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Politics as Metafiction: Reading Robert Coover's Political Fable in the Age of Trump

  • Timothy Wyman McCarty

Extract

It would not be hard to write an essay that treats The Cat in the Hat as a fable for the United States in the age of President Donald Trump. An unpredictable and charismatic figure in a trademark red and white hat (the Cat) blasts onto the stage, upending the unwritten rules of decorum with his wild antics to the simultaneous delight and befuddlement of his constituency (“Sally and I”) all while hectoring nay-sayers (the fish) fret and declare that this is quite irregular and should not be tolerated until things get out of hand and order is reestablished, but not without a sneaking sense that allowing this to have happened at all is a frightening transgression (“Now, what should we do? What would you do if your mother asked you?”). Thankfully, one of America's most influential experimental writers already did it for us, in 1968, when Robert Coover published The Cat in the Hat for President: A Political Fable.

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1 Coover, Robert, The Cat in the Hat for President: A Political Fable (Foxrock Books, 2017). First published in New American Review in 1968, released by Viking in 1980 as A Political Fable, and republished in 2017. Recognizing the resonance with recent events, Coover gave a reading in October 2016, and the new edition features a MAGA hat on the cover. See Connor Sullivan, “Professor Reads Prescient ’68 Election Satire,” Brown Daily Herald, Oct. 27, 2016.

2 To wit, upon securing the nomination, the Cat rollerskates onto the stage balancing a fishbowl on an umbrella, which he proceeds to drop, flooding the entire convention and allowing everyone to be swallowed up by the fish until they are ejected by shouting the magic word, “Voom!”

3 Hume, Kathryn, “Robert Coover's Fiction: The Naked and the Mythic,” Novel 12, no. 2 (1979): 127–48; Hume, Kathryn, “Robert Coover: The Metaphysics of Bondage,” Modern Language Review 98, no. 4 (2003): 827–41; Robinson, Douglas, “Visions of No End: The Anti-apocalyptic Novels of Ellison, Barth, and Coover,” American Studies in Scandanavia 13 (1981): 116.

4 Evenson reads CHP as “clarifying or focusing on issues that might otherwise have been lost in The Public Burning’s greater concerns and more complex texture” (Brian Evenson, Understanding Robert Coover [Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003], 140).

5 Most of the direct scholarly engagement with CHP has been in the context of comprehensive monographs about Coover's work, but even in these texts, the authors devote only a few pages to it, typically in chapters accounting for his ostensibly minor works. Cf. Andersen, Richard, Robert Coover (Boston: Twayne, 1981); Gordon, Lois, Robert Coover: The Universal Fictionmaking Process (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983); Evenson, Understanding Robert Coover.

6 David Haven Blake, review of A Political Fable, Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1980; Blake, “The Carnival Campaign: How a 1968 Short Story Foresaw 2016,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 30, 2016.

7 Evenson, Understanding Robert Coover, 140.

8 Ibid.

9 Bass, Thomas Alden, “An Encounter with Robert Coover,” Antioch Review 40, no. 3 (1982): 299.

10 As will be discussed below, this vision of liberal politics is most clearly articulated by Heckard, Margaret, “Robert Coover, Metafiction, and Freedom,” Twentieth Century Literature 22, no. 2 (1976): 210227, although Heckard does not explicitly cite CHP.

11 Gordon, Universal Fictionmaking Process; Hume, “The Naked and the Mythic”; Hume, “The Metaphysics of Bondage.”

12 Its function as a fable is largely underappreciated by Coover scholars. For example, Cope does not even mention CHP in his chapter on fairy tales, scripture, and fables in Coover's work (Jackson I. Cope, Robert Coover's Fictions [Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986]).

13 William, Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1979), 25.

14 Kakutani, Michiko, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2018); McIntyre, Lee, Post-Truth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).

15 One of the best and most surprising analyses of celebrity politics in America is Blake, David Haven, Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). And as noted above, Blake is also the only person I am aware of who connected Trump and CHP in print.

16 Cf. Hume, “The Naked and the Mythic.”

17 Cf. George Saunders, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?,” New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2016; George Packer, “Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt,” New Yorker, Oct. 31, 2016.

18 It is worth recalling, the most politically transformative presidents of the twentieth century were the scion of a political dynasty (FDR) and a beloved Hollywood star (Reagan). This is precisely the pattern Coover highlights in CHP.

19 In The Public Burning, Coover's Nixon is a similarly amoral politico: “I had won both sides of a debating question too often not to know what emptiness lay behind the so-called issues … only an artificial—call it political—commitment to consistency makes [men] hold steadfast to singular positions” (Robert Coover, The Public Burning [New York: Grove, 1977], 362–63).

20 For a similar connection between Plato and our political moment, see Andrew Sullivan, “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic,” New York Magazine, May 1, 2016.

21 Evenson, Understanding Robert Coover; Cope, Robert Coover's Fictions.

22 McCaffery, Larry, The Metafictional Muse (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982), 6.

23 Plato, The Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube and C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1992), 382ae, 414b–417b; Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Harvey Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 30; Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1987), 67; Morgan, Edmund, Inventing the People (New York: Norton, 1988), 13.

24 David Roochnik, “Responsible Fictions,” in Responsibility, ed. Barbara Darling-Smith (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007), 15–26, connects this insight to a wide range of thinkers, from Homer and Aristotle to Hume.

25 Searle, for example, describes the challenge of perceiving and analyzing “the invisible structure of social reality” (John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality [New York: Free Press, 1995], 5–6). And Haslanger describes the difficulties and complications associated with what she calls “the debunking project” of attempting to bring about conscious awareness of social constructions in order to undermine false perceptions of naturalness (Haslanger, Sally, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012], 113–38).

26 McCaffery, Metafictional Muse, 26.

27 Coover's other Nixon book involves an analogous concern with the cynical political employment of a perhaps unaware figure: Coover, Robert, Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears (London: Minerva, 1989), 85.

28 Joan Didion lamented such narratives as distortions of factual reality imposed upon the public (Didion, Joan, Political Fictions [New York: Knopf, 2001]). Maureen Whitebrook criticizes her analysis as naive in terms that align with my reading of Coover in Identity, Narrative, and Politics (London: Routledge, 2014).

29 Recall that “potatoe” hurt Quayle because he was already perceived as dim, but it did not hurt egghead Obama to say he had visited fifty-seven states. See Dan Amira, “A Taxonomy of Gaffes,” New York Magazine, June 14, 2012.

30 These are the likely perspectives of Nietzsche, Tocqueville or Plato, Fromm, and Cory Robin, respectively. See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo (New York: Vintage Books, 1989); Plato, Republic; Ade Tocqueville, lexis, Democracy in America (New York: Harper Perennial, 1969); Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Holt, 1994); Corey Robin, “From Reagan to Trump: Donald Trump's Brand of Reaction Is Particularly Noxious, but It Sits Comfortably in the Reagan Tradition,” Jacobin Magazine, Aug 1, 2016.

31 Hume, “Metaphysics of Bondage,” 833. She further notes that “a related triad of archetypes—victim, sacrifice, scapegoat—is fundamental to his vision,” and that “the Cat in the Hat is all three—victim, sacrifice, and scapegoat” (“The Naked and the Mythic,” 138).

32 Cf. Gado, Frank, ed., First Person: Conversations on Writers and Writing (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1973), 152–57.

33 Heckard persuasively reads Coover's moral vision as fundamentally humanist, concluding that “the heart of Coover's fiction … [is] freedom from stifling literary conventions, from doctrines and sweeping assumptions about human nature, from anything that prevents the individual from becoming clearly conscious of his own consciousness” (“Coover, Metafiction, and Freedom,” 226).

34 Hume, “The Naked and the Mythic,” 140.

35 Gordon, Universal Fictionmaking Process, 143.

36 Matt Wilstein, “Susan Sarandon: Trump Might Be Better for America than Hillary Clinton,” Daily Beast, March 28, 2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/03/29/susan-sarandon-trump-might-be-better-for-america-than-hillary-clinton.html.

37 Heckard, “Coover, Metafiction, and Freedom.”

38 A great example is “The Brother,” Coover's sly rewrite of the Noah myth, told from the perspective of Noah's decent and hardworking brother who thinks Noah is crazy, but helps build the ark out of fraternal affection. But when the rains come and he seeks shelter in the ark, Noah turns his back on his desperate kin. We then experience with the brother the discovery of his dead wife and leave him on a dry hilltop, soon to be swallowed up by the flood along with the rest of the sinners. As Heckard observes, the moral force of this story comes from the way Coover turns our attention to “the suffering of the everyday people who were left behind to drown.” See Coover, Robert, Pricksongs & Descants (New York: Grove, 2000), 9298, with Heckard, “Coover, Metafiction, and Freedom,” 219.

39 Heckard, “Coover, Metafiction, and Freedom,” 226.

40 Gado, First Person, 152.

41 Ibid.

42 Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 11.

43 My reading of Plato is largely in line with Roochnik, David, Beautiful City: The Dialectical Character of Plato's “Republic” (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003) and Roochnik, David, “The Political Pessimism of Plato's Republic,” American Dialectic 2, no. 2 (2012): 92116; and perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, Strauss, Leo, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964). It is thus also similar to Sullivan, “Democracies End.”

44 Gordon, Universal Fictionmaking Process, 145.

45 Plato, Republic 519d–520e.

46 Orlov, Paul A., “A Fiction of Politically Fantastic ‘Facts’: Robert Coover's The Public Burning,” in Politics and the Muse: Studies in the Politics of Recent American Literature, ed. Sorkin, Adam J. (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989), 112.

47 McCaffery, Metafictional Muse, 4–5, 26.

48 Ibid., 86–87.

49 As Coover explains in an interview with Frank Gado, “we are all creating fictions all the time, out of necessity. We constantly test them against the experience of life. Some continue to be functional; we are content to let them be rather than to try to analyze them and, in the process, forget something else that is even more important. Others outlive their usefulness. They disturb life in some unnecessary way, and so it becomes necessary to break them up and perhaps change their force” (Gado, First Person, 152).

50 Ibid., 153–54.

51 Ibid., 149–50.

52 McCaffery, Metafictional Muse, 27.

53 Lee, L. L., “Robert Coover's Moral Vision: Pricksongs & Descants,” Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 1 (1986): 6369.

54 Andersen, Robert Coover, 24.

Politics as Metafiction: Reading Robert Coover's Political Fable in the Age of Trump

  • Timothy Wyman McCarty

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