And then there were none: Robert Coover’s “Gerald’s Party”

Coover, Robert (1985), Gerald’s Party, Grove Press
ISBN 0-8021-3528-5

Ros was famous for her breasts

When Robert Coover published his great and grandiloquent novel Gerald’s Party in 1985, he was a well-established voice in experimental American prose fiction. The two books he is still best known for, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, had already been published and praised. In a way, this explains the boldness with which “Gerald’s Party” strides onto the literary stage. It wears its theoretical commitments on its sleeve. The narrator and various characters frequently give voice to various theoretical concerns that shape and inform this novel. And, in contrast to novels like Ana Historic, it is a resounding success. We walk away from this novel with the feeling that we cannot say anything about it that the novel does not say better, in a more subtle or brilliant way. The novel dissects theatricality, performativity, sexuality, fairy tales, gender roles, genres and other things, and by making its points in a very obvious manner, it dissects the very act of dissection as well. A cerebral novel like this can be a rather joyless affair, a trudge, a mind-numbing effort. Gerald’s Party isn’t. The reason for this is the writing. There are few writers like Coover: every word in Gerald’s Party feels necessary, no word appears to be substitutable with another.

Saying that the book is excellently written is not saying that the novel is written consistently, it slips –or rather: hops- from register to register. Also, despite the appearance of dozens of characters and the prominence of dialogue, there’s no real trace of what is often referred to as ventriloquism. The characters’ voices in the novel, as they start to crowd the narrow confines of 313 pages, become more and more interchangeable. The author’s nimble fingers are always present, most obviously in the many poetological passages commenting upon the structure of the novel. There is for instance, the following, from a monologue by a painter who tells us why her project has failed (“Gerald’s Party” can well be regarded as a successful attempt to scale the artistic heights the painter abandoned):

“I meant to have a lot of doors in my painting, doors of all sizes, some closed, some partly open, some just empty doorframes, no walls, but the various angles of the doors implying a complicated cross-hatching of different planes, and opening onto a great profusion of inconsistent scenes, inconsistent not only in content but also in perspective, dimension, style- in some cases even opening into other doors, mazes of doors like funhouse mirrors – and the one consistent image was to be Ros. […] But I could not handle it. Too many doors at once, you might say.”

This passage could have been voiced by most characters (except the drunk ones whose speech is slurred. Interestingly, the level of intoxication is the only possibility to tell people apart until this, too, near the end of the novel becomes less of a helpful, too). Apart from the basic artistic principle, there are a few details from this monologue that also fit a poetological reading, most notably: “the one consistent image was … Ros.”

Ros, you see, is the victim of a murder that sets this novel’s cogs in motion: “None of us noticed the body at first” is the first sentence of a novel that, partly, follows – or rather imitates – the conventions of a genre that can be called the “salon mystery”. It involves a party with several characters, a murder and the appearance of an inspector, who solves the mystery by listening to all party guests still alive and finding out ‘whodunit’ (it wasn’t the butler). The inspector is mostly fiendishly smart, like Christie’s elegantly mustached Belgian Hercule Poirot. This genre is so well known that it has been made fun of several times, two of the most hilarious film versions surely being Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death” (1976) and Blake Edwards’ “Pink Panther” (1963). One is, indeed, wondering, what drove Robert Coover, a writer clearly well acquainted with pop culture, to do another send-off in 1985. The answer’s easy: Coover is not actually writing a parody.

Coover is using the form of the salon mystery to comment upon issues that, incidentally, can form a part of genre specimen, and this includes parodies (most parodies, you’ll find, adhere quite strictly to the conventional rules of a genre, since they derive much of their humor from these rules), he is not commenting upon the form. “Gerald’s Party” is a multi-faceted wonder of a book. For one thing, it is a novel concerned with decadence and depravation. We find that numerous people engage in sexual acts, some of them aborted, some not, some of them consensual, some not. This is a veritable moral pigsty, which, at times, may leave a distinct smell of Rome, burning, in some readers’ nostrils. After the first murder, several other people die, yet in this cesspool of a cocktail party, few people care about dead friends or lovers, unless the act of killing provides a spectacle that rivals sex. In contrast to that, we have a few scarce traces of honest, vulnerable love. There are, for example, two people trying to gauge the love they have for each other. This strain of true feeling is clearly at odds with the party at large.

As is rationality, the backbone of the mystery genre. This genre which is concerned with finding the correct (read: one) way of reading the world is subverted here by introducing a multiplicity of attempts of reading or making sense of the world. The most basic element of the genre and the one which all parodies I personally know focus on, including the two named, the Inspector, is almost completely isolated. His trajectories hardly intersect with party proceedings, something that becomes apparent early on:

Inspector Pardew, absorbed in his examination, noticed little of it. Under the glass slides as a makeshift magnifying glass, he peered closely at the wound, poking and probing, muttering enigmatically from time to time. He picked Ros’ breast up once by the nipple to peer under and around it, but he seemed disinterested in the breast itself – if anything, it was an obstacle to him.

The detective, Inspector Pardew, does not mingle with the crowd, he slips in and out of the novel and when he, true to genre conventions, steps in at the end, to present us Ros’ murderer, his solution is not tied to any plot strand. I said it subverts the genre and Pardew is the clearest evidence for this. Where mystery novels usually attempt to parse the world and its inhabitants for evidence, gathering knowledge to find out “whodunit”, “Gerald’s Party” is completely disinterested in the “real world” within the book. The events related by the book point outside the book; this book has two layers: something that is supposed to be a ‘real world’, where inspectors, murders and these things occur. This is hidden, however, under a thick carpet of words and intertextuality, the second world within the book.

There is logic within the first of the book’s worlds which is buried by the party and its events. This is made plain by the fact that Inspector Pardew, who insists upon the interconnectedness of all events, who appears to have no clue as to the actual events at that party, arrives at a successful conclusion at the end, finding out, after all, ‘whodunit’. His conclusion is puzzling to us readers: we have nothing apart from the events related by Coover, the cheeky bastard, to go on, all we have is the carpet. And like a luscious oriental weave, Coover’s book is an artificial construct that hides the world where Pardew’s perspicacity works its magic. This paradox of, to borrow that famous phrase, blindness and insight, i.e. the impossibility of reading the world from any one point of view with any degree of objectivity, is woven through the whole book. Since Pardew is the only one who is honestly attempting to understand the world, at least the one he has access to, the other instances of that paradox resemble tropes more than earnest attempts.

The first trope is introduced through a cameraman, who appears on the scene early on, and whose readings of the party are scrutinized by partygoers at the very same party on a small TV. We learn that the moving pictures he produces, and, by extension, moving pictures in general are unreliable; they are, indeed, readings and not objective depictions. The pictures are affected by the interest of the camera man, by the interaction with the observed and by the way the image arrives at the viewer. An image can be recorded, looped, repeated, stored and manipulated and the viewer is none the wiser for it. The trope of the camera is a representative of the reader, it is Coover’s tool to show up the reader’s arrogance who scans the page thinking he/she understands what’s written on it in a thoroughly objective way, when all he/she does is create an image of the text his mind the exact form of which is dependent on much more than mere sight.

Coover, however, offers other tropes as well. The strongest of these is theatre: the party guests are all part of an art crowd, who converse about the plays and movies they have acted in or directed. Ros has starred in pornographic art, she is the one who connects everything within the book. Lovers and fellow actors occupy the same slot in the memory of things past, and the more the novel progresses, the more art and life merge, to the point where the living room is transformed into an impromptu stage. Although the stage is volatile and vulnerable to intrusions from real life, the lack of an audience transforms all of the party guests into spectators and points to the roles all of the characters are acting out, that we all, in effect, are performing. These roles, Coover suggests, can take different shapes and draw from different sources. There are the obvious things, such as the fact that Gerald’s wife or Alison’s husband are never named, they –and others- are only referred to by the roles they are allotted in society.

The real fun, however, is to be had once we find that texts can be structuring principles as well, fairy tales, for example. The novel plays an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with fairy tales such as Snow White, drawing you deeply into the novel, as you play along. And yes, we are playing along. This is a novel that constantly reflects upon the way it is made, about the effect it has on readers and about the situatedness of its readers. This means that it is highly dependent upon its readers coming from the same cultural context as the author. For all the explaining it does, a surprisingly large part of it is subtext that is understood intuitively. Beni, one of the actors at the party, exclaims: “But she’s not one of us […] she wouldn’t understand”.

This is true for most of this novel as well. If it does not fit your sensibility, you will not like it. The prose is great, no matter what your aesthetic allegiance, but this is a novel of ideas and they need to work for you. This is a warning: this novel is not for everybody. That said: I think this book is stunning, a full success, and the writer clearly among the best writers currently at work. The way he controls tiny nuances and wields the heavy hammer of theory at the same time is inimitable. Books like Marlatt’s disaster of a novel show how hard it is to make an endeavor like this work. Even for Coover: although my read started off with enthusiasm, delight and sheer pleasure in Coover’s craft, after closing the book the prevailing feeling was of exhaustion. A good exhaustion, but tiring nonetheless. It’s tiring, as well, to the novels characters. Those who aren’t killed, leave the party by and by, returning the house to its previous, conventional state. As we turn the final page, however, we are informed of an emptiness at the heart of that structure. All the party guests, all these voices that sound so alike, disappear and we find that what is left is less than we expected. Isn’t it always? When the lights go out and the guests leave, who is left?

Kapitalismuskritik

She showed me a photograph: it was Ros on her hands and knees, looking over her shoulder at her raised bum – or rather, not a bum at all, but a rich banker, a snowman capitalist with greedy black-button eyes on each pale cheek, a carrot-nose stuck in her anus, top hat perched on top, and a wet bearded mouth about to ingest a shining gold rod.

from Robert Coover’s novel Gerald’s Party