know what kind of writer Robert Coover is, one first must understand what kind
of person Robert Coover admires. Controversial Chicago philosophy
Richard McKeon is, to many, an academic bully in all its dominant
glory, a view immortalized in Robert Pirsig's 1974 autobiographical novel,
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In it, Pirsig's
Chairman, a character reputedly based on McKeon, browbeats students "with a
gleam in his eye" while graduating "only carbon copies of himself."
Within Robert Coover, however, a different Richard McKeon exists.
To Coover, McKeon inspires admiration, so much so that he "respectfully"
dedicated his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, to him.
Not surprisingly, controversy has surrounded this Midwestern writer nearly
from the start. Born on Feb. 4, 1932, in Charles City, Iowa, Coover
moved with his family to a mining town in rural Illinois, where his father
published the local
newspaper. When he was 19, Coover had just come home from college on
holiday break when he learned that a mining accident had killed a number of
workers. His father asked him to help cover the story for the paper.
As he rummaged through the debris, Coover was shocked at the number of family
members grieving over the dead and mostly disfigured bodies. Many were
Later, Coover had a thought. "I began to wonder what
might happen if some guy did get rescued, and came up thinking he'd been
saved for some divine mission. What might that lead to?"
What it led to was the backbone of his first short story
and novel, The Origin of the Brunists (1966), about the lone survivor
of a mining accident who goes on to found a religious cult.
meanwhile, has gone on to write several other experimental novels, including
The Universal Baseball Association (1968), The Public Burning
(1977), and Spanking the Maid (1981). His first few books were
so divergent from any single style that he had difficulty retaining a single
publisher. Finally, his lucky thirteenth book, Gerald's Party
(1986), was picked up by an imprint of Simon and Schuster. It was the
first of his novels to have been published without having first been
rejected at least once.
On occasion, Coover has been attacked for some of his more
outrageous and controversial novels. "A recent review of one of my
books..." he said, "described my work as some sort of terrorist mission—and
yet I like...to be controversial in that way. It's proof I'm alive."
most recent book, Stepmother, was published iin 2004.
In it, according to one reviewer, Coover, a "father of modern American
experimental fiction, returns with...a masterful
re-imagining of the fairy-tale tradition. There is magic, there are
princes, and painful castrations. Also, there is beauty and true love,
of a sort."
Coover, who spends his time writing and teaching
hypertext at Brown University, once said, "The narrative impulse is always
with us; we couldn't imagine ourselves through a day without it."
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