Tuesday, June 12, 2012


A review of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, The Viking Press, New York, 1977

Richard Milhaus Nixon, molested by his father as a boy, having become perverse himself throughout his thought and actions, finds his career about to launch once he’s been brutally raped, anally, by a meme he identifies as Uncle Sam.

This sexual devastation seems a rite all future POTUSes must undergo at some point, a rite that instills in them the necessary presidential timber, according to Nixon, the predominant voice and viewpoint in Robert Coover’s The Public Burning.[i]

The fact is, though it was published 35 years ago, this novel may be just as relevant in this Presidential election year as it was when it was published. Americans still [as always, apparently] demand a masculine Christian capable of killing for God & Country. And they’ve been lucky lately, getting macho-man killers in spades: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, perhaps the Clintons, and, now definitely Obama.

According to Nixon about halfway through the novel, which breathlessly covers the last three days of the Rosenbergs’ lives before they’re to be publicly executed in the electric chair in Times Square before a worldwide television audience, the reason Eisenhower was so great and had become President was that “he knew how to kill.” Nixon wondered if he could do the same. [258]

It seems that Nixon’s primary inner conflict about the Rosenbergs, according to the way Coover speaks him, is between pity and heroism and thoroughly delusional. Nixon comes across as a communist and fascist appeaser, in other words enthralled by the authoritarian position, where such folks as “premature anti-fascist[s]” thwart the patriotic war against the Phantom where “justice is entertainment.” [121]

The kind of person Nixon is shows itself in the dimensions of his existential world: “I felt caught up in some endless quest, a martyr to duty, but duty to what? My self perhaps, its creation and improvement, the need to show I had what it takes, that I deserved no matter what I got…” [298]

Are there any delusional would-be or actual killers among the current and former 2012 candidates? They seem to be aspiring killers for sure [Ron Paul excepted], if they don’t already have a few bodies strewn here and there throughout their past. We know even Obama killed Osama and other bad people [a few of them American citizens. At least the Rosenbergs had a “trial”].  Coover’s Nixon is definitely in this mode, with a strong possibility, which he hints at himself, of a body already somewhere in his past, buried like its repressed memory. He’s a confessed rapist and sexual mess. But he can’t help but wonder whether or not a Quaker, raised by Grandma Milhaus, could actually kill someone, especially decent, possibly even innocent people like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: “Could I kill, I wondered? If it came to that, could I kill? Not something easy like the Rosenbergs, but this crowd in here…if they got in my way…? Why not? Killing was as meaningless as anything else.” [345][ii]

In the act of the Rosenbergs’ heinous public slaughter, Nixon realizes a few things that, if enough regular folks understood, there would be no America, no USSR, no troubles. Consider Coover’s tense choices. It feels a bit odd that Nixon’s speaking the past tense, and yet the action feels as if it were presently happening. Also, Nixon rarely thinks at all about the future, and when he does it’s a distant future that will build monuments to him once he’s gone. I think this suggests that Coover’s Nixon has lost touch with the present tense—an American symptom resulting from being trapped inside a Disney/Bernays’ spectacle.[iii] In this sense, especially toward the end at the bottom of page 473, it’s implied that the reader, who is by extension/in-tension the people, could be insane [unless part of some unspoken intelligence that knows better]. It’s the situation that’s insane. And Nixon personifies the peoples’ systemic situation…the mode in which we’re all mere actors on a stage.

Throughout the novel one might read echoes of Marshall McLuhan, Guy Debord’s spectacle, the psychogeography of Deleuze and Guattari, the self-reflexivity and metafictive qualities of Coover’s pomo contemporaries in the way Nixon’s poetic neurosis/delusion becomes the textual pathology that seams the American citizen’s dis-ease together forming society’s schizoid insanity.

Consider Chapter 18, “The National Poet Laureate[iv] Meditates on the Art of Revelation,” in which Nixon says: “Poetry is the art of subordinating facts to the imagination…fakery in allegiance to the truth…objectivity is Gnostic…as an ideal perhaps even immoral, that only through the frankly biased and distorting lens of art is any real grasp of the facts—not to mention Ultimate Truth—even remotely possible.” [320]

From here on the narrator grows increasingly schizoid until it becomes quite clear that The Burning Game is an Avant-Pop presentation of the schizoid American psyche, that the USA has evolved into a pop culture spectacle and something that’s perhaps as dangerous, if not more dangerous in light of its nuclear weapons, thinning greatly any margin of error, than Germany in the 1930s. The social Darwinism of “manifest destiny” ranks right up there with Hitler’s Aryan master race when it comes to its mythomaniacal hucksterism. Each carries the “white man’s burden” making a pathetic, tragic mess of things.

Nixon’s deepest insight: “…this is not happening to me alone, I thought desperately, or tried to think, as [Uncle Sam] pounded deeper and deeper, destroying everything, even my senses, my consciousness—but to the nation as well!” [532]

The people attain their exceptional American timber in the way they’re screwed. What goes around comes around. The people will, at some point, screw Uncle Sam the way Nixon did in Times Square [read the book!]. So, to say that Uncle Sam or Ike or any of the nation’s illustrious leaders were evil, “you might as well say that America itself was evil…that exemplary transcendence, through action and beauty, of the strong man’s wild streak, which…is what the West is all about,” [241] is an evil endeavor.

When Nixon discovers the truth about Uncle Sam: “You didn’t have to kill them! You just did it for fun! You’re a … a butcher! a beast! You’re no better than the Phantom!”, Uncle Sam replies: “It ain’t easy holdin’ a community together, order ain’t what comes natural, you know that, boy, and a lotta people gotta get killt tryin’ to pretend it is, that’s how the game is played.”

“’You’ve…you’ve changed,’ I [Nixon] said, my voice shaking. “You’re not the same as when I was a boy!” --- “You’re forty years old, son: time you was weaned!...you gotta love me like I really am: Sam Slick the Yankee Peddler, gun-totin’ hustler and tooth-‘n’-claw tamer of heathen wilderness, lusty and in everything a screamin’ meddler, novus ball-bustin’ ordo seclorum, that’s me, boy—and goodnight Mrs. Calabash to any damfool what gets in my way!”

Ever notice when someone tells you to grow up, get over it, [or that you’re delusional or in denial or suffering from a messiah complex] they’re really asking you to buy into their fantasy and play your part in it? We’re all guilty of it. This review’s guilty of it. We cycle between plaintiff and defendant depending on the situation. That’s what it seems being American is all about in Coover’s The Public Burning—the willingness to participate in the national fiction because it’s the path of least resistance, which makes it a true and courageous novel. Courageous because Coover put himself inside Nixon while Nixon was still alive. He let Nixon possess him the way Uncle Sam possessed Nixon. He shows that Nixon, an indefensible cad at the time, was a human being like the rest of us. Coover is Nixon. The reader is Nixon. I am Nixon. We cycle between demon and angel depending on the perceived situation [“we” being a subset of “everybody,” you might not be included. Only you would know.].

Finally, there’s a difference between childish and child-like. Is it childish or child-like to pray for everyone before going to bed at night? Is it childish or childlike to engage in Nixonian phantasy? When you’re Nixon, it’s childish. When you’re Coover, childlike.  The difference being one nauseates, the other thrills. And The Public Burning succeeds at both.

[i] I find Thomas R. Edwards’ 1977 New York Times review an interesting counterpoint to my own. The difference, I think, is what we hear and how we hear it. I believe Coover would find Edwards’ view problematic on several fronts. But I’m only guessing…
[ii] This foreshadows the illegal bombing of Cambodia, the carpet-bombing and war crimes in Vietnam. Elsewhere in the novel, Coover plants hints of the future Watergate and anti-war movement and protestors. One sees Nixon’s political psyche starting to bloom, able to trace it from its seedling status, abused sprout up to the current messy stink flower.
[iii] Disney and propaganda; Edward Bernays 1, 2, 3, 4—Happiness Machines, The Engineering of Consent, There Is A Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed, and limousine liberalism [sic]; and spectacle, where in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: "All that was once directly lived has become mere representation." Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing." This condition, according to Debord, is the "historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life." [Wikipedia, The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy DeBord].
[iv] The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953. Interestingly, there was no “poet laureate” from 1953-55. William Carlos Williams was appointed to serve from 1952-55, but had been investigated by the FBI for communist sympathies. He also refused to be fingerprinted or undergo other such indignities. Coover makes Nixon the de facto poet laureate for that time, which enables him to mock Faulkner by having Nixon sing his praises. The novel is stuffed with these kinds of pleasures.

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