Robert coover on the importance of movies and the value of unhappy endings the new yorker

Your story in this week’s issue, “ Treatments,” is actually three short stories—all of them playing on cinematic conventions. They’ll eventually appear together in a collection titled “Son of a Night at the Movies”—a reference to another collection of yours, “A Night at the Movies, or You Must Remember This.” What keeps you coming back to this terrain?

Interesting to think of moving pictures as something so static as a “terrain,” but in the sense of being something fixed and finished—“in the can,” as they say in the trade—that’s what they are. They invite exploration, just as terrain does. I’ve played with all the art forms, but the novel was the dominant narrative mode of the nineteenth century, and film that of the twentieth.


It’s hard to ignore that reality if you’re telling stories that celebrate your own time.

The subjects in these “treatments” are each quite different: a surreal walk-through of a “Beauty and the Beast” movie; a musical version of the 1955 William Wyler film “The Desperate Hours,” about the invasion of a suburban home by escaped convicts; and a portrait of the Lone Ranger turned rogue. Why these three “spinoffs”?

Different, yet similar. All three play with genre movies, which is cinema’s version of folktales—part of the tribal ethos. These are very condensed experiments, but I have written many longer ones, including “Charlie in the House of Rue,” “Noir,” “Ghost Town,” “Top Hat,” and so on. My fiction is probably best defined by its lifelong engagement with the myths that environ us—religious, patriotic, literary, erotic, popular, etc. Movies, from the moment of their invention, have been an essential element of that mythic environment.

As a charter member of William Gass’s very Midwestern P.D.P., his Party of the Disappointed People, I am not burdened by false hopes. All stories end badly, so most of mine do, too. I think of these little pieces as parody, yes, satire also, and representative of our culture, our sorry condition. Such as it is. Ice cream, yay.

Last week, there was a three-day festival in your honor at Brown University, in Providence—titled, in part, “Celebrating the Unspeakable Practices of Robert Coover”—featuring appearances by many of your colleagues and admirers, including T. C. Boyle, Don DeLillo, Alexandra Kleeman, Marlon James, Edwidge Danticat, Paul Auster, and many others. What was the stimulus for the festival?

“Unspeakable Practices” was the title of a farewell party I organized for the then retiring professor and great metafictionist John Hawkes, in 1988—a title taken from Donald Barthelme’s book of stories “Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts.” Don was there, as well as William Gass, Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis, and half a dozen others of the postmodernist bent. After that, over the years, we continued with a sequence of vanguard literary ingatherings, calling them all “Unspeakables.” In effect, this was the last one and perhaps the most brilliant of the lot, peopled by old friends and many former students, now celebrated writers in their own right. The readings on the final day by Edwidge Danticat, Rick Powers, Siri Hustvedt, Don DeLillo, and Paul Auster were sensational, some of the best public performances I’ve ever heard. Its whole title was meant to include my creation of the International Writers Project and its freedom-to-write predecessors at Brown, as well as my pioneer digital language workshops in hyperfiction and “cave writing” (writing in immersive 3-D), both programs launched at Brown in 1989. It was a great party, a party that began with the performance of a short sequence from my son Roderick’s radio play based on “Gerald’s Party,” and ending with a reiteration of an old festival favorite, the “Unspeakable Circus.”