by Robert Coover
from the April 30, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Robert Coover is back, this time with a trio of brief sketches meant to evoke filmic “treatment” of a few terrifying situations. In the first, an older actress playing Beauty finds herself genuinely terrified of Beast; nevertheless, she goes into the forest that gets more and more real. In the second, a gang of escaped convicts perform a musical version of a home invasion (I learned from Coover’s interview with Deborah Treisman that this is based on William Wyler’s 1955, Bogart-starring film, The Desperate Hours). In the third, the Lone Ranger trades his white hat for black.

Because each is short, I have already been able to read them all. Coover is, once again, really speeding along, summarizing significant-seeming events in a life within a single paragraph. Each piece contains dozens of transitions that suddenly take us further. Thus emotional development takes a back seat to comic and thematic development. In that way, the three pieces fit together nicely, each feeling like a quick ride in a theme park . . . albeit, a dark theme park.

And I’m not entirely sure what Coover is up to with them, what he’s trying to say, if he’s trying to “say” anything at all. In the interview, Coover states that his “fiction is probably best defined by its lifelong engagement with the myths that environ us — religious, patriotic, literary, erotic, popular, etc.” Here he is playing with film as a method of conveying such myths, with all of the associated cultural assumptions (and some of the convenient speed, though this is as much a Cooverism as it is any particular method of working these treatments). They are interesting, but I don’t find them particularly engaging, and I don’t know quite what else to make of it. Happy for some help!

If this is your thing, you’ll be happy to know that they will appear in a forthcoming collection, Son of a Night at the Movies (though I cannot find a publication date yet, just mention of it in the interview with Triesman).

I’m anxious to see how you all feel about these “treatments.” What is Coover doing. He’s obviously playing around, but is it more?

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By |2018-04-23T12:15:29-04:00April 23rd, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Robert Coover|Tags: |6 Comments


  1. Dennis Lang April 27, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    I invariably enjoy Coover. Like he’s always inventing something. What resonates with me that you describe is the way these narratives “speed along… dozens of transitions that suddenly take us further.” Yes, kind of remarkable how he does that isn’t it, juicing the momentum. And we grab on for the high-velocity ride without the slightest idea where he’s headed–and it doesn’t much matter.

  2. Diana Cooper April 30, 2018 at 7:37 pm

    No, it doesn’t much matter, so I’m glad it was short. I’ve read better work by Coover than this, and it didn’t really have anything to say to me other than that he’s clever. That wasn’t enough to keep me engaged. Yawn.

  3. Ken May 1, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    I thought maybe the idea here was identity as a role or mask. The actress at first is obviously playing a role, yet it becomes serious whereas in the two other stories, non-actors suddenly do an about-face and change their roles as well. The Lone Ranger is ultimately a role that can be exchanged for that of the villain. Not the most earth-shattering theme, but that and the cleverness and the brevity made me enjoy this.

  4. Larry Bone May 5, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    Ken describes “Treatments” as being about identity and masks which is true. I think it also has to do with a person’s sense of their own identity. People look at you as they think you should be “director” or “producer” casting a role. You look at yourself through a particular goal; what you would truly like to be going forward. As a person’s life unspools as the years go by, they either achieve what they were going after or the don’t.

    Life either gives us what we seek as time goes by or it doesn’t. My favorite line is: “I put the words in,” the writer confesses, “but the producers tell me which ones to use.”

    An author writes the words to his creation and the editor decides which ones are “used” in the published book. The actress wants a good women-centric role that makes her look good but seeing her life or the script is not going that way, she does the film anyway and succumbs to being the objective plaything of the beast.

    It’s like the woman in the bar in the Joni Mitchell song who wants to be herself but find a good man and a few drinks later is not so choosy about who she finally takes home. American cinema has gone from “”It’s A Wonderful Life to “Midnight Cowboy” which sort of happens at lightning speed in these Coover 3 flash fiction pieces. I think they are excellent miniatures like a Maserati going from 0 miles an hour to 130 in 60 seconds.

  5. Greg May 5, 2018 at 6:05 pm

    Thank you Trevor, Ken and Larry for breaking down the pieces for us. And Larry, I also love the line you quoted about ‘putting in the words’ as it brilliantly describes the Hollywood power dynamic!

    In addition, I liked these parts of the author’s interview:

    “…the novel was the dominant narrative mode of the nineteenth century, and film that of the twentieth. It’s hard to ignore that reality if you’re telling stories that celebrate your own time.”

    “…I am not burdened by false hopes. All stories end badly, so most of mine do, too. I think of these little pieces as parody, yes, satire also, and representative of our culture, our sorry condition. Such as it is. Ice cream, yay.”

  6. Eric May 9, 2018 at 12:40 pm

    For me, these three story fragments read like outlines for possible novels or screenplays that will never be written. Certainly not by Coover, who at 86 is no doubt winding down. Reading them was not that interesting, but thinking about them after the fact was, especially the first one, as I imagined where the story might have gone if it had been finished.

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