Coover's 'John's Wife': postmodernism redux


"John's Wife," by Robert Coover. Simon & Schuster. 428pages. $24

"John's Wife" by Robert Coover is purportedly concerned with the daydreams and preoccupations of the residents of an affluent bedroom community. Despite the fact that the wife of the successful, cocksure architect John is never named, she is the source of a kind of collective obsession - everyone in town spends time lusting after her, trying to emulate her or just plain wondering about her.

That this object of such insistent speculation doesn't even rate a name is Coover's not-so-sly joke: the second-rate builders and entrepreneurs, along with their bored housewives and trampy daughters, expend a great deal of psychic energy thinking about someone who is undefined, always receding, barely a projection. These losers are thinking about nothing.

In the place of content, "John's Wife" offers information, and in serpentine, eccentrically punctuated prose. Coover serves up his details so generously, so promiscuously - for example, the book burdens us with the names of dozens of characters from A to Z and back again - that it becomes impossible to sort out who or what is of greater or lesser importance and so the novel quickly devolves in to an extended brainteaser, ostensibly worthwhile for its language alone. No doubt Coover will be praised once again for his wordplay, but even the most literary audiences and those sympathetic to experimental fiction will likely have a low threshold for the kind of overburdened sentences that often tip over readability.

To Coover, writing is only about performance; his often-cited short story "The Babysitter," noted for its multiple endings, was meant to mock the conventions of fiction. It's all a game to Coover, a trick, ( and not a new trick either - "The Babysitter" appeared in Coover's 1969 collection, "Pricksongs and Descants"), and we're the foolish and deluded spectators who attempt to buy into, albeit temporarily, the goings-on not only of "John's Wife," but of any imaginative work.

Cold-hearted and too cute by half, this novel demonstrates the worst egregious excesses of postmodernism. Coover's called the great postmodern writer, but often reading "John's Wife," one understands why that modifier sounds more like an apology than a qualification.

Certainly Thomas Pynchon, the other high priest of postmodernism, is no easy read, yet an abiding affection resides in Pynchon's burlesque humor, a good-naturedness that is wholly absent from "John's Wife," which is usually too sour to be funny; it invites struggle in return for precious little in the way of reward, in no small measure because Coover's distaste for the reader is matched by his scorn for his petty, loutish characters and everything they do.

One is reminded of the great film critic Pauline Kael, who, in her review of Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories," had little patience for Allen's depiction of his audience as needy, obnoxious, grotesque.

"If Woody Allen finds success very upsetting and wishes the public would go away," Kael chided, "this picture should help him stop worrying." Similarly, if Mr. Coover feels that writing is pointless and reading even more so, he can probably claim some new converts to his ideology among the readers of "John's Wife."

Drew Limsky teaches literature at American University in Washington. He has published articles, stories and poetry in the Washington Post, the Washington Blade and the Lambda Book Report and Genre magazine among others.

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