"Matinée" by Robert Coover Originally published in the July 25, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
For some time I wanted to read more Robert Coover. Some trusted people raved about The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., and recently Penguin UK released a few of his books in their nice Penguin Modern Classic line (Gerald’s Party, Pricksongs and Descants, Briar Rose and Spanking the Maid, and Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady), and I’m intrigued by his new book Noir. However, back in March when we read his last story in The New Yorker, “Going for a Beer,” I put him out of my head; I just didn’t like that piece much. But “Matinée,” a montage story about desperately lonely people, has piqued my interest in the veteran writer (he’s now 79; what with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (84), Alice Munro (80), we’ve had some real veterans in the past month).
The piece begins like this:
Weary of the tedium of her days, her lonely life going nowhere, she skips work and steps inside a half-empty old movie house showing a scratched and grainy romantic film from her youth; she takes her favorite seat in the middle of the seventh row, hoping to experience once again the consoling power of sudden uncomplicated love, even if not one’s own, love that has no trajectory attached to it but is a pure and immediate enrichment of the soul and delight of the body.
Coover then goes on to tell us what’s going on in the movie. This isn’t the only movie in this story, and it’s not the only time Coover will move away from whatever character is watching the film and into the film itself. In this particular scene, two strangers board a train. Coover delights in the fact that we know what’s coming, and he lavishly moves into the sentimental:
They lean toward each other to speak earnestly about the weather and the vexations of travel, their hearts visibly melting, and receive from a severe old lady sitting near the compartment door a particularly withering glance, but there is a telltale tear in her eye, as if she might once long ago have been similarly struck [ . . . ]
The sentence then takes us back out of the movie and to the woman sitting in that lonely theater: ” — just as there is a tear in her own eye, as she sits there in the musty old movie house.” The movie is actually making her more sad. These actors are dead now, and she knows she will also be dead, and without that simple love. But then, when she steps into the isle, he steps into the isle too, and “they will accidentally bump into each other, or maybe it won’t be an accident but something, well, something ordained.”
Coover then takes us out again. This poor woman in the theater, perhaps bumping into true love just at her moment of deepest despair, is actually in a movie herself. And a desperately lonely man is watching it:
Alone at home, he watched this old film, imagining that it is he who rises from the third row as the movie-house lights come up and, as he lifts hat and coat from the adjoining seat, catches a glimpse of the sorrowful woman four rows back, who seems to be tearfully staring at him. A sourceless music rises, throbbing, as though from out of their share gaze.
The story continues to play with what is in a movie and what is real, and we never know who “he” or “she” is at any given time. In fact, by the end, the characters have blended so much that some who were once in a movie are suddenly obviously (maybe) not in a movie, but are in fact thinking back with nostalgia and melancholy about the time “he” or “she” ran into that stranger on the train.
It may sound tricksy, and I suppose it is, but for me it really worked. The universal loneliness came through, the characters’ inability to satisfy their loneliness vicariously or, on the off-chance they meet someone, in actuality (most often at a cheap hotel), is nicely rendered in Coover’s smooth and enjoyable style (the only thing I really liked in “Going for a Beer”). And the ending is terribly great.