Robert Coover: “Matinée”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Robert Coover’s “Matinée” was originally published in the July 25, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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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” (post here) 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.

5 thoughts on “Robert Coover: “Matinée””

  1. Lee Monks says:

    I love Coover – The Public Burning is amazing – and the excerpts here are great. Alas, I don’t subscribe, so hopefully it’ll be in a collected tome at some point.

  2. Betsy says:

    Robert Coover’s “Matinee” is clever, wicked, twisty, funny, full of thoughts, and did I say twisty?

    Two of my own thoughts follow.

    First, it’s a tour de force. Coover imagines at least a dozen interlocking and interwoven movie plots. It defies gravity! It recalls, in its Russian-doll layers, some of the gravity defying movies that have multiplied since “Memento.” It also makes my head spin with all the movie bits and pieces it throws into the Coover centrifuge. But that is also his point, I think: that we men and women encounter each other all the time in an unexamined mix of reality and fantasy.

    “Matinee” lobs right at us the idea that we love to live as if reality were fantasy. The way these fantasies collide is his (wildly funny and wildly sad) point. There is a graininess to this story that continually shocks and undercuts the sentimentalism and brainlessness Coover is attacking.

    Second thought: I think it might make a fantastic read-aloud – if we still read aloud after supper. But who would squirm more? Men or women? I feel a little protective of the ladies at that hypothetical after-dinner reading. Me, I would squirm, being a lady who has the latest “Jane Eyre” on her Netflix list.

    Despite the speed of the piece, this line sticks with me: “They have somehow got to the sadness of such affairs without experiencing the ecstasy that is supposed to come first.”

    I agree with you, Trevor: Coover, Munro and Jhabvala make quite a trio.

  3. Ken says:

    Betsy’s point is very acute about reality and fantasy. I am a huge fan of two of Coovers’ novels-John’s Wife and The Public Burning and less-so of Universal Baseball League and A Night at the Movies. Unfortunately, he’s doing the same thing here as in that last book-Reflexivity/mise-en-abime 101. I feel like everything he does here has totally been done. Betsy, though, gives his efforts some content or meaning which I didn’t get from the story itself.

  4. Aaron says:

    Flat-out loved this one; finished it and started reading it again, and again, getting so lost in the intricacies that I didn’t even register the sadness of the piece, so much as the strength of the remembrances themselves. Very clever writing, with Coover perfectly fitting his style to the theme, from the recursive (and shifting plots) to the paragraph changes in narrators, and so on, all of which matches the fluidity of love, particularly the sort of love — brief, impressionistic, powerful — that Coover and these movies (all of them made up?) are conjuring up.

    More elaborate thoughts here (http://bit.ly/plqV2L), but it’s a strong piece, and while I agree with Ken that I’ve heard this *voice* from Coover before, I’ve yet to see it take this compelling of a structure, so ::shrug::

    I do tend to be a sucker for the more experimental thought-pieces in fiction, though; Millhauser jumped to mind immediately as I went through this.

  5. Betsy says:

    Aaron, I also was so caught up in “Matinee” that at first I thought these pieces were “real” movies. And then I began to realize that they were more movie archetypes that we’ve seen in other versions, almost as if these loose approximations and shifts mirror the way our brains work anyway, and also the way the culture works, whether we’re making sense of fantasy or reality. That is, of course, a very depressing thought – that we’re constantly messing with memory, constantly altering reality with our own chemical take. It was the way the story veered between self-delusion and hallucination, however, that made it really spin.

    I wondered at the time how Coover wrote this, how much planning, what that planning looked like, how much pure inspiration, how much revision, now much time he took, how he kept his distance – given the illusion of speed he creates. Would love to ask him that.

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