Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid by Robert Coover.

Coover Briar Rose and Spanking the Maid

This book is made up of two shortish fictions by Robert Coover. Both are in the form of literary fugues, assemblages of repetitive scene elements and narrative motives centered on a pair of main characters. In Briar Rose, the two are the titular Sleeping Beauty (“Briar Rose” in the original märchen) and her prince–although the villainous crone also figures as a presence, and the whole thing is so suffused with the logic of dream that it’s tempting to dismiss everyone but the sleeper as mere dream-images. The production reminded me more than a little of Angela Carter’s reconstructed fairy tales.

Dreams also figure in Spanking the Maid, in which the nameless employer wakes from troubled rest each day to find fault with the maid and to register his disapproval on her backside. In their striving for perfection–she in her duties and he in his disciplining of her–they each have a further context of rank to which their minds stray: he dreams of his days as a student in school, being instructed by a teacher, and she muses theologically with snatches of hymns and prayers. Both are governed by “the manuals” in their strivings towards a seemingly pointless perfection. In his introduction to this edition, John Banville interprets Spanking the Maid as an allegory of the creative process and writing itself, but I’m not entirely persuaded by his reading.

I read this book in conditions sympathetic to its content: a dozen or so pages at a go, waking in the middle of the night at home for Briar Rose, and retiring or rising in hotel rooms during travel for Spanking the Maid. I can’t claim anything like an analytical appreciation for the texts, but I suspect there is still one to be had. There’s not really any story offered by either, just a sort of narrative vertigo with psychological flavoring.