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WAYNE B. STENGEL Robert Coover's 'Writing Degree Zero': "The Magic Poker" OBERT coover's Pricksongs and Descants (1969) is not only a»superb short story collection but a work that attempts to destroy the myths of contemporary literature and to examine the very nature of the writing process. Despite lavish talents, Coover has been a neglected figure on the American literary scene because his prose consistently investigates the conflicts that beset modernist writing as well as the act of composing that produces them. Frequently regarded as a precocious metafictionist, a lesser Barth or Pynchon, whose prose puzzles recall experimental American writing of the late sixties at its most synthetic, Coover is actually a highly poetic, extremely sophisticated prose philosopher whose fictions have always questioned the self-reflexivity of the American metafictionist movement. He has much in common with the anti-mythological writer that Roland Barthes sought in his 1957 essay "Myth Today," the one who would produce what Barthes calls writing degree zero, language that assiduously attempts to extract all its false, mythic content.1 In paralleling Barthes' program, Coover's stories attain a sparsity, purity, and elegance that signifies far more than Coover's declaration of his own presence in the text. Rather, these stories reflect the presence of a tough-minded yet supple intelligence in their analyses of many myths, including what Barthes considers one of the most dubious myths of literature: the literary mythos itself, the belief that literature must exclusively concern itself with the dissemination of ideas or feeling, Arizona Quarterly Volume 45 Number 2, Summer 1989 Copyright © 1989 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 004-1610 Wayne B. Stengel that it should contain an explicity defined subject-object relationship, or take the goal of instructing an audience how to think, act, or respond . Perhaps the easiest way to analyze Coover's accomplishment in Pricksongs and Descants is to examine one of the best and most difficult stories in the collection, "The Magic Poker." "The Magic Poker" resembles several other of Coover's stories in the collection: it is told in a long series of brief, montage-like film clips or images that might be found on a loop of film several minutes long. Coover's storytelling has definitely been influenced by film, and especially by film theorists such as Eisenstein, who uses editing and montage devices to elicit Pavlovian behavioral responses from his audience. Where Coover diverges from a film-maker like Eisenstein, and from modernist collage writers like Dos Passos or Doctorow is in his assertion of the contradictory, indeterminate nature of historical reality. Coover is not a collage-maker who attempts to assert wholeness or unity by shoring his fragments against the ruin of twentieth-century art and life. Rather he is a practitioner of indeterminate field theory who, like Heisenberg or Wittgenstein, questions how much even the investigator may know or understand about the phenomena which he discovers and in part creates. Accordingly, the force and clarity of "The Magic Poker" emerges once a reader understands three of Coover's dominant concerns in the story: first, he believes the myths of literary modernism must be challenged before an audience can appreciate the questions and inquiry inherent in much contemporary writing; second, he feels the reader should become the controlling consciousness of a work of fiction rather than being controlled by the author's voices or vision; and third, Coover contends that only by violating male conceptions of art, storytelling, writing, and sexuality—the phallic magic poker of the title—can the reader perceive the violence and manipulation of the masculine imagination. The premise of "The Magic Poker" is that a male authorial presence creates an exotic, potentially magical island and then populates it with a debonair, pipe-smoking figure dressed in a white turtleneck, and a hirsute, degenerate creature identified as the son of a former caretaker of the island. As the story progresses, this latter figure seems to deteriorate further while performing a series of increasingly barbaric acts. In addition to one male figure of sophistication and urbanity and another of primitivism, the male narrator posits the arrival of two women on the "The Magic Poker"103 island, Karen and...


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