Robert Coover: “Matinee”

07/29/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 25, 2011.

CONCEPT: Memories are often triggered by the strength of an emotion or physical sensation that occurred at the moment of conception, and Coover’s latest experimental piece — a series of illusory yet real recollections — focuses on those strengthened by love and passion.

He remembers suddenly and vividly the room they shared in the little hotel, the yellow flowered wallpaper, the pink bedspread and matching curtains, the chipped amber ashtray sitting on a white crocheted doily stained at one edge with tea or coffee. Why does he recall all this? If asked, he could barely describe his bedroom at home.

STYLE: His bedroom is simply a functional place, a contrivance for sleeping. But the hotel room, and all its attendant colors (faded or gauche as they may be), meant far more than the sum of its parts, and so he remembers it. Or perhaps, hints the story, blurring together a series of movies, a series of characters, and a series of different lovestruck moments, he doesn’t remember any of the physical bits at all; perhaps he only registered the emotion and, over the years, has come to associate clips from films and objects from an otherwise ordinary life with this sensation. He has built a memory palace to protect those strong sensations, and Coover, in turn, chooses a recursive style, one that riffs off the all-too-familiar stories he relate to us. Each new paragraph follows a new player, and by the end, the characters appearing are the ones who were originally depicted as film characters. The thread isn’t meant to be followed, ultimately, merely the feeling; in that sense, it’s not all that stylistically different from Coover’s last piece, “Going For a Beer,” save that there’s a stronger theme this time around — you all but want to get lost and swept up in the story-within-story structure. (And structurally, this is very different from “Going For a Beer.”)

EFFECT: I always marvel at authors who can comfortably fit their concept into an appropriate form: “Love has no trajectory attached to it but is a pure and immediate enrichment of the soul and a delight of the body,” writes Coover, and his story has no trajectory, it is a series of pure experiences. The bigger the idea, perhaps, the easier it is to “fit” it to a structure, though, for the sheer size and scope create a sort of roominess; in fact, that’s part of the experience. (Does love fill you, or does it make you acutely aware of an emptiness?) Coover’s making a point, but you feel that he might go anywhere with it — and he does. The light touches of comedy and the inventive synopses of the films (which change slightly depending on the sex of the narrator) increase the atmosphere of the story, and even the awkward sentences seem to justify themselves: “He and the woman will jostle each other, intentionally or accidentally or as if both compelled to so collide, it’s purposefully ambiguous, he also dons his coat–he knows how the movie turns out–and heads off for a drink at the neighborhood bar,” writes Coover, ambiguously. “Of whom, no shortage, he has only to choose or wait to be chosen,” he writes, in a in a bare-bones fragment.

I’ll close with my favorite part:

“Here are your real brief encounters,” he said with a crooked grin, making fun of her romantic ways. Encounters, yes, though more like collisions, really, and certainly brief, but without the maddening joy, the dissolving of the self into something more than the self, the anguished longing afterward. He doesn’t understand a thing.”

Writes Coover, dissolvingly.

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