “Why don’t you write a book about it?” can be “uttered in an admittedly wide variety of tones and inflections,” many of them not suggesting anything remotely resembling writing an actual book. But there can be no bluff in his own idea of himself as a genius, and he boasts repeatedly about his excellent French in the way that only the truly deluded can. When Tarquin shows himself wearing his favorite outfit—green and ochre-check suit, pale cerise shirt, blue and yellow spotted bow-tie—we know exactly what we are looking at: Bertie Wooster pretending to be Baudelaire. This is a man whose obsession with cleverness and control becomes comic not because it fails, and still less because it is ferociously amoral, but because even in sinister success it cannot cancel the ridiculous impression he least wants to make.

But then there is no mistaking Tarquin’s stylistic gifts. He excels at the throwaway, as in his remark about his “alleged fellowmen,” or a neighbor’s “couturial suicide,” or in his impersonation of W.C. Fields going to market, “delivering a quasi-accidental blow with my knee to the temple of a child who had been caroming noisily around the stalls.” He also has the wonderful, all-too-often outlawed lucidity of nastiness, speaking with relish of “the Emperor Nero’s amusing and instructive misdeeds.” “There is an erotics of dislike,” Tarquin says convincingly, nowhere more visible than in his description of English salad cream as tasting “like the byproduct of an industrial accident” or his picture of your typical English market town “with the standard appurtenances of lounging skinheads swigging cider on the steps of the graffiti-defaced war memorial, and a punitive one-way system.” Think of the other memorials England has offered to its great men. Where the French have Chateaubriand’s steak and béchamel sauce, we have “the cardigan, the wellington, the sandwich.”

Tarquin has international dislikes too, as displayed in his certainly that “a weakness for the colour pink” is “an infallible sign of the defective taste one associates with certain groups and individuals: the British working class, grand French restaurateurs, Indian street poster designers, and God….” And only Tarquin Winot, perhaps, could be so fulsomely eloquent about the different terms for disaster:

Compare the implication of mis-management, of organization going wrong, in the Gallic débâcle with the candidly chaotic, intimate quality of the Italian fiasco, or the blokishly masculine and pragmatic (and I would suggest implicitly reversible and therefore, in its deepest assumptions, optimistic) American fuck-up.

Tarquin quotes Villon and Donne, misquotes Walter Benjamin, thinks Eleanor of Aquitaine was “a little like my mother, except with a higher IQ and a longer attention span.” The households of his youth employed as cooks “a Dostoevskyan procession of knaves, dreamers, drunkards, visionaries, bores, and frauds, every man his own light, every man his own bushel.” In the following carefully prepared gag, he expects us to perceive the allusion to (and parody of) one of Proust’s best-known similes before it gets (so to speak) blown up. The artist is

intimate…with sensations of imminent unfolding and budding, of tentative realization swelling into ecstatic apprehension of not-quite-certainty with the rampant unexpectedness of one of those ingenious little packets which, when dropped into water, so startlingly and magically transform themselves into fully inflated, accessorized, and provisioned life rafts.

The chief of the many pleasures of The Debt to Pleasure, the one that had me regularly laughing out loud and stopping to reread whole pages, is Tarquin’s habit of attempting to clarify things by extended analogy. The analogy invariably gets out of hand, always fails to clarify, but becomes a comic work of art in its own right, delirious with excessive detail. It’s as if Proust had teamed up with Milton Berle. At these moments, just behind Tarquin’s flourishes, we get a glimpse of Lanchester’s combined invention and discipline, and his own discreet pleasure in the jokes. Here, for instance, is Tarquin telling us about what he calls the function of the evening drink, the ordinary slurped martini, which for him constitutes

a liminal episode, a transition equivalent to that undergone by a shaman who has downed a rank quart of reindeer urine in which the hallucinogenic component of Amanita muscaria has been conveniently concentrated, and who, while not quite free of his quotidian awareness (the dirt, the rough skin of the totem animal abrasive on his hairy shoulders, the damp wood of the tribal fire smoking evilly into his watering eyes) is also not yet fully embarked on his voyage into alternative consciousness—the hurtling tunnel ride of psychic alterity.

Here is Tarquin thinking about the ancient and traditional attractions of lamb as an entree:

One can imagine Genghis Khan himself, listening to his next day’s supper bleating in the field outside his yurt as he stood under the huge star-filled amphitheater of the Central Asian plains, and for the first time began to feel the weight of years…

And here is Tarquin evoking his mother:

…She played at being the mother in the way that a very very distinguished actress, caught overnight in the Australian outback (train derailed by dead wallaby or flash flood), is forced to put up at a tiny settlement where, she is half-appalled and half-charmed to discover, the feisty pioneers have been preparing for weeks to put on, this very same evening, under wind-powered electric lights, a production of Hamlet. Discovering the identity of their newcomer (via a blurred photograph in a torn-out magazine clipping brandished by a stammering admirer) the locals insist that she take a, no, the, starring role; she prettily demurs; they anguishedly insist; she becomingly surrenders, on the condition that she play the smallest and least likely of roles—the gravedigger, say. And gives a performance which, decades later, the descendants of the original cast still sometimes discuss as they rock on their porches to watch the only train of the day pass silhouetted against the huge ochres and impossibly elongated shadows of the desert sunset…that was the spirit in which my mother “did” being a mother.

The lurking lyricism in these examples is not an accident and not only a gag. Tarquin belongs to a whole lineage of dodgy narrators in literature: he is a self-exposing scoundrel like the literary man at the center of The Aspern Papers, he has all of Humbert Humbert’s cleverness although none of his charm. But his particular contribution to the genre is his eloquence on the subject of missed or unrecoverable experience, and this is why we can’t moralize his criminal successes and/or artistic failures without missing his peculiar besetting quality. He is nowhere near being the artist he thinks he is, and his vanity ruins all his dreams of greatness. His every attempt to belittle the gifts of his brother the sculptor makes them seem bigger. But then, similarly, Tarquin’s mockery of his mother’s performance contains a reluctant tribute, a metaphor for memory, just as the shaman is caught at the moment he is not yet free of the rough remembered world, and Genghis Khan thinks not only of his supper but of the weight of years.

Tarquin’s unrecognized theme is Lanchester’s subtle subject, and we see here how close he is to other contemporary British novelists, specialists in the sense of history as wreckage and regret: Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Graham Swift. We may feel there are other, more desirable views of history, but certainly these writers are telling us something about the desolation of their own time and place. Reality itself becomes a shadowy, inescapable digression, paradise another name for vanished time. The ashtrays and the children in the following quotation, along with the graceless cliché about the gateway to all our yesterdays, are meant to keep our irony awake, to stave off sloppiness. But we should not miss the authority of sorrow in these sentences, the intimation of everything that literature and the mind cannot do.

In all memory there is a degree of fallenness; we are all exiles from our own pasts, just as, on looking up from a book, we discover anew our banishment from the bright worlds of imagination and fantasy. A cross-channel ferry, with its overfilled ashtrays and vomiting children, is as good a place as any to reflect on the angel who stands with a flaming sword in front of the gateway to all our yesterdays.

This Issue

October 17, 1996