Robert Coover is an acquired taste. Which I’ve acquired through reading several of his quirky (to say the least) novels, including Spanking the Maid. His latest, The Brunist Day of Wrath, is a 48-years-later follow-up to The Origin of the Brunists, which received the William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable first novel. You don’t have to have read the first book to appreciate the second (though it might make keeping track of the characters easier).
Both Brunist novels center on an apocalypse that stubbornly refuses to happen when expected, no matter how often its due date is delayed. Though decades have passed between the publication of the first Brunist novel and this new one, events in the story happen only five years apart.
Coover, born in 1932, has certainly not stopped taking risks in his metafiction. The Brunists are a weird cult, but then, is there any other kind? So much happens, and there is so much depth to the characters, and there are so many secondary characters, that I won’t even attempt to synopsize the plot. Instead, I want to share a few passages I marked as possibly appealing to many of the freethinking post-modern literature-lovers that I suspect read this blog.
EXCERPTS TO CATCH YOUR ATTENTION
“They have rejected God, creation, and morality! Oh, they don’t call it humanism, they call it democracy, but they mean humanism, in all its atheistic, amoral, scientistic depravity!” The handsome bishop from Wyoming, invited to read from the Scriptures, is prefacing his reading with an attack on what he calls the devil’s religion and “the most serious threat to our nation in its entire history! You can’t be both a humanist and a true believer!”
He finally got rid of all that crap in prison. Reading the Bible helped. One of the few books you could have in stir. He decided to plow straight through it, beginning to end. He read first with a certain awe (this has been the book for twenty centuries!), then with increasing irritation (who wrote this stupid thing?), finally with disgust and anger. A total swindle. Blaming God for writing it is a fucking sacrilege.
Says Sally, the character who is Coover’s stand-in:
The conventional way of telling stories is itself a kind of religion, you know, a dogmatic belief in a certain type of human perception as the only valid one. Like religious people, conventional writers follow hand-me-down catechisms and look upon the human story through a particular narrow lens, not crafted by them and belonging to generations of writers long dead. So conventional writers are no more realists than these fundamentalist Rapture nuts are. The true realists are the lens-breakers, always have been. The readers, like your average Sunday morning churchgoers, can’t keep up with all this, so the innovators who are cutting the real mainstream often go unnoticed in their own time. It’s the price they pay. They don’t make as much money, but they have more fun. . . . Tight-assed little paragraphs laid out in order like snapshots in a photo album are not for me. I don’t want a life like that either.
The natural has dying in it, the supernatural doesn’t, it’s as simple as that. Dying is too much for most people. So what are you going to do if you don’t live in the majority’s crazy made-up world? Steer clear if you can and duck when they have guns in their hands.
Books, too. When they become product, they’re dead. Writing is it, not the written. For all her disappointment, she still believes. Language makes and unmakes reality. There’s an unfathomable gap between nature and culture, the infinite and the finite. Only the imagination can even try to bridge it. Its failures are what beauty is. And so on.
By the time she is cowering in the culvert she has come to understand that the real criminal that day was Christianity itself. Or, rather, the human mindset—in part, a susceptibility to made-up stories—that gives this dangerous nonsense such terrible power.
The Brunist Day of Wrath is a very long book, and the detail and the many characters may, at times, cause the reader to wish for a bolder editor. But with an author of such skill I wouldn’t want the task of suggesting what to trim. The bursts of brilliance, the dark humor, the glorious absurdity, the brave interjections about life, death, and art: these make taking the full journey with Coover very much worth the reader’s time.
(The most serious of readers will appreciate this elegant, laudatory, and much more comprehensive review of the novels.)