Pricksongs, Fiction, Reality, Sexism & Descants

People often use fiction to escape the depression and monotony of real life. In Pricksongs & Decants, Robert Coover uses the style of metafiction to present stories through many different storylines and outcomes. His stories are keenly aware that fiction itself is a central theme and at times nearly a character advancing the action. The omnipresence of fiction leads to a very interesting role for the narrator. The position of the narrator is best described by the narrator of “The Magic Poker,” “At times, I forget that this arrangement is my own invention.” It often feels as though Coover is not the writer of these stories, but a unique person who is dreaming up each individual tale. The narrators are creating fictional realities for themselves or their characters. They have tendencies to choose the ease and mystery of dreams over reality. One theme that is present throughout this whole dream-like book is the objectification of female characters, whom the narrators give much bleaker realities to than the male characters. Pricksongs & Descants creates narrators whom force fiction within the fictional reality already present, whom also usurp the importance of characters as the instigators of action and the story. The male perspective dominates these tales and lead to the narrators often objectifying women.
A very prevalent form of fictional reality that Coover uses is the multiple plotline narrative of “The Magic Poker” and “The Elevator.” Both stories are broken up into paragraph-long to page-long anecdotes that follow different plotlines. The narrators are the central figures of these tales, but they are not direct actors or authors. As L.L. Lee says, “… this is the dream(er)’s point of view…” (65) They differ in that “The Elevator” is almost exclusively driven by the narrator’s scenarios for Martin and the decisions he makes when riding namesake elevator. Whereas, the scenarios of “The Magic Poker” based on the situations of multiple characters that the narrator creates. Also, in “The Elevator” there is an element of continuity in that the narrator presents the reader with scenarios that have a constant location and background. In “The Magic Poker” though, the narrator openly admits that he is the one controlling the action and changes aspects as he goes along and at times retracts his statements. This discontinuous narration structure allows the narrators to experiment with their characters.
“The Elevator” presents a tale of a man named Martin and the multiple different scenes about his trip to the fourteenth floor of his office building every day. The narrator presenting all the different stories of Martin is just as vital as the main character, for he is the one exploring all the different possibilities of Martin’s elevator experiences. In fact, in scenario five the narrator says, “Martin, as always and without so much as reflecting upon it, takes the self-service elevator to the fourteenth floor, where he works.” (129) The narrator is more interested in these monotonous rides than Martin is. He is creating his own versions of reality within fiction. The link between the fictions and reality is Coover’s choice to cut each narration off before it is finished and then coming back to it later. Through the fictional concept, Coover is acknowledging how reality actually is. There are many different scenarios and outcomes that can be determined within a split second.
The narrator’s omnipresence allows him great control over the other characters and their interactions with Martin. One interaction stands out among all of them: that of Martin and the female elevator operator. One storyline that the narrator presents deals with the elevator cable snapping and Martin offering to protect her which leads to the two physically expressing their love for one another through sex (134). She is the victim of the male point of view that dominates Coover’s work. She is nothing to the Martin or the narrator other than an object for Martin to act out his urges. The first explanation of the two embracing begins with Martin staring at her and then leads to her running over to him without any agency of her own. Another description of the girl lacking any personal agency comes when the narrator says, “She weeps in terror, presses her hot wet mouth against his.” (133) How does she cope with fear? By kissing and having sex with the only man available. The narrator’s attempt to create a fictitious reality leads him to take a sexist perspective on gender roles.
Unlike the broken up narrative of “The Elevator,” “The Magic Poker” has different storylines that are quite similar, in that all start with the same beginning and all stories have the premise of the question of the background of the island on which the story is set. Also the narrator is written in first person and as a semi-active participant in the story. While he is not interacting with the other characters he is the creator of the island and the people. He, like the narrator of “The Elevator,” has created multiple different outcomes for the trip of two girls to the island, but these are not observations based on people that exist without him. These girls are his creations. He has truly escaped reality and accepted fiction as his form of life. He asserts himself a god-like character when he says, “… perhaps tomorrow I will invent Chicago and Jesus Christ and the history of the moon.” (40) Fiction is more empowering than reality. The narrator has all the power of this circumstance. He can change events if he wants, which he acknowledges when he says, “Wait a minute, this is getting out of hand! What happened to that poker, I was doing much better with the poker…” (30) The fiction that becomes a sort of forced reality is easier for a narrator, because there is a form of control not present in reality. This lack of control is alluded to in the fact that there are many different plotlines: none wrong, none right.
The male perspective is present in many of these plotlines as well. Almost every scenario begins with one of the girls encountering the titular poker. “She… kisses its handle and its long rusted shaft.” (25) Once she successfully kisses it, and the man in the blue jacket appears, it is as though all their dreams have come true. These women are important in that they have come to this mysterious island to spend time with a man that the narrator has created to seduce them. He creates girls who need nothing else; all they need is a man. While they are his creations, he treats them without agency. “I have dressed them and may well choose to undress them.” (25) They are used as entertainment to both the narrator and the man in the blue jacket. Karen amuses the man when she takes the poker and acts out different scenes (36). They are dolls to the narrator and entertainment to the man in the blue jacket.
“The Gingerbread House” takes a different approach to the concept of forced reality within fiction that Coover creates throughout his stories. The characters of this story are tempted by sexuality just as those of the other stories, but unlike the previous stories they are not sexualized for the sake of the narrator in this case. They are representatives of the concept of coming of age, and Coover implies that the ultimate form of coming of age is sexualization. In this case, the person making an attempt to avoid reality is the father of the two children. He cannot deal with the fact that his children are coming of age, and wants to avert them from doing so (Evenson, 61). Throughout the story he is continually described as worn down. He does not want what has happened to him to be the future of his children, so he tries to condition them away from sex. Such as, when the boy lunges for the witch and the father slaps him, partially out of jealousy and partially out of protection from lust (72). The father tries to create a type of world that cannot be; one in which children do not grow up.
The mixture of metafiction at the different levels of this story is unique. First, the reader is very familiar with the story of Hansel and Gretel. So on the surface Coover is creating a literal fiction about a fiction, but he takes it one step further by challenging the reader to understand this fictitious version of a fairytale presented by the house with the red-heart door. Like the other stories, there is no concrete ending to the story. Instead, the narrator creates characters who are the” wanderers and explorers of unknown realities.” (Bacchilega, p25) “Yes, marvelous! delicious! insuperable! but beyond: what is that sound of black rags flipping?” The children make no definitive choice. They cannot accept the reality that is coming, that of adulthood.
Death is always a difficult event to accept and deal with. In Coover’s “The Marker,” Jason takes the concept of difficult recovery to an extreme. He chooses to completely recede from reality after the death of his wife, as he keeps his wife’s decaying body in their bed three weeks after her death. The narrator tells the story of how Jason has created an alternate reality by imagining a life where his wife is still alive. His fictional reality is much like that of the father in “The Gingerbread House,” in that it arises from denial. Unlike all the other stories though, his forced fictional reality is cut-off by the intrusion of the police officers. Despite the interruption, the story continues its hyperbolic trend with the police officer’s over exaggerated performance when beating Jason’s genitals to a pulp.
Some irony is derived from the title. The story starts with him putting his book marker in his book and ends with him being distraught over the police officer knocking it out. The bookmark can act as an explanation for where Jason’s life is. He has placed a marker in his fictional life and will not move on. His exclamation at the end, “The marker!” shows how the loss of the bookmark represents a break in his new reality.
One could argue that Coover’s presentation of female objectification is not an act of sexism, but a way for the narrator to express the dreams and urges of the characters he has created in these forced realities. To argue that is to say that women cannot be the characters in control. Even in “The Magic Poker” in which female characters are central, the narrator puts their actions in terms of male reactions and views. “‘But, tell me, how did you know to kiss it?’ ‘Call it woman’s intuition…’” (30) Despite using unique techniques in his writing and creating stories that intrigue with boundary pushing narratives, he has fallen down a hole. He is trapped in a hole of great writing that can only be respected to the point at which the reader is not distracted by this glaring literary discrimination.
Coover created unique stories through his use of narration as an actor rather than a tool for presentation. He took metafiction and transformed it to fit with his individual point of view. The narrator’s in Coover’s tales push the plots along within an already fictional tale with their ability to create forced realities for their characters. The narrator’s are not responsible for the entirety of the work though. Coover still wrote them, and in turn established the sexism that is present throughout the book. Despite this factor, Coover, and subsequently his narrators, told stories from a challenging point of view that forms a interesting relationship between reality and fiction within fictitious tales.
Bacchilega, Christina. “Folktales, Fictions, and Meta-Fictions: Their Interaction in Robert Coover’s Pricksongs & Descants.” New York Folklore 6.3-4 (1980): 171-184. Print.
Coover, Robert. Pricksongs & Descants. New York: E.P. Dutton &Co., Inc., 1969. Print.
Evenson, Brian. Understanding Robert Coover. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. Print.
Lee, L.L. “Robert Coover’s Moral Vision: Pricksongs & Descants.” Studies in Short Fiction 23.1 (1986): 63-69. Print.

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