Swans Commentary » swans.com January 27, 2014  



Reader Burnout


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Coover, Robert: The Public Burning, 1977, The Viking Press, ISBN 0-670-58200-X, 534 pages. Reprinted in 1998, Grove Press, 978-0-8021-3527-8, 544 pages.
The First Amendment is an ideal, not a given. Dick [Seaver] had just shown the book to the Book-of-the-Month Club and said: "They just shit their pants, they simply shit their pants."
—Robert Coover


(Swans - January 27, 2014)   Raking through modern American novels looking for tooth-and-claw political satire, we never bother with the postmodernists. What they mock and undermine is "realist" fiction. They want to show us that its camera eye and linear narration is simply another artificial and passé convention. The on-the-page acrobatics involved in making their case generally exhaust their blood lust. But not always. Robert Coover's The Public Burning spends five hundred-some pages on a brutal send-up of the national way of doing politics, and his postmodern credentials are intimidating. He teaches electronic writing, no less, at Brown University.

Coover had trouble getting his novel published in 1977. Major publishers wanted to take it on but their lawyers raised objections. The novel broke all the rules of publishing decorum by writing about living people under their own names. Dozens of them, all prominent, filled the book. Coover, always the postmodernist, insisted he wrote about media creations, not about real people. The men of law assured him, however, that fine distinctions of the sort would not fend off lawsuits. Richard Seaver was the only editor ready to commit himself to the book. As an expat in Paris he had translated Beckett and been a founder of the literary review Merlin. In New York he worked for Grove Press and then for Viking. His superiors there soon tried to back out of the deal they had agreed with Coover. Seaver and the author dug in and held their ground, agreeing to only small cuts in the text.

Coover casts Richard Nixon as the novel's on-and-off narrator and, to our surprise, almost as it hero. His Nixon has all the characteristics of a garden-variety lead character in a contemporary "realist" novel. Such heroes have become anti-heroes and Coover's Nixon does his job ad nauseam, searching his memories, offering excuses, alternately beating his chest in contrition and defiance. He's a being spurred by ambition but encumbered with hang-ups galore, some inherited, some following from the twisted path of his career so far.

The material for this portrait of a public man at forty comes only in part from Nixon's biography. The wrenching bits of the politician's inner life all issue from Coover's muscling of the known facts. At least as far as Nixon goes, Coover is disingenuous to tell us he wasn't writing about real people but about creatures the media had created. Even the tawdriest tabloids of the time never showed the vice-president sodomized, pussy-whipped by his wife Pat, or caught literally with his pants down in public. The warnings of the lawyers were well grounded. Thanks to the twists of history, though, a legal assault on the novel never came. It was penalized, however, by various bans and the efforts of its own publisher to have it forgotten. Coover would feature on a blacklist and as late as 1984 had an invitation to visit China blocked by Washington.

There's a double context here, 1977, when the book appeared, and 1953, when it was set. Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 and then spent two years out of the limelight. By 1977 he needed money to pay his lawyers and felt it was time to win back a mass public. He obtained $600,000 from David Frost for a series of TV interviews. But the Englishman so delved and probed that Nixon virtually admitted the obstruction of justice charge that hung over him. It was the former president's coup de grace.

In the novel Coover fixes on just three days of 1953, which amounts to 177 pages per diem. The minute span includes the putting to death of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, an event that furnishes the taut backdrop of the story. The drumbeat leading to the first execution of American citizens for espionage in peacetime is the music to which the Nixon character will do his floundering dance.

Anyone looking for a flaw in the postmodern critique of the "realist" novel will smile here. Storytelling pre- or post-modern can't entirely escape the traditional limitations that 17th century French dramatists, looking back to Aristotle, declared incontournable. Their three unities concerned time, place and action. Coover restricts time from Wednesday to Friday night; place to Washington, the Sing Sing Correctional Facility at Ossining, and Times Square; and action to "The Public Burning" itself, the rest being talk and fine writing. Precisely because he has held so rigorously to these constraints, readers might find his merging of Sing Sing and Times Square confusing, a fault of logic, the "realist" logic he has railed against.

Not that quibbles of the kind count much in the wild engulfing fantasy, super abundant and exploding with exuberance that Coover sets before us. Considering only its word trove, one has to agree with the critic Brian Evenson who said the book was "perhaps the most complete replenishment of the language since Whitman and (in a different way) Mark Twain...no writer since Melville has dived so deeply and fearlessly into this collective realm as Coover has in this novel."

Coover's attitude toward the Rosenbergs is not pro or con. He leaves them as an enigma. At the time Nixon was vice president and a proven Red-chaser, but under a cloud because of his secret-fund scandal and mistrusted by his party and President Eisenhower. He surprises us by constantly comparing the Rosenbergs' humble backgrounds to his own. Coover decorates his anti-hero with oodles of empathy but it always yields in a pinch to his political interest. Each squeal of guilt is trumped by his repeating that politics in America have their own set of laws that have nothing to do with morality. The two realms never meet. The Rosenbergs must die, guilty or not, because the Cold War conjuncture demands it. A serious contemporary truth emerges for us from Coover's slapstick and grotesquerie. The anti-Communism of those years pumped fear into Americans in the same way terrorist phobia does today. With citizens cowering in fright, the government can do as it pleases.

Coover tells his story by great slabs of narrative that mainly spirals about and marks time. Interludes of quoted speeches, duologues, and even a comic opera occasionally stop the flow. A problem begins to take shape in the reader's mind. He is sure enough of who is talking when it's the Nixon character or Uncle Sam (whose lingo is gloriously distinctive). But at other times, reading, he can't be sure whether it's Coover himself or some anonymous interloper narrating. Turning pages the reader has a hankering for the old "realist" trick of knitting a long narrative together by seeing it through the eyes of one ever present narrator. Coover may have sensed the problem since in the final pages, as we will see, he gives the reader an unforgettable jolt of Nixon's presence.

Quite apart from his postmodern postures, a question arises about Coover's talent. Is it best exercised in very long novels? He has after all written remarkable short stories and it would be possible to separate the many pages of The Public Burning and reshape them into dozens of shorter tales. The novel clearly suffers from repetitions and at many points stalls in its forward movement and circles back on itself. Only the death of the Rosenbergs and Nixon's final humiliation/coronation puts something like a cap on the verbal gusher.

One of Coover's most successful satiric tricks is to incarnate forces of the epoch in a single figure. Time Magazine, so important in the 1950s, becomes the poet laureate. The evil spirit of Communism resides in the villainous Phantom. Most important, kitschy and murderous American patriotism is concentrated in the figure of Uncle Sam. He is an amoral ringmaster of total pragmatism with some of the super human powers that are traditionally attributed to Satan. Uncle Sam is the custodian of absolute nationalism's holy grail. He passes it on to U.S. politicians when they take high office. He does so, as Nixon learns to his pain and dismay, by sodomizing them. His relaying of the torch to Richard Nixon brilliantly fills the last half dozen pages of the novel. "But you...you can't," says Nixon. Uncle Sam replies:

Can and will, my beauty, can and will! You said it yourself: they's a political axiom that wheresomever a vacuum exists, it will be filled by the nearest and strongest power! Well, you're lookin' at it, mister: an example and fit instrument, big as they come in this world and gittin' bigger by the minute! Towerin' genius disdains a beaten path -- it seeks regions hitherto unexplored -- so clutch aholt on somethin' and say your prayers, cuz I propose to move immeejitly upon your works.


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Published January 27, 2014