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Coolie Mulk Raj Anand. Babette's Feast Isak Dinesen. The title is a metaphor for a method that Coover has elaborated throughout his career. The melody the cantus firmus could be ornamented or counterpointed with an extemporized part, known as the descant. The collection contains his most anthologised story, The Babysitter, which is told in a hundred or so paragraphs, each of which is separated from its neighbors by white space. The cantus firmus is conventional. The babysitter arrives to look after two children. The parents go out. She spends the evening in their house. The parents come home.
The father fantasises about the girl. These events are not definitive. Contradictory possibilities exist simultaneously. The girl is raped and unraped. The father acts and does not act on his lascivious fantasies. The reader is expected to hold the story open, an activity which opens up the mechanics of narrative for inspection.
This developed into an interest, not so much in chance process like John Cage but in the possibility of non-linear narrative architecture closer to Julio Cortazar or BS Johnson , a concern which led directly to his more recent technological experiments. In the sixties, Coover experimented with marginal punch cards, a now-obsolete filing system which used a system of peripheral holes, some cut clear to the edge of the card, so that when rods were slipped through the holes in a stack of cards, those cards which did not have that position punched out remained on the rod, while the target cards fell out of the stack.
Coover used this system to develop a thesaurus, and tried to use it for fiction-writing, creating cards for characters and narrative elements in ways that sound similar to some of the techniques later used in role-playing and computer adventure games. The problem was, as he admits, that his fictional web of interrelations rapidly became too dense. The fictions he developed with this system often used pre-existing material like The Arabian Nights to provide a lexicon of elements from which to work. In , McSweeneys published A Child Again, a collection which included a story in the form of playing cards, which had its origin in these early punchcard experiments.
I ask whether he feels his work relates to that of the French proto-Surrealist Raymond Roussel, who in the years before world war one generated works such as Locus Solus and Impressions of Africa using a highly-artificial set of formal constraints based on homophonic puns.
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He allows that he is interested in Roussel, but was never attracted to the idea of constraints as a way of generating stories. The use of fairytales and genre elements recent novels spin out of noir, the western and pornogaphy are a way of freeing himself from the task of having to generate cards to shuffle. He tells me a story which can serve as a sort of myth of origin. In the summer of he found himself on his own in Chicago, temporarily separated from his family.
The opening section, at least.
But somewhere in the middle of the book the experience totally transformed, I was really ticked off. It was bad and getting worse. And I was really catching on to The Recognitions. I took Augie March and threw it across the room and that was the last I saw of it.