Monday, May 9, 2016
Review: "The Public Burning" by Robert Coover
Robert Coover’s most famous novel (which isn’t saying much, no offense) The Public Burning, for better or worse swings hard and for the fences every single sentences. When it wants to be crazy and chaotic, it does so, and it is very fun and hilarious, when it wants to be dense and convoluted, it does so unapologetically. In that way it reminds me a lot of David Foster Wallace’s fiction: with a book like this, you are in the hands of fiercely intelligent polymath who is at times verbose to the point of annoyance, but who always has a low brow joke up their sleeve to keep you interested as their tomes challenge you and push you. The plot of this novel is rather vague and ambiguous as you would expect, but at its core is the sad story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a couple who were convicted of espionage and executed for their supposed crimes against the state. In this alternate view of the events, the country is in the throes of the Korean War, and the nation’s popularity is in steep decline. The couple’s execution is seen by the living embodiment of Uncle Sam as a way to bring the country together with a common enemy. The execution is set for their wedding anniversary, and will take place in Times Square in front of the whole country. This task is given to then Vice President Richard Nixon, who Coover makes out to a dense, misled man-child, but one who much more of a victim here than he was in real life. The book is very dated, but that is my only real and logical complaint. The caricatures of real people, especially Nixon and Ethel, who form a deep romantic bond, are great, and the physical manifestations of fictional entities, like Betty Crocker are quite bonkers, but Uncle Sam takes the cake: a tough talking, good ol’ boy salesman with a god complex who eventually rapes Nixon as he is pledged into office. This is a crazy and impressive pipe bomb to American values that is worth your time.