Tag Archives: Robert Coover

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.

The Origin of the Brunists

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover.

Coover Making Magic

This novel of American small town life and chiliastic enthusiasm is pretty gripping. The many characters are all vividly drawn with profound humanity, and the plot contains major surprises. Coover sophisticatedly mixes tragedy and comedy, and the narrative voice is elastic, accommodating evangelicals, intellectuals, politicians, profiteers, mystics, and bigots by turns. The Brunists are a new religious movement arising on the heels of a mining disaster, centered on an anomalous survivor. They produce a spiritual identity in the context of conflicts of class, ethnicity, and religion, under the stresses of economic and civic crisis. 

I recently picked this book up from a paperback sale rack at the public library, and bumped it up in reading priority after hearing the news of the recent Upper Big Branch explosion, an event that turns out to be startlingly similar to the one described in Coover’s 1966 novel. Such apparent synchronicity is a staple of the story, as the foremost way that the Brunist believers are gradually affirmed in their end-times worldview. 

The most central character (and perhaps protagonist) is newspaper publisher Justin “Tiger” Miller, who doesn’t believe in the Brunist revelations, but balances on the line between fascinated admiration for the sincerity of their religious experience, and cynical exploitation of the public’s incomprehension of it. Coover doesn’t mock the Brunists, and he leaves the objective truth of their claims unresolved, but ultimately it seems that Miller’s perspective reflects Coover’s own take on the rewards and perils of religious fervor. [via]