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The Brunist Day of Wrath Hardcover – April 1, 2014
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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"The Coover of the 21st century writes with considerably more flair than his 1960s counterpart." ―The New York Times
"The Brunist Day of Wrath is the best, most impressive novel I've read in years." ―The Wall Street Journal
"Open the book anywhere and find another vivid portrait of a cultist or resident, woven into the subplot of a previously introduced character, inching forward. Questions of religion, faith, humanity and society are raised. Challenging and impressive, a virtuoso work..." ―Publishers Weekly
"What is really so lovely about the Brunist books is that, in spite of Coover's signature distance in his writing, the extraordinary breadth and depth of detail, the pitch perfect naturalism, the rigorous adherence to narrative structure, the endless development of characters and voices, all firmly establish the doubt, in the face of overwhelming Writerly evidence, that Myth and Tale have in fact stolen the show." ―James Tierney, Golden Handcuffs Review
"Thus Coover's second epic telling of the many stories of the Brunists and West Condon shows that stories can be, all at once, nutty apocalyptic imaginings, sprawling gigantic entertainments, terribly powerful lies, and redemptive and compassionate bridges between disparate selves. And, really, wicked fun." ―The Rumpus
"There is no such thing as the Great American Novel, but this surely is one of them in its scope, sharp-eyed compassion and stripping away of hypocritical posturing. It is massive, mesmerizing, and riveting page by fulsome page, a triumph for Coover and a venomous, virulent, heartfelt vision for all of us." ―Providence Journal
""Many of Coover's postmodernist contemporaries address similar narrative concerns, but few are so legitimately funny. His off the wall dialogue and deadpan character sketches will provoke laughter at the most apparently inappropriate situations. Whatever the key to this brand of dark, off-the-wall humour, Coover has it. He had it in 1966, and he still has it now." ―TN2
Praise for Robert Coover:
"Coover is still a brilliant mythmaker, a potty-mouthed Svengali, and an evil technician of metaphors. He is among our language's most important inventors." ―Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Alphabet
"Of all the postmodern writers, Robert Coover is probably the funniest and most malicious, mixing up broad social and political satire with vaudeville turns, lewd pratfalls, and clever word plays that make us rethink both the mechanics of the world and our relationship to it." ―Michiko Kakutani
"Coover seems seriously concerned about an animal (his own kind) strung out for life between creation and destruction, two longings which twist and marry however we try to untangle them." ―Ann Gottlieb, The Village Voice
"Robert Coover is one of our masters now. The tumultuous, Babylonian exuberance of his mind is fueled and directed by his equally passionate craftsmanship. He seems to be able to do anything." ―Robert Kelly, The New York Times Book Review
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I've been a long-time enthusiast of Coover's work—ever since discovering Pricksongs and Descants shortly after its publication, as I was entering school to study filmmaking. The book turned out to mean more to my sense of art and of the world at that time than did the film history and theory I became immersed in.
Next up in pursuing Coover was a backtrack to Origin of the Brunists. Loved it, and I could still see the same writer working therein--doing “straighter” fiction with the best of other celebrated writers who'd have trouble grasping let alone doing what else he was capable of. So I give a half-smile and slight nod when “Anonymous” says that this behemoth sequel is like Stephen King operating on a higher plane. Pretty close.
About the book itself, I can't offer a complete review. Look instead to others for more content detail and context to make sense of what I write here. Like Michael E. Murray, I'm already ready to read it again after a side trip to revisit Origin (so that book will be more than vivid memories as foundation for experiencing this sequel--which can nevertheless stand on its own, dear reader). I just envy Murray that he's got reading number two under his belt by now.
But I want to add a few observations that may give current and potential readers some more food for thought.
At least one review elsewhere has noted, in a somewhat disappointed way, that for such a lengthy and detailed world that's created, the story doesn't situate itself in a specific enough time period or a complete enough society: no one but white Christian followers, devoted or at least noddingly acquainted, and no impact of specific outside historical events or figures on their world.
But a close reading does allow you to peg the time period, to start with. It is 1970 for the main events of BDoW. Origin occurred 5 years before. . . locating it an apt year before the book's original publication in 1966.
Internal references suggest this dating. The chapter headers—day of week, its number and month—are rigorously patterned. They fit specific calendar years. Those patterns—recurring through decades, but looked for in any you perceive this story might possibly be happening in—give you three choices max: 1953, 1964, or 1970.
The first might reflexively seem plausible, especially if you already knew that one of Coover's inspirations for Origin was the 1951 Orient No. 2 mining explosion in West Frankfort, IL, the geo-cultural area that best resembles the fictional West Condon itself. (Not my discovery, just my reading elsewhere: see “Ballowe: Novel rooted in Southern Illinois” at www.thesouthern.com for this and more.) But locating the new novel in 1953 would of course make it too early for details of its own narrative—by later in its pages it's more than obvious--with Origin then pushed back to a way-too-early 1948.
Somewhere in BDoW (I didn't take specific note on first reading, alas), one of its huge cast of characters has passing thought of buying a used Corvair—a car which was in production 1960-69. That would make either 1964 or 1970 plausible for dating the novel's setting... but perhaps 1970 more so, when the full Corvair run had just ended and at least the earlier model years at least would have been well into entering the second-hand market.
What clinches 1970, though, are text references to the moon, wherever narrative events describe it during specific nights. Spot-checking these references in the easiest chapters (those encompassing just one day apiece), the moon phases described fit 1970—with just one exception I found on April 25, when the novel describes it as “full” but a moon phase calendar has it waxing gibbous (perhaps close in casual visible effect, but no cigar). Take this as intentional license for artistic effect, or an unintentional oversight reminding us that even a daunting project of myriad narrative elements is still a human one subject to ills that mindful flesh is heir to.
Doesn't matter. It still works for 1970. Placing Sally Elliot's epilogue in 1972, which fits well with her pursuit of civil rights and free speech, and especially “preservation of the wilderness, and prison reform, and... the inhumanity of corporate capitalism, the numbing banality of the networks, and the nation's insane wars...” (p.1001). All of this social agitation was not as compellingly and expansively present in the zeitgeist of 1966.
What about the insular and uniform town society, the lack of specificity to outside sociopolitical events? BDoW may be candidate for a great American novel—which term now has something of the speciousness of the American Dream, whatever either of them means--but doesn't have to be one in the too-common sense of serving up a panoramic picture of a society at a certain historical point. Better a panoramic mining of the ways and values that Americans think and feel and relate—which this surely approaches in all its concrete and allusive detail. As for the superficial veneer of reference to larger events outside of small-town preoccupations. . . I remember living this period in a suburb of our country's largest city, and my own political awareness and commitments at the time of graduating film school was pretty narrow and intermittent. Maybe it's just me, but I doubt it. Besides which, picturing a society wider in its historical context and character obsessions only distracts from the sense of eternal returns paid out by myths we steep ourselves in: the weeds obscuring the terrain they cover. We're in a society that feels real with the characters that populate it, though they still live with one foot in dreamtime.
Apart from all that, Ballowe's short article in The Southern testifies to the social uniformity in the corresponding townships that inspired the Brunist novels' West Condon. Barely two decades before BDoW, southern Illinois' West Frankfort and Herrin prototypes had few Jewish families keeping low profiles, and no black people, but plenty of Italian descent. Census stats for the time period aren't within my research reach right now, but in our most recent decade, these places still had over 95% white population. So we haven't left empirical social reality altogether, even though it's secondary in the author's thematic focus.
Which finally brings us to this: Sally Elliot's closing epilogue, tying up loose ends and recounting her post-apocalyptic birth as a public writer. First, I beg to differ with Sylvia Weiser Wendel's negative take here. Writing about the writing process—given the character of this particular story, and the kind of reflective reader who's drawn to a novel like this one—doesn't strike me as boring or masturbatory by default. Even if the author weren't Coover, from whom we'd expect such a signature. Writing is in any case an activity like others, tied up in thought action rather than physical action, and needn't be any less interesting than sports if you're open to either of them in the first place.
But it's the payoff, besides tying up story ends, that's important here. Sally's development as a writer, her insight, philosophy and perspective, mirror her author's of course. But that doesn't mean they are exactly same—that this character's vision is identical to her author's and his novel. Sally is yet a young woman, her author now the better part of a lifetime in advance of her. Besides this gulf of perspective, the novel's now out of the author's hands, and subject also to a reader's perspective from still another distance, where mileage may vary further.
It comes down to this. What's the novel offer when you boil it down, guided by Sally's viewpoint? Write or get written by the human mindset for embracing meanings that are collective myths. Be real by being an unconventional lens-breaker. Religion is a delusional joke. The individual is always the benchmark and gets closer to truth than the society s/he should resist being absorbed into. (And perhaps: never trust anyone whose beliefs are held by over 30.)
This reduction makes it cliché to say what Peggy Lee sings, “Is that all there is?” But it's a deceptive reflex. Such observations are guides, compassing metaphors, and not the experience of reading the entire novel itself. The novel is a teeming multifarious process as well as a product at its close. Where it remains a process inside the reader, no matter that it's finished and has exhausted its store of words for now.
Sally's final movement toward becoming a collective dream-eater by conviction, is set in its own myth cradle, not just the “realist” world. Goose-girl Beauty marries a public Beast charming, a refuge from which she gathers resolve and momentum toward her launch into dream-eating vocation. The reader should keep in mind that the forests of dream are deep and dark and even shifting. Dream-eaters must live with dreams of their own, because the eater is humanly frail like those of us more oblivious to the common dreams she confronts. Once upon a time to come, new dream forms clothing the same myths may be a hazard to be warily spotted when they arise to seduce the self. Nobody escapes.
The novel's paramount thrust is really against the formal rituals of religion—not the human apprehension of transcendence, which might otherwise be called the religious impulse that first leads us down the garden path toward calcified doctrine we can get lost in. Sally and even her author may believe there's nothing but the here and now, nothing outside and above ourselves that isn't an delusional form of self-love. But savoring the here and now may be a form of transcendence itself; and even if not confirmed in the novel, its narrative space is open enough to admit an alternative conviction, the perception of something real and larger than us in life's experience, if that's a wary heart's desire and it can enhance living for more than just ourselves alone.
Taking every element and current into account—from the author's life work and experience, to that of his characters, and the metafictional reality that we form and are formed by—I find the epilogue to be colored by a rich and haunting poignancy. It's the kind of end that such a magisterial novel has to have.
Sometimes I'm struck by certain artists, in film and in literature, as possessing the quality of an indispensable epiphany. This may occur on first acquaintance, more often over time and reflection, but a sudden moment in experience makes it a real conviction. In Coover's case, it goes like this: If Robert Coover didn't exist, we'd have to invent him. Because we have needed, and still need—right here and now—what he offers, in order to go on living rather than just existing.
And what about those Pulitzers, beyond an anticipatory judgment on their judges? One of my favorite American music composers, Charles Ives, won a 1947 Pulitzer for his Third Symphony. It was a work written nearly four decades earlier. Ives sold insurance otherwise for a living, and composed a lot of music that he seldom had the chance to hear performed. No matter; sally on. Ives said upon receiving this particular recognition late in his day: “Prizes are for boys. I'm a man.” Whatever the final judgment in Coover's case, done's done.
At the outset I would like to doff my hat to Natalie Helberg, whose review of The Brunist Day of Wrath in the November 2105 issue of Numéro Cinq is very insightful and provocative.
The war taking place in Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath is complex but not inscrutable. The battlefield is the Mount of Redemption and the nearby town of West Condon, or one might say the battlefield is the universe of conflicting myths. The historian of the hostilities is a dodgy narrator birthed by the master mythoclast, Robert Coover. The narrator is assisted by one of the novel’s most interesting characters, Sally Elliott, Coover’s sometime alter ego and fellow metafictionist.
So what are the conflicting myths? There are many. Principally there are the several more or less aberrant versions of Christianity: the eschatologically oriented Brunists, who are Dispensationalists, sufferers of the Tribulation, lusters after the Rapture, soi-disant prophets; the Lutheran Reverend Konrad Dreyer, befuddled by the mystical dichotomy of being and becoming and by other ineluctable mysteries of his faith; Wesley Edwards, one-time Presbyterian pastor, an advanced christologist who believes that his subject is himself; Father Bablioni, whose version of the magisterium is decidedly Latinate; the ironically named Reverend Joshua J. Jenkins, liberal rationalist and anti-literalist who is not temperamentally equipped for combat and ends up in the hospital fouling himself. Arrayed for or against the Brunists are other groups that have assumed mythological identities: the Dagotown Devil Dogs aka The Knights of Columbus Volunteer Defense Mob, the Christian Patriots; the Wrath of God bikers aka The Crusaders aka The Warrior Apostles. Of these latter species the bikers are notable for the mayhem they create with dynamite left over from the days prior to the collapse of the old coal mine as they pursue their version of God and their tussle with Satan. Of the many colorful adherents to variations of religious mythology, I cannot resist mentioning Prissy Tindle, Pastor Edwards’s paramour, a poor man’s Isadora Duncan who performs for him “The Dance of the Annunciation” to the accompaniment of Debussy’s “Clouds” from the Nocturnes, with appropriate erotic results.
Though Coover’s primary targets are deformations of religious myth, the myth of capitalist/Chamber of Commerce prosperity does not escape his satiric eye. The principal proponent here is the banker and philanderer Ted Cavanaugh, aided by Jim Elliott, Director of the West Condon Chamber of Commerce, and Mayor Vince Bonali, who in the day of wrath absconds with the city payroll with which he plans to buy pleasures with Brazilian boys. The booster program is to be “New Opportunities for West Condon.” It will be kicked off at a lavish Fourth of July celebration. Governor Kilpatrick will be co-opted or Cavanaugh will reveal to the media his wimpy handling of the mayhem that ensues near the end of the novel.
Indispensable to the effects and the themes of the novel is Sally Elliott, the novel’s most complex character. Conflicting commitments pull Sally in different directions. Her atheism sometimes verges on nihilism, but she thirsts for justice. She hates Christianity and yet is tempted at times toward chiliastic visions akin to the Brunists’. A postmodernist who denies all master narratives, she as story teller abjures absurdism and produces an intensely researched quasi-factual novel whose aim is to free those unjustly accused of murder. She projects a fictionalized self that seduces Darren Rector, latter day leader of the Brunists, and fixes on him the murder of Billy Don Tebbett. She also couples with Jesus. At the end of the Epilogue we learn that she has committed herself to oneirophagy, the eating of dreams, a monster. She might have also been designated as one dedicated to mythophagy. Dreams, myths and memory are to her alternate expressions of the madness that is generated by the desire for some absolute.
The fundamental mode of the novel is satire. If it doesn’t have quite the merciless bite and trenchancy of Swift, it has other rewards. It is extraordinarily multi-vocal. We have known all along that Coover is a master imitator of the speech of many sorts and kinds, but we have rarely heard such a variegated cacophony as we have here: the talk of simple coal miners and their families, the screed of the religiously possessed, the colorful filth of the bikers, the convoluted talk of several muddled theologians, the bloated rhetoric of boosters, and the sharp-tongued indictments of Sally Elliott, just to name several. The tonal range runs from the broadly comical to the strident. Another reward is the novel’s willingness, perhaps grudgingly, to hear the voices of those, though benighted, who express a poignant longing for salvation and transcendence.
The Brunist Day of Wrath is over one thousand pages long, but it is not a sprawling novel. In fact, it comes close to adhering to the classical unities of time and place. Its characters and its actions are many, but its focus on the intermingled miseries of delusion, fanaticism and violence as they are played out in and around West Condon over a period of a very few months is unwavering. The reader does not have so much the experience of tackling something large as of diving deep into the multifarious psyche of a poisoned culture, coming up for air and even some laughs, and diving again. It is not a novel that works itself out on large canvases of space and time but rather one that is essentially fugal, returning again and again to elaborate its themes, even as it rises to a crescendo of violence, destruction and injustice. It is a novel worth giving oneself up to fully and then sitting back and reflecting on its revelations. A masterful novel.