Last in the Funhouse
- Gerald’s Party by Robert Coover
Heinemann, 316 pp, £10.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 434 14290 5
- Caracole by Edmund White
Picador, 342 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 330 29291 9
- Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
Faber, 337 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 571 13846 2
- In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason
Chatto, 245 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 7011 3034 2
If the preferred style in American fiction of the last two decades could be summed up in a single title, it would surely be ‘Lost in the Funhouse’. John Barth’s short story, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967, was a composite text in which an account of a family’s visit to a fairground was spliced in with what appeared to be a set of instructions from a fiction-writer’s manual. The funhouse (in British English, a Hall of Mirrors) was both the climax of the visit to the fair and an apt metaphor for the complex distortions of multiple-narrative self-conscious fiction. Prodigious vitality, virtuosity, erudition, self-parody and a grossly anarchic humour were the characteristics of the ‘funhouse’ style, which soon came to be identified with novelists such as Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon and Vonnegut as well as with Barth. Funhouse fiction appealed simultaneously to two rather different audiences. Its narrative self-consciousness (later to be renamed Post-Modernism) satisfied the demand in universities for an intellectually challenging mode of contemporary fiction which could be expounded to students. On the other hand, its promise of unbridled entertainment opened the way to a cult following and eventually to the best-seller lists. Older novelists joined in the fun: there was Nabokov’s Ada, and there was Portnoy’s Complaint. Self-conscious comic fiction caught the mood of the late Sixties, as we shall see: but it was nonetheless fairly remarkable that a novelist could be a ‘Post-Modernist’, a member of the avant-garde, without foregoing fashionable success, academic honours and large royalty cheques. The heavy price which novelists since Henry James had had to pay for being labelled as experimental artists was, it seemed, no longer being exacted.
Robert Coover, born in 1932, certainly has no reason to complain of neglect. ‘America’s most outrageous novelist presents a new, wildly comic and erotic entertainment,’ screamed the paperback edition, ten years ago, of his long novel The Public Burning. The same novel was described by the New York Times Book Review as an ‘extraordinary act of moral passion’ and a ‘dazzling conflation of Blake’s Prophetic Books, Pope’s Dunciad, the Walpurgisnacht in Faust and the grossest underground cartoons of today’. Its pivotal event was the electrocution of the atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The British edition of Gerald’s Party, Coover’s latest novel, comes larded with tributes from Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury, both of whom insist on its canonical status. Coover is ‘a master’, says Carter, and according to Bradbury he is ‘one of the great innovative writers of the United States’.
At least Coover has been taught on college campuses all over the United States, thanks to the inclusion of a short story of his, ‘The Babysitter’, in the appropriate Norton anthology. (I have taught it myself, and it is splendid seminar material.) The principal characters of ‘The Babysitter’ are a married couple going out to an evening party, their children, the babysitter, Jack (her boyfriend) and Jack’s buddy Mark. There is no single authoritative story-line, though some readers might claim that it is possible to deduce one. In a series of discontinuous paragraphs Coover cross-cuts between the fantasy-stories which the various characters might have told themselves as the evening progressed – fantasies with a strong element of voyeurism, seduction, violence and the humiliation of women – and the result is hilariously confusing. Gerald’s Party differs from ‘The Babysitter’ in two principal respects, each of which perhaps exemplifies the general evolution of funhouse fiction. Coover’s new novel unfolds a single, increasingly surrealistic chain of events, without the devices of discontinuity or multiple narrative; here there is an evolution from Post-Modernist self-consciousness – a repertoire of tricks gone stale from over-use – to outright fantasy. In addition, the events are recounted by a first-person narrator, so that they can be seen as the nightmares of a single solipsistic imagination. (The funhouse, we remember, is a Hall of Mirrors.) But, allowing for these differences, Gerald’s Party takes material strongly reminiscent of ‘The Babysitter’ and stretches it out over three hundred pages. The result is less a ‘totally exact and cunning work of fictional experiment’ (as Malcolm Bradbury is quoted as saying on the dust-jacket) than a Post-Modernist potboiler.