Less Than Hero: Coover Rewrites Jackie Paper

Robert Coover's books have gotten smaller, from the doorstop of 1977's The Public Burning to the slender invocations of fairy tales he's published in more recent years. His latest, A Child Again, is not much thicker than a deck of cards—even with the partial deck of interchangeable, card-shaped pages attached to the book. It's as if Coover's metatexts have actually folded in on themselves.

But he's still got game, as this explicitly diversionary book insists. Coover is as raunchy and rigorous as always (see Snow White's "formidable hymen"), but with a troubling new emphasis on how much fun we're all having. Puzzles come in all sizes now—cryptograms bookend his typical crypticisms—and, like a Monday crossword, feel a bit tawdry upon completion. And there are the almost obsessive allegorical gestures toward the rigors and travails of old age, served well by the fairy tale afterward. Hero after hero is defeated, in his post-history, by the hands of the clock. Maybe it works; one can't help longing for the way these stories were, when we were young.

Take Jackie Paper, now a distinguished and aged orator, alone again with Puff in his cave. They don't have long: Aspiring knights are on the verge of discovering and beheading the dragon. But Jack just wants, one last time, to play, with "the scaly wide-bellied grandeur of his own inner being, the wild, winged strangeness of it, the unspeakable enigma at the core." If only he could muster the strength to ride it. Unspeakable enigmas aside, Coover has a cave, too—the virtual reality center at Brown bears that name—but from this angle, it looks more like a fortress under siege.

 
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