In the Obama Moment: Robert Coover

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Robert Coover. (47 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

Robert Coover: Where we’ve always been…

Robert Coover — in contrast to Rick Moody — would give you the measure of what doesn’t change. Coover’s parody version of America, going back to The Origin of the Brunists in 1966, is a nutbag nation where small-town mysticism and barely veiled religious frenzy are the norm, ever on the verge of erupting into doomsday hysteria. Sarah Palin in 2008 fits nicely into the Coover context, as a lineal descendant of the accidental Brunist cult figure, Giovanni Bruno, who survived a lethal mine explosion in the Midwest to start a new mass movement on the Mount of Redemption nearby. Well might Coover claim to have seen the Palin-drome coming — to have seen that it’s always been there, and perhaps always will be. Accounting for the Obama triumph is another story. In conversation Coover reminds us that the Obama-McCain score, roughly 50-50 in the States, would have been 99-to-1 in the world at large.

In a capsule of his own story, Robert Coover likes to tell of his self-exile as a very young man to an island in Canada. The Bible and the works of Samuel Beckett were his only books. A large supply of peanut butter was his reserve of food. His vow was to write a story a day, and to practice writing “as a vocation, or nothing.” The Public Burning, a big public success in 1977, was his telling of the spy trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — much of it in the mental muttering of Richard Nixon, in a weirdly empathetic self-projecting voice: “Like my own father,” says Coover’s Nixon, “Harry Rosenberg had tried to keep a store going… but had failed, fallen into abject poverty, and then through hard work and tenacity, had fought his way back… Like something out of a Horatio Alger story, except that Harry was a socialist… Little Julius had been very serious about his religion as a boy – we shared this… He had led lessons and had even considered becoming a rabbi, just as my mother had always thought I might become a Quaker missionary. He was younger than me…” In Coover’s reinvention of the Rosenberg case, Richard Nixon was the only one of the witch-hunting principals who deeply doubted the Rosenbergs’ guilt.

Along the way Coover became a champion of hypertext when the World Wide Web was yet but a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee‘s eye. Endlessly productive, proudly anti-commercial, himself a literary cult figure by now, Robert Coover could plausibly be cast as Our Becket: a literary magician of the dark side of self and civic life. With the major difference that far from the furrows on the tortured face of Beckett, Coover’s mask is merry, verging on the cherubic. We began with his take on the Obama Moment:

It sounds like a good title for a parodic novel, “The Obama Moment.” Where we are is, in a lot of ways, where we’ve always been. It’s just that there’s been a fresh gasp of possibility. A glimpse of possibility is what we’ve got now. Up until now things have been pretty much buttoned down, following a pre-designed course, forced upon us by political ambition, on one hand, and world events, on the other.

CL: What was “it”? What was that course?

RC: It began after World War Two, with the adoption of a kind of Manichean vision of how the world works, that notion that there’s a Black and a White. Black was really Red. The White was the good guys in this country and our few unreliable allies. Then there was the rise in the 1950s of this paranoid fear of the outside world, represented by the Communism. That era never quite went away. It’s close to a religious view of the world. It has gone through temperings, but it is still underneath everything that happens still to this day. And it’s reared its head again in this recent age of terror and terrorists… directed now against a new set of zombies. The Kennedy era looked like a glimpse of hopefulness, and still produced some of the conservative ideas that nearly got us into a war over Cuba and did get us into Vietnam. There’s always that cluster that is the underpinning of all governments, as it will be with Obama’s, too…It’s our fate always to be dragged into this vision of the world.

CL: Is it in the water?

RC: No. It doesn’t happen in the water, or in the blood. It happens in the upbringing we get, in the education we get, by what the media tells us, by the conversations we enter into, the peer groups we associate with, that establish these troublesome mythologies. There is a deeply peasant-like mentality in this country that’s very difficult to shake off, and that interferes with the way our children are brought up. This ridiculous stuff that appears on television every night, that certainly totally undermines the so-called “media.”

CL: Are you talking about Fox News?

RC: No. Everything. CNN, NBC, ABC, all of it. It’s all played for the lowest common denominator of intelligence and perception, of patience and attention. It’s notoriously lacking in content. All you have to do is watch CNN in Europe, and it’s so much better than CNN in this country. Here they censor out all the stuff that might be too difficult for the average Sixpack Joe…

CL: Where does an artist like yourself – a satirist, a story, a fabulist, historian, maker of great fictions – where do you look for a story to explain the choice, the rise, the reality of Barack Obama?

RC: That will be left to next generation of writers. I’m still encumbered with the past. Right now I’d say there’s a lot of ephemeral and ethereal thinking going on. It takes a bit of reality for settle in. We’re in a war. We’re in a recession, if not a depression. We’re in a dying planet. All of these things are still there, and they’re on his plate. As he confronts these issues in reality, not in hope and as he has to make compromising choices, we’ll understand better what the options are and how much of a hero he is going to be for us. He could be a massive hero for the nation through the next century, in a way that Lincoln did for his generation and since. There’s that kind of lingering hope out there.

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  • Almost sounds like Coover is a regular listener to the podcast, so relevant are his comments to guests and regular themes of the show. Does he have a connection to Brown? (Sorry if this is obvious to locals.)

    The part about post-novel literature was quite refreshing. Many literary-minded people are enamoured with the novel and have a hard time appreciating any literature where the novel takes anything besides centre stage. Moody’s position on Web-based writing (especially blog writing) seemed situated squarely in a novel-focused context. Not saying that Moody is “blinked” («a des oeillères») but Coover’s description came from a much broader perspective, one which saw the rise of the novel in relatively recent history (when compared to human history).

    Coover’s point about hypertextuality is insightful, though it may sound a bit too obvious to most people who have spent significant amounts of time online. The hypertextuality of online texts has deep implications in how we perceive the world. Some of us are even wary of linear long-form texts. Sure, Moody would pose a diagnosis of ADHD on us. But what we read integrates a large diversity of voices, a wide variety of perspectives, a broad field of possibilities.

    That is not to say that the novel will cease to exist any time soon. But short form art is “of the moment.” It’s quite possible that, similar to the epistolary novel giving way to the romantic novel, the online communication of today will give form to new literary genres.

    Personally, I also enjoy the fact that Coover dared call attention to the similarities between US mainstream media outlets. From outside the US, the differences between Fox and CNN are much less visible than the differences between US CNN US and global CNN.

  • Oh, and before Chris starts asking for names (old habits die hard), Alejna Brugos is a good person to follow. Not just because of her own writing style but because her personal network includes interesting writers.

    Besides, BU is close enough to Brown.

  • hurley

    Xmas comes early this year, at least for me. Coover so smart, so funny, so penetrating (no reference to Lucky Pierre or Uncle Sam) that I smile just to think of his work. Once he treats a subject you never see it as it was, but as it suddenly is. Gore Vidal claimed proprietary rights to Richard Nixon, but Coover stole his lunch — twice (The Public Burning, Gloomy Gus and the Chicago Bears). And La Serenissima will never be the same after Pinocchio in Venice, with all its vicoli metastasizing in the fog. And don’t read A Night at the Movies if Casablanca is a treasured memory. A wonderful writer, a wonderful show.Merry, Merry.

  • jazzman

    What a great interview with Robert Coover. I was delighted and encouraged to discover there are still liberal individuals spreading the intellectual wealth to hopefully a wide audience.

    I was pleased to note that he didn’t laud President Clinton’s economical acumen who merely presided over a perfect storm of cell phone adoption, personal computerizing the masses, and the internet growth.

    In fact President Clinton pushed for and got Al Gore to seal NAFTA, repealed Glass-Steagall and signed The Financial Services Modernization Act, all of which arguably created the conditions for and allowed the malfeasance that created the current financial debacle IMO. Not that I dislike the former President, but he was misguided in many areas and not the revered renaissance man to whom disproportionate credit is accorded.

    Still it is refreshing to find minds of Coover’s caliber – thanks Chris for unearthing this gem.

    Peace to ALL,


  • olivercranglesparrot

    Great, great dialog. Thank you Mr. Coover, and as usual, thank you Chris. Wonderful. As I listened to this conversation, the following kept gnawing at me:

    When Prophecy Fails

    … I ponder the approach of reaching back to the future in the current soul searching of U.S. political discourse, yet we should disagree without being disagreeable? So with a chipper heart, I’ll simply affirm my agreement with the current mantra of the virtues of a phoenix call for CWA conservatism (which in my narrow philistine reading of things alludes to both the Ds and the Rs, but mostly to the Rs). I too advocate getting back to core values. Which when embraced with rhetorical gusto found in the imagery of a Jacques-Louis David call for liberty, one can indeed affirm the logic of dismantlement: that of rallying to assassinate the government while running to inhabit its highest offices. For who better to run a government than those who belittle the very necessity of service. This thread of conservatism is part-and-part of the cognitive dissonance found in the afore mentioned wiki link.

    As for me and my place in the Obama moment, I’ll continue upon my humble path as an advocate for a second act for movementarianism.

  • nother

    For me the Obama moment happened November 5th, the day after the day. I came across a black man from Ghana in a mostly white upscale restaurant in Boston. He was giddy like so many of us, but what sticks with me is his constant refrains that fine day: “what a country, what a country! His tone was not what a country you have, it was what a country – we have. All at once I realized (and I said as much to him) that the United States belongs not to me as an “American” but to the world as a beacon. This gentleman reminded me that America is in truth an idea…an idea that copyright lawyers cannot co-opt and minuteman militiamen cannot put borders around. And its this idea (not the man) that engenders hope in this “moment” for Ghanaians and the rest, the expression of which is not new…it only shines anew.

    Coover states in this interview, “we’ve not escaped the past, but we have amended somewhat the past.” Which rings of Tocqueville:

    “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

    This recent gallop poll shows that two-thirds of Americans have confidence in Obama:

    What a country, what a country.

  • potter

    (Well again) I did not know of Robert Coover his voice, his work- thank you!

    Interesting that Coover does not believe “that we all are born with something that belongs to the human race”- which I might have believed at one point in my life- which he calls Jungian. He says that we are- have been brought down to this low level by- our upbringings, education, media, conversations, peer groups; it is they who establish who we are.

    I agree the black and white “us vs them” “hate-mongering”, dualism, began or was energized ( after McCarthy) by Nixon. It was, to some who remember, shocking and outrageous it was at the time as it still is. Bush was worse than Nixon. It’s been a long haul and we are not yet in the promised land. We have a “glimpse of possibility” with Obama of “how America might work” ( as Coover puts it) and that we might be able to make amends.

    I profoundly agree with Coover about the destructive effects of religion, having had my head stuck in understanding the Middle East conflict for many years– this business about “the wrath of God”, holy wars. I am sour on religion.

    Coover: “Religion is a violent idea on the whole….. it’s not a peaceful thing. Religion kills. It has it’s peace rationale which those who cling to religion cling to as their own hope.. their own version of hope, but we see the consequences in the world every day and know what it’s real power lies[sic… is].it’s kind of bringing that to the fore” (Answering Chris) … domestically but apocolyptic and present world wide too— where you arrive it you push religion far enough.

    At the moment- this “Obama Moment”- I join many others who are troubled by the choice of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at this historic inauguration.

  • potter

    That should read “where you arrive IF you push religion far enough.