Podcast • December 9, 2008

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 ...

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.