Robert Coover understands that it's someone else's world, and we're just living in it. His newest book, Stepmother, is ostensibly a reimagining of several fairy tales, much in the same vein as his 1997 book, Briar Rose. But it is also a complaint, a struggle against the oppression of the old stories (and, one senses, the current administration), and a plaintive cry for revision and renewal. Stepmother follows its titular character as she attempts to save her condemned daughter from execution, revealing along the way a world ruled by old magic and unapproachable forces. As Stepmother attempts to change the course of the story (and the Story), the book explores ideas of predetermination and pits the status quo against the possibility of escape. Darker than Gregory Maguire's Wicked--which told Oz from the witch's side of the ruby slippers--and less pointed than the anti-Bush books populating the shelves like election-season wildflowers, the book's 90 pages endeavor to flesh out the vision of E. E. Cummings in "pity this busy monster, manunkind": "listen: there's a hell/of a good universe next door; let's go."
Robert Coover's fictions are always, in fact, obsessed with the world next door: Whether it's fictionalizing Richard Nixon and the Rosenbergs (The Public Burning) or presenting multiple storylines, each layering over the other, as he does in his complex and canonical story "The Babysitter," Coover pushes at the boundaries of the known world, playing fast and loose with convention. In recent years Coover's investigations have led him to the fiction writer's final frontier--the Internet--and he has been a major figure in the hypertext-fiction movement, teaching classes on it at Brown University.
It's curious, then, that this champion of the infinite possibilities of the world next door has returned to the most hierarchical, structured story-space available: the fairy tale. Stepmother even looks like a traditional storybook, cloth-bound and almost perfectly square, featuring tricolor Michael Kupperman illustrations that are part Brothers Grimm, part DC comic. The illustrations account for a good 10th of the book's 90 pages and, with many of them taking up a full page, seem as much a part of the story as the text itself. In an interview Coover once attested his belief that graphic artists are the next stage of fictional development, casting off the arbitrary system of language in favor of pictographs. This leads one to wonder: Do we even need the words at all?
This is a question Coover has struggled with throughout his career. He has already physically exploded the hierarchy of story by shifting it into cyberspace; Stepmother represents his attempt to take down the hierarchy from within. To accomplish this, Coover employs a multivocal narrative that invades the consciousness of each of its main characters: Stepmother; the Reaper, the antagonist chasing Stepmother's daughter; and Old Soldier, the intermediary between the two, who is concerned mainly with drinking, sex, and storytelling. The Reaper represents the status quo, Stepmother represents rebellion against that, and Old Soldier seems to be an avatar of the writer--the one whose office is simply to record the story without passing judgment on it. And here is one of Coover's essential problems: While the multivocal narrative attempts to suppress narrative authority, Coover cannot do away with the author entirely. As much as it seems there is no central narrator, the Old Soldier character reminds the reader that, without an author, this text simply cannot exist.
As the book does not pin itself to one central character, nor does it follow one plot exclusively. Stepmother seems almost resentful of its central plot, and offers up several interludes meant to give a sense of expansiveness to this world. Yet the effect of these often-unconnected sidebars is not to bring the reader a breath of fresh air from the stifling narrative; rather, it distracts and overstimulates the reader, and costs the central plot a sense of immediacy. The book bogs down in itself; I started and stopped it many times, never really able to become involved or invested. There are simply too many voices, too many paths for 90 pages--it's not just the world next door, but the world beyond that, and beyond that, until the reader is unable to discern what, exactly, is being said here. Stepmother's struggle is interesting because it is our struggle as well--how to become empowered against overwhelming forces--but there is no time to really feel it develop, as the book also wants to lodge complaints against gender inequality, indifferent government, greed, hypocrisy, and all the other evils of the human heart.
And thus Stepmother fails to do what it would most like to do: to inspire, anger, and move its readers. This is disheartening, as is any failed experiment, but perhaps Coover can draw strength from his own character's words--"Still, hopeless though it may be, you have to keep laboring against the way things are"--before his next attempt at a coup d'état.