- Series: Coover, Robert
- Paperback: 544 pages
- Publisher: Grove Press; 1st Grove Press ed edition (April 2, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0802135277
- ISBN-13: 978-0802135278
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 22 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #496,202 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Public Burning (Coover, Robert) Paperback – April 2, 1998
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For quite some time after the 1977 publication of The Public Burning, it was almost impossible to find a copy. The book's own publisher seemed--no, was reluctant to admit it even existed. That's because this imaginative reconstruction of the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted for giving atom bomb secrets to the Soviets, was the first major work of modern fiction to feature a still-living historical figure as a prominent character. The book's obscurity was the publisher's attempt to avoid legal repercussions from Richard Nixon, who over the course of the book engages in a romantic interlude with Ethel Rosenberg and graphically surrenders himself to a rapacious Uncle Sam.
Now that Nixon's dead, however, readers are free to marvel at one of the few American novels to rival Joyce's Ulysses for sustained stylistic inventiveness. Snippets of speeches and articles from Time are recast in poetic form, entire scenes are presented in dramatic verse, as events in the Rosenberg case move towards their historically destined conclusion. --Ron Hogan
From the Back Cover
A controversial best-seller in 1977, The Public Burning has since emerged as one of the most influential novels of our time. The first major work of contemporary fiction ever to use living historical figures as characters, the novel reimagines the three fateful days in 1953 that culminated with the execution of alleged atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Vice-President Richard Nixon - the voraciously ambitious bad boy of the Eisenhower regime - is the dominant narrator in an enormous cast that includes Betty Crocker, Joe McCarthy, the Marx Brothers, Walter Winchell, Uncle Sam, his adversary The Phantom, and Time magazine incarnated as the National Poet Laureate. All of these and thousands more converge in Times Square for the carnivalesque auto-da-fe at which the Rosenbergs are put to death. And not a person present escapes implication in Cold War America's ruthless "public burning".
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His portrayal of Nixon is very complex and uncanny as other reviewers have noted. He really gets under Nixon's skin and brings out the full greediness and soullessness of that man but he does it in a way that still presents Nixon as a fully fleshed out human being.
I won't spoil it but the ending is pretty shocking and again I haven't read anything that bold...ever. The only other place with that kind of brash type humor would be South Park or maybe Family Guy...but The Public Burning is on a whole other level of writing so do yourself a favor and strap yourself in for one wild and totally unique ride.
Actually, the novel portrays Nixon in a fairly sympathetic light. He is not yet the paranoid wielder of executive power but a Vice-President learning the ropes of managing Congress and finding his proper relationship to President Dwight Eisenhower. He knows Eisenhower doesn’t particularly like him but chose him as a running mate primarily to drum up support from the West Coast. The actual power broker in ‘The Public Burning’ is a completely fictional character, “Uncle Sam” Slick, a puppet master who intimidates Congressmen and Supreme Court justices, and who is really an American dark angel of the political machine. Sam is a mythical character with superhuman power and longevity, the diabolical “conscience” of the country as well as surrogate father figure to not-quite-so Tricky Dick Nixon.
The novel opens immediately in an absurd dream-like reality, in which an electric chair is mounted on a platform in the very public Times Square. A national carnival/cavalcade/parade of stars is planned to coincide with the officiation of the double execution of the Rosenbergs. The last appeal has been denied and the one Supreme Court justice’s grant of clemency has been overturned by public and political opinion, manipulated by the omniscient and omnipresent Uncle Sam.
Every U.S. president is anointed as the Incarnation of the spirit of Uncle Sam. The extent to which Sam initiates the once and future presidents is absurdly and grotesquely illustrated by the novel’s conclusion, at which point we get the picture that the office of President is NOT an enviable position at all.
Sam has a folksy, poetic rhythm to his rhetoric as illustrated by this passage:
“We ain’t goin’ up to Times Square just to fulfill the statutorial law, if that’s what you mean,” Uncle Sam said. He blew a smoke ring, then another and another, each inside the other, ending with a little puff of smoke for the center. “This is to be a consecration, a new charter of the moral and social order of the Western World, the precedint on which the future is to be carn-structed to ensure peace in our time!” He hacked up a gob and spit into his smoke rings, hitting the bull’s eye…”We’re goin’ up there to wash our feet , son!” A miniature mushroom cloud welled up from the center, and the concentric rings flattened out and spread like shock waves.”
As Uncle Sam explains it, the Rosenbergs must be executed in a public purging, a dramatization of justice against the Phantom, every bit of a real presence as Sam in Coover’s universe. The Rosenbergs may not be as guilty as others as yet uncaught but they have aligned themselves with the Forces of Darkness and have become indelible images in the public’s conscience; therefore, Sam has decreed that this must be a national event.
Omniscient narrative chapters alternate with chapters in which we occupy the mind of Dick Nixon circa 1953. Nixon in this novel is very familiar to anyone who lived through his presidency and ultimate resignation and disgrace and we can see the seeds of that future sown in the events of June 1953. We are privy to his secrets and insecurities, memories of embarrassing episodes from his childhood and into his fledgling political career. He realizes that he has never been well-liked in spite of all of his dedication to hard work. This has resulted in a resentment at the lack of respect that he feels has been his due. Uncle Sam sees this as well and councils him as a teacher would the struggling yet inept schoolboy who nevertheless shows promise.
Nixon indulges in numerous Hamlet-like soliloquies such as the following:
“What was fact, what intent, what was framework, what was essence? Strange, the impact of History, the grip it had on us, yet it was nothing but words. Accidental accretions for the most part, leaving most of the story out. We have not yet begun to explore the true power of the Word, I thought. What if we broke all the rules, played games with the evidence, manipulated language itself, made History a partisan ally? Of course, the Phantom was already onto this, wasn’t he? Ahead of us again. What were his dialectical machinations if not the dissolution of the natural limits of language, the conscious invention of a space, a spooky artificial no-man’s land, between logical alternatives? I loved to debate both sides of any issue, but thinking about that strange space in between made me sweat. Paradox was the one thing I hated more than psychiatrists and lady journalists.”
Nixon pours over all the details of the Rosenberg case like a detective, researches their backgrounds and begins to feel that he knows them and can identify with them, particularly Ethel. He recalls that she and he both lived in New York around the same time in the past and might have met. He fills in so many of the details of an imagined picture of what Ethel might have been like that he develops an infatuation that evolves into a fantasy, interrupted when Uncle Sam walks in on him masturbating to her picture.
The absurd carnival atmosphere and broad satire grows very tiresome as one realizes that it takes up at least half of the novel. Uncle Sam’s bloviating is curiously amusing in small doses but each unexpected appearance begins to try this reader’s level of tolerance and patience.
Coover obviously did a great deal of research for the novel. He uses verbatim transcripts from the Rosenberg’s testimonies but converts them into operatic arias. Time magazine in this world is the national poet laureate and its reports of the events as they occur appear as blank verse. One reviewer described Coover’s production as the child of Mark Twain and Herman Melville raised by Thomas Pynchon. That is as apt a description as any I can think of.
There is a great inventive energy to Coover’s diarrheic prose that is admirable even as it becomes nearly unreadable and inflates this novel to well past 500 pages. Absent these excessive passages, we are left with a fascinating fictional portrait of Richard Nixon that has the ring of truth as we recognize the paranoid tyrant. And yet in this novel he is at his most vulnerable and we empathize with him. He suffers an accumulation of increasingly embarrassing indignities. Nixon’s saga has been described multiple times as Shakespearean. However, Coover’s Nixon is the first one that actually resembles Shakespeare’s tragic anti-heroes. Coover has depicted a figure that is Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth and Richard’s II and III all rolled up in an All-American hunch-shouldered ball of nerves.
I'm just going to say, this is the greatest fictional portrayal of Nixon ever rendered. Even the head-in-a-glass-jar in Futurama can't compete with Coover's take on his exuberant misanthropy and self-serving nature. That he ends up forming the sincere, reflective emotional core of this book while still being ridiculed is a remarkable satirical feat. At times the book reads almost like a comic, with it's bright swirl of colors and it's crazed American Zeitgeist set pieces which just keep building up into ever more elaborate, ever more ludicrous renditions as the narrative rushes to its electrifying, (pun intended) ordained spectacle of conclusion.
And just when you think things have reached their crazed end, Coover ratchets things up to 11 with a denouement so obscene, so completely insane, that...well, I almost can't believe that this wasn't burned in the streets when it came out. This is American satire on a hysterical, almost mythical scale, and it goes out with all guns blazing. If Herman Melville and Mark Twain had a kid and that kid was raised by Thomas Pynchon, he would write something like this. I highly, HIGHLY recommend this.
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The story, if there really is one, concerns the Rosenbergs- spies!Read more