Going for a Beer (Norton, Feb.), by the vibrant 85-year-old Robert Coover, is a collection of his stories from the past 50 years. There are superheroes, cartoons, and figures from myth and fairy tales, all deployed to distinctly postmodern ends. Typical of his work is “The Goldilocks Variations,” which uses the scales of Bach’s Goldberg Variations to examine Goldilocks as we’ve never seen her before.
“The tale itself is a very conservative form, and the kind of stories we get told control how the society is run,” Coover says, speaking of the fairy tale mode he has returned to in collections such as A Child Again. “The patriarchal fairy tales, the biblical fairy tales... They become dogma.”
Coover has been pushing against that dogma since 1962’s “The Brother,” a radical reconfiguration of the story of Noah and the flood written after a wholesale cover-to-cover read of the Bible as a literary object (“I was bored by most of it,” he says). His 1966 novel, The Origin of the Brunists, is a send-up of organized religion—the 2004 sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, takes aim at Bush-era evangelism—and 1977’s uproarious political fantasy The Public Burning presents a broadly caricatured Richard Nixon and Roy Cohn. “My gift to the incumbent,” he calls it, and indeed the novel faced a complicated path to publication, with publishers sending it straight to their legal departments. One editor told him, “This is terrible; how could anyone publish this? But I’ll do it.”
Asked if he plans to return to political satire, Coover mentions that he’s working on a story for the Trump era, featuring the commander-in-chief opposite aged American superheroes including a nonagenarian Incredible Hulk. He describes his primary target in these kinds of stories as “the myths of the nation—any myth that needs to be confronted: so movies, comic strips, other people’s novels, the Christian myth, all intended to face up to the political myth.”
We’re sitting in a Providence, R.I., café off Wayland Square on a sad day: William Gass, Coover’s longtime friend and collaborator, has just died at 93. Coover recalls their meeting in the late ’50s, when Coover was finishing a master’s degree at Purdue; he discovered Gass’s work through their mutual friend Stanley Elkin and was enthused to find that “his essays had a fictional element and his stories had an essayistic element.” Gass, Elkin, and Coover—along with John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Angela Carter, William Gaddis, and John Hawkes—were part of the postmodern cadre of writers who redefined fiction in the 1970s and ’80s.
“We were on the same wavelength,” Coover recalls. “We were all reacting against something that was part of our living experience. Rather than a school, it was more like basically uneducated people figuring things out on their own.”
Barth famously declared literature to be exhausted, while Elkin’s work, Coover says, came out of his time as a fast-talking salesman, and Barthelme, who seemed on the surface more urbane, struck Coover as “a Texan tall-tale teller” at heart.
Many of these figures were centered around Brown University, where Coover has taught since the ’70s. Despite this long association, he describes his role as “kind of tenuous,” adding, “I don’t belong to any committees, but I run valuable new programs like the International Writers Center and the Electronic Literature Organization.”
Coover’s keen interest in the possibilities that technology can bring to fiction was detectable as early as 1969’s boundary-pushing, influential “The Babysitter,” which is laid out like a matrix that kaleidoscopically explores every possible permutation of one babysitter’s traumatic night on the job. “The Babysitter” would eventually appear in Pricksongs & Descants (Dutton, 1969), which introduced the world to Coover’s meta–pop culture style. Several of the other stories were begun during an intense 14-day writing period following a stint in the Navy. Stationed in Germany, there was nothing to do but go to the library, where Coover discovered Beckett, Cervantes, and Kafka.
“Beginnings,” one of the stories in Going for a Beer, features a writer whose stated goal is to “delay the climax”: “Thus he got involved with spirals, revolutions, verb tenses, and game theory.” This is an almost perfect description of Coover’s own methodology. He still works tirelessly, often until 5 a.m. and has two collections planned after Going for a Beer: one that features his recent New Yorker pieces, like “Invasion of the Martians,” and Son of A Night at the Movies, a sequel to his classic collection of movie stories (one of these, 1985’s “You Must Remember This,” featured in Going for a Beer, saucily relates what happened between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca when the camera was off). His laptop reveals a new piece, with copious notes.
Coover is famous for his use of technology as a storytelling tool well before the internet came into its own. His 1992 New York Times essay “The End of Books” promised that the new, nonlinear technology of hypertext would make the more limited powers of print obsolete. He wrote, “Fluidity, contingency, indeterminacy, plurality, discontinuity are the hypertext buzzwords of the day, and they seem to be fast becoming principles, in the same way that relativity not so long ago displaced the falling apple.” At Brown, he developed the 3-D walk-in virtual reality facility known as the Cave—and its successor, the Yurt—where students can digitally manipulate text, creating their own storytelling programs. His goal with all these innovations was “to get young writers to open up their minds to something less structured than the typical linear type of tale.”
When I ask Coover if he feels that the internet had betrayed its promise, he demurs, saying: “I don’t think of its banality as much as I think about its potential. It will destroy the past. We still have books, but the future won’t be concerned with books outside of hobbyists and scholars.” He then asks my age and, when I tell him 31, he exclaims, “You see, you’re already part of the Neanderthals!”
Thinking of his story “The New Thing,” something of a postmodern mission statement, I ask how we can push back against empty nostalgia and the ascendant digital platforms that threaten to overwhelm literature. He replies, after a long pause: “It’s a tricky thing. In many ways we’re at the nadir of the art from. No one has had yet figured out how to struggle against the ephemerality of everything, while still employing the tools of our present age.”
Coover laments the gulf between 21st-century attention spans and the deep engagement of a book. And yet, he believes in working within the system and using its tools against it rather than dropping out. He believes that one can’t be ignorant about the changes taking place; he cites Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and his use of a typeface that looked like handwriting: “The first thing that happens is imitation of the past, but you can only do so much imitation. At a certain point, even now, people are breaking from this fixed notion of what the arts are. I’m not sure it’s going to be a good thing. I like books myself, but I think it’s what’s going to happen and we need to get used to that.”
Despite this relative gloominess about the future of print novels (Coover has authored a follow-up to “The End of Books” called “The End of Literature”), he believes that it is the responsibility of contemporary writers to confront the mythology of the present time. He urges not dissent against the powers that be, but “self-dissent,” attempting to make sense of the various ideologies those powers instill in us. His advice to young writers is to avoid passing fashions and writing programs, and to look for inspiration in Ovid and The Epic of Gilgamesh. “Rethink strategies,” he says.
J.W. McCormack is a writer whose work has appeared in Bomb, BuzzFeed, the New York Times, the Paris Review Daily, and Vice.