The Old Stories
By Robert Coover
Edited by William Walsh
A fact of theft, an accusation of theft, and a smug thief unfortunately join with sensible advice. Don’t get caught with what you’ve stolen still on
you; when your accusers confront you, play dumb; self-satisfaction is visible. Anyone writing myths, legends, fables, or fairy tales, modern or ancient, film treatments and TV pilots, knows how well those things, if packaged right and slung at everyone’s knees, tend to sell, and to be stolen. That’s part of William Walsh’s editorial “proclamation” ahead of RE: Telling: “Whereas a stolen book is a liberated book…”
But “liberated” is the wrong place to leave the stolen book. Certainly it’s now “free,” but there’s a toward (liberation/freedom) and an away from (captivity) by the expression whose directions aren’t spoken. The
majority of Walsh’s proclamation, which begins, “Whereas the biblical…” and winds through 18 more clauses from “Whereas a redhead ruled a black & white world…” to “Whereas the Shakespeare has many tops but only one Bottom…”, refers to the stories in the RE: Telling anthology while mugging in anticipation of critical pretension. That follows an eager subtitle (“An Anthology of Borrowed Premises, Stolen Settings, Purloined Plots, and Appropriated Characters”), and together they blurt out that the book contains something they want to present as unseemly and dishonorably acquired.
I’ll bite: so RE: Telling is an anthology of thieves, up to much good, and not only trying vaguely to liberate. Robert Coover is an old hand at that game, and the 19 stories in his A Child Again follow an M.O. similar to RE: Telling’s 27 instances of “take and run,” or maybe it’s the other way around. Coover riffs on nostalgia (he’s 79) while suggesting that we consider any writer’s “stolen” story or style or characters or whatever as adults’ attempts to become children again in a forward sense—not to engage in nostalgia for an earlier period of life called childhood, but to rebirth as born-again mythologizers (liars, thieves, make-believers). That’s what we’re after.
Blake Butler’s story (“Fire Walk with Me”) picks at itself by adopting the style of its central persona: David Lynch, or, the myth of David Lynch. The Lynchian style of the story can be an escape from a false pretense (David Lynch has distilled David Lynch’s films into prose), but Butler has a progression in mind: place the false origin, the “man,” who presents himself and is presented as a certain sort, inside a story as a character, and jellyfish him. In such a story, the man will be thinned, ballooned, and distended—he will betray his status as impostor, as a function of a style. So, the surface, the first part.
But I must explain what constitutes that surface, and why redirecting a “myth” of Lynch, or of any sort, is difficult:
We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they’re caught by myth. Myth sees in them only the same raw material; their unity is that they all come down to the status of a mere language. Whether it deals with alphabetical or pictorial writing, myth wants to see in them only a sum of signs, a global sign… (Roland Barthes, from “Myth Today” in Mythologies)
Myths, personas (as a type of myth), legends and other old stories constitute chains of references, but less to the world than to each other. So a story about a man named David Lynch moving around a room filled with objects that reflect the “Lynchian” style of a certain filmmaker (blood, boxer shorts, a white horse, “a blonde bouffant wig,” etc.) doesn’t pretend, in its references, to connect with the world in which the reader experiences the story except as part of the chain that also refers to Lynch films and pictures, videos, and anecdotes about the man (“the materials of mythical speech”), all of which are easily rearranged—they’re hollowed out, they don’t mean anything except “David Lynch,” who/which (as person/persona) can be pinched and written however possible. Who says Butler couldn’t have written as David Lynch? Style is relatively easy to emulate—to throw it into a story and have it float is somewhat rarer.
That’s the throughline for the anthology, more or less: replace old with new not by erasing the old, but recontextualizing or distorting it. The project is an almost unbearably postmodernist one, even when it’s working. Alicia Gifford, in “Desilu, Three Cameras,” puts everyone from I Love Lucy in un-censor-sanitized situations: Ricky Ricardo is blackmailed by a new dancer he’d taken advantage of, Ethel accidentally kills a man who had given her gonorrhea, Lucy helps her cover it up, as usual, and Fred tries to rediscover his sexual potency. The dynamics between characters from the show at first appear the same, but go slightly off, e.g., instead of Lucy causing some disaster and pulling Ethel in with her, Ethel is a pettily unfaithful wife to an impotent husband. Lucy, left at home (she correctly assumes) by the likewise unfaithful Ricky, passes the time eating junk and waiting for him to turn up, and, now that she isn’t played by Lucille Ball on television, actually shows the consequences of her constantly gratifying a tooth for sweets/salt/food in general. The story nevertheless reads like an episode of the show—it shifts from one escalating crisis to the next and fades out after a final punchline with all characters around for another episode, and the immediate conflicts resolved but essential ones very much not.
I committed a kind of metaphoric faux pas above by implying the only respectable way to “become children again” is to do so “in a forward sense.” Here’s why: the presence of a story by Michael Martone (“Borges in Indiana”) in an anthology that also features a treatise on the multivalent persona of “Michael Martone” (“Distractus Refractus Ontologicus: The Dissemination of Michael Martone” by Josh Maday) at first made me curious whether RE: Telling cuts a puzzle whose solution the reader has to define from its shapes (here, the anthologized stories). It doesn’t, or at least I didn’t see it, and the pair of stories is “only” an inspired selection by Walsh, but Barthes’ “sum of signs,” and the chain of those sums, support another metaphor of the way myths and all the rest fit together: puzzle-like. Instead of thinking about literature as a linear progression of tradition (there’s the faux pas), try it as an accumulation without time as its primary organizing principle. Time remains a secondary one, of course, but only as yet another metaphor for the puzzle’s gradually revealing itself—as more puzzles. By that reckoning, a poor and cynical retelling merely restates the present puzzle’s shape and the other “materials’” placed inside it.
Most of A Child Again’s stories wear their old selves as titles—“The Invisible Man,” “Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock”—or are riddles or puzzles (“Suburban Jigsaw” and the other two Puzzle Pages to be solved by the reader, or not) but recontextualize and distort in the same ways as the above stories from RE: Telling. But Coover’s stories, in general, aren’t cut off from the world. The Invisible Man, more of a pervert and a thief than a real villain, discovers the power of his position, and its inherent loneliness—soon he suspects, or hopes, that an invisible woman is following him. He begins to obsess over her, and believes she, whoever she is (and whether or not she’s a “she”) knows how to look for signs of his presence, which he begins to hint at more and more strongly, at increasing danger to himself:
He began to see her, even in her invisibility, as unutterably beautiful, and he realized he was hopelessly in love. He thought of his adoration for her as pure and noble, utterly unlike his life of crime, but he also imagined making mad impetuous love to her. Rolling about ecstatically in their indentations.
Her beauty is imaginary; so is her existence (maybe), his love and adoration are based on that imaginary quality of that potentially imagined person; and all is pretense for sex, hence impure and ignoble (by the IM’s flexible standards), and that sex, also imaginary, is two bodies taking pleasure in themselves—their “indentations”—which pleasure is also a daydream. Coover, on his game, replaces or augments pop- or mythological character personalities so that their responses to their situations—say, to being invisible and retired and bored—are humanly recognizable.
That sort of play, and it does seem wise and indefatigably good-natured, is Coover staying in character: in “Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock,” he ages Alice by decades and makes her Wonderland’s resident spinster who must contend, at last, with the Jabberwock’s “entering” her in a manner of course sexual—he interprets Lewis Carroll’s draw on the Anglo-Saxon “wocer/wocor” for “Jabberwocky” literally as “offspring,” a sensation (an “itch”) and a presence that Alice feels but doesn’t understand. Near the end, she tells the Cheshire Cat about her discovery that she can’t find anymore the rabbit hole or looking glass that would take her back to being a little girl, and the terrible awareness that to return to her past is impossible, because, says the Mad Hatter, “It’s always now. It can’t be anything else. Before and after are just make believe.”
That “now” in Child often springs out of darkness and death or carries their weight. In “Playing House,” a collective gesture—a group of people build and pass through a door in impenetrable subterranean darkness—reveals “luminous shapes within the general luminosity” after a great flood of a “fierce thing called light.” But “we” in the story turn around again to search for the place where darkness was, begin an illicit trade of darkness in little pouches, and resume telling, in broad daylight, “old family stories” that had given the darkness meaning and the people living in it direction. Those stories are, or would have been, obsolete if relinquished. “The Return of the Dark Children” corkscrews its approach to a new falling darkness, same as the old but more terrible: the German villagers whose plague of rats was lifted by the Pied Piper and whose children were led away by same, don’t want or seek out the darkness (or their children, anymore—they’ve had new ones). Another infestation begins, of rats and material-or-imaginary devils that used to be their children—the darkness that’s come will never be absolute, nor will it depart. The legend of the Piper contains several cautions for children and adults, and is creepy in its own right, but “Return” is an elegy for parents. I don’t even know where “House” comes from except a myth of storytelling Coover wishes to depart, but can’t quite: “The game of naming things becomes the game of filling old names with all the things we see.” And the names from old stories, and what those stories supposedly always and ought to impart, from however long ago, rarely, if ever, vanish from memory.
The lesser stories between the two books get their problems from that tendency. “The Presidents” in Child suffers from its protracted but stunted list of presidents as biological oddities best suited to an era in which Darwin or Humboldt or whoever could put them in a sack and haul them back to 18th- or 19th-Century Europe where they belong. Whereas vignettes like “The Fallguy’s Faith” (or, in RE: Telling, J. Bradley’s poem “Why the Minotaur Remained a Virgin”) work as one-offs, “Presidents” wears amused cartoony disdain for presidential little turds over a stylistic exercise, and seems unfilled, or to have ignored the new rules of the game set out in “House.” Worse, “Presidents” has been preempted by actual presidents’ televised self-ironizing (see presidential addresses at White House Press Correspondents’ dinners). Certainly, American presidents aren’t the synecdoche for president as a concept, but the joke here is the sound of a normally dressed person bonking a clown with a big hollow mallet. It’s funny, but not because of anything it does or could’ve done. A similar problem presents in RE: Telling. There’s something self-congratulating (and off-putting) about selling an anthology with such a line and a proclamation as this book’s—as if to say, “Granted, ‘art is theft,’ but these stories are really stolen.” The stories that “succeed” (and most of its 27 stories, the new and the previously published, do succeed, in spite of that initially wonky presentation) are the ones that take a worn or popular thing or name, refract it, and run as much of its new length as possible. The less successful and the failures, even the ones that are kind of funny, come off as too impressed with the premise echoed by the anthology—that “stealing,” in art, “liberates” old things to become new again (which is hardly new, but that’s not the point)—to remember to go somewhere with it.
But that in no way negates the good work in RE: Telling—“From the Suicide Letters of Jonathan Bender” by Michael Kimball and “So Cold and Far Away” by Kathleen Rooney and Lily Hoang are two more successes—and Coover at this point is more or less unassailable. Both books, as anthology or collection, have stories for you that are obsessed with the theft and what they’ve taken, sure, but also the getaway and the stash and the double-cross and the triple-cross and the long chase, which becomes a journey, which becomes a space mission, which becomes an atom on a penpoint and an old name.
Peter Jurmu is the fiction editor at Redivider. He is hard at work on a pair of novellas for his MFA thesis at Emerson College.