It took a lengthy plane ride to do it, but I finally finished Robert Coover’s The Public Burning. I’d searched it out for years, but always decided the first editions I inevitably came across were too pricey to risk it. After all, the one short story I’d read by Coover, included in a collection of new writers during the ‘70s, did little to impress, and much to offend me, joking as it did the whole time about the possibilities of rape. But enough reliable sources had declared this huge tome a must-read cult classic, and so when I finally caught it hanging out in a pop-up bookstore in a subway tunnel—for $3.50!—I decided to go for it.
Look, I respect the experimental, or at least the so-called non-traditional; Infinite Jest, for example, has never been topped for me. But stretching out a few days’ worth of sort-of alternate history, using what might best be called a frantic style and a hell of a lot of referencing of now-forgotten government figures, becomes pretty tedious pretty quickly.
I won’t hesitate to raise a hue and cry over Americans’ lack of historical consciousness—but Coover’s book is a prime example of how to date a work and make it if not inaccessible, at least much less effective forty years down the line than it would have been to a really well-informed audience at the time of its publication, or maybe even the time in which said publication’s narrative took place–i.e., in the early 1950s. Having Richard Nixon as your protagonist, as well as some of the larger figures that surrounded him, isn’t problematic; it’s the constant references to junior senators, early film starlets, long-dead department stores, defunct products and their forgotten ad jingles,… Really, it’s not that hard to capture the absurdity of American public taste or pastimes—but trying to do so by way of the very ephemeral materials and personalities with which it’s concerned makes that message at least a little fuzzier around the edges for generations who’ve never, and for good reason, heard about half the items or flashes-in-the-pan that feature in Coover’s fictional universe.
And I’ll have to say, his deified Uncle Sam hasn’t aged well. At one point, the rootin’-tootin’ stereotype may still have been valid—but even in the paternalistically mythologized “heartland,” I don’t think such a character, even as an outsized absurdity, is believable today. My preliminary assertion is that that’s a good thing—but I also have no idea what sort of asinine idol we could replace him with, except for certain actual figures currently in power.
But I’m straying now from the general assessment of the book, which I realize took a great deal of time and creative effort to produce, and if nothing else, I can appreciate that fact. For all the work that went into it, though, you’d hope that the result would have much more staying power. Then again, the pieces that really last—and by “really,” I probably mean more than a hundred years, maybe—are few and far between. Shouldn’t I, then, be celebrating the fact that something written in the 1970s is still being referenced, much less read, even if only in tiny circles, especially in an age of disposable information and barely-there attention spans?
I suppose so. But if I’ve learned one thing from history, it’s that most uniquely identifiable things and people, if not the events in which they took part, will pass from the collective memory. You may have your own feelings about that fact, but as I’ve probably mentioned before, the realization of our fleeting nature is sort of comforting to me. Maybe in the end what I find so frustrating, then, about Coover’s approach to The Public Burning is what seems like his determined attempt to fight against that evanescence of all (or most) things. I’d like to know, forty years after this dense piece of not-quite-historical fiction came out, what the author thinks about it now, and whether or not he’s still struggling to maintain his insistent grip on the fugitive things of this world.