This morning (with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony spilling out of my desktop MP3 player, because the Wagner was interesting but when it’s playing I can’t think), I’m sipping at a cooling cup of coffee and trying to decide whether or not I liked Robert Coover’s story “Matinée.”
Having read it only once, I probably shouldn’t make a decision about liking or disliking it. My knee-jerk reaction to it is about the same one that I get every time I look at a Cubist painting: Wow. That’s really cool. But was it necessary to do it like that to get the point across? It’s still cool…but I don’t think I like it.
On an initial reading, it seems to me that Coover is doing much the same thing with story that the Cubists did with the human form. He’s breaking up a story (or maybe two stories) about the relationships between an unnamed man and a woman, shaping the pieces into little cube-ish bits, and reassembling it in an abstract way from a bunch of different viewpoints. It’s my first Coover story, as best I recall, so I don’t know if this is typical of his writing or not. I went into the story cold – wasn’t sure what to expect.
I quite liked the opening sentence:
Weary of the tedium of her days, her lonely life going nowhere, she skips work and steps inside a half-empty old movie house showing a scratched and grainy romantic film from her youth; she takes her favorite seat in the middle of the seventh row, hoping to experience once again the consoling power of sudden uncomplicated love, even if not one’s own, love that has no trajectory attached to it but is a pure and immediate enrichment of the soul and delight of the body.
The first part of the sentence, on the left-hand side of the semicolon, leads of with a couple of modifying phrases that tell us about the female protagonist’s state of mind and her relationships (or lack thereof); knowing that the film, from her youth, is scratched and grainy places her in a particular age group. I felt anchored in this woman’s character, invested in her, even, before I hit the semicolon. The second part of the sentence adds more: she takes a favorite seat, forward but in the middle, which also says something about her character. She’s looking for a certain kind of love. Coover piles on its qualifications with adjectives and appositives: sudden/uncomplicated, even if it’s not one’s own, doesn’t have a trajectory attached to it, pure and immediate enrichment of the soul, delight of the body. The way that Coover stacks all these qualifications tells us that “she” once had this, and doesn’t have it now, and probably hasn’t had it for a long time, and she misses it.
That’s a heckuva wallop in one little sentence.
The verbs in the sentence are in the present tense, which add to the sense of being present with “her” in the immediate moment, in the theater, waiting for the movie to start. That was the setup: my expectation was that I would be in the present with this “she,” whatever her experience in the theater or afterwards would be.
The next few paragraphs are, or appear to be, scenes from the movie “she” is watching. And then I felt like I’d entered a kind of funhouse Hall of Mirrors, in which Coover was nudging me from one slightly distorted image of “he” and “she” and “love” to the next, finally spitting me out with:
“‘You are chasing phantoms,’ she says…. ‘Though the past may once have existed, it does not now exist. Something has taken its place.’ She feels certain that she has said this before. Or heard it said. She wants to explain what the something is, but it’s too late — even as she steps out of her underwear the film is breaking and rattling in the projector.”
I want to know what that “something” is, too, and I have a feeling that Coover was showing it to us without explaining. That maybe the “something” is a life breaking and rattling like the film in the projector. I feel like I should have understood it, if only I’d taken the time to diagram out the nested stories and movies and projections to see what really happened.
And who’s the projector, anyway? Because in this story, the projector is not just a “what.” It’s a “who.” It’s the storyteller, or it’s me, or it’s “she,” and we’re all distorted images of one another, all looking for a kind of love that’s gone.
By Tolstoy’s standards, Coover’s story hits the “art” button:
“If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art. To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling this is the activity of art. Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.”
When the story digressed into a series on nonlinear fragments with no clear relationship (on a first reading, anyway), I felt lost. Frustrated and tricked and jerked around. And maybe that was the experience or “trajectory” of love that Coover was trying to communicate: that’s it’s not linear, but fragmented – and that it’s frustrating, tricky, jerks you around, and leaves you feeling deserted, lonely, broken, and flapping in the breeze just as you take off your underwear.
That’s cool. And yet…the story was about the projections and distortions and an abstract idea of the nature of love, not really about the story of some particular “he” and “she” whose experience I was being invited to share. At the end of the story, I wasn’t sure if I was back with the woman in the theater or not, and which “she” was the one taking off her underwear. The narrative seemed as if Coover had designed it to wave a kind of red flag over the cleverness of the fragmented narrative and a theoretical, naked “bottom line” about the nature of love.
It seems to me that Tolstoy would have been less pleased with this aspect of Coover’s story. Tolstoy lists four characteristics of “bad” art: borrowing, imitation, “striking effects,” and “interesting-ness.” “Matinée” seems to me to squarely into the category that Tolstoy labels “interesting”:
“To speak of an interesting work of art means either that we receive from a work of art information new to us, or that the work is not fully intelligible, and that little by little, and with effort, we arrive at its meaning, and experience a certain pleasure in this process of guessing it. In neither case has the interest anything in common with artistic impression. Art aims at infecting people with feeling experienced by the artist. But the mental effort necessary to enable the spectator, listener, or reader to assimilate the new information contained in the work, or to guess the puzzles propounded, by distracting him, hinders the infection. And therefore the interestingness of a work not only has nothing to do with its excellence as a work of art, but rather hinders than assists artistic impression.”
Just as I haven’t decided if I like or dislike “Matinée,” I’m not yet sure if I agree or disagree with Tolstoy that a work’s “interesting-ness” can make it “bad” art. I stand in awe of Coover’s cleverness at narrative construction, and of his beautiful, powerful sentences. Both of those things may have, in this case, distracted me from the emotion that Coover was trying to convey. I’m itching to take a break from Tolstoy to diagram out all the little story-cubes in “Matinée” to see if I guessed right about the meaning – and that perhaps means that the story failed to “infect” me sufficiently with its feelings.
But, with apologies to Lev Nikolaevich, there may be more to art than being “infected.” I removed “Matinée” from the magazine for my “keepers” binder. There’s just something cool about the story, whether I like it or not.