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While I am glad to have met this obviously skilled writer, the book was tough to get through because it maintained one clever, ironic tone and never waivered (although it was well written). It was almost hypnotic in its metronomic leaping from character to character, and the omnipotent viewpoint of the narrator was claustrophobic and omnipresent. I wanted to grab the narrator and demand that he (yes, he) release his monopolistic grip on defining the reality of this town, and let the people in it define themselves.
I kept waiting for the characters to have even the slightest glimmer of self-awareness, and just when they appeared to reach this point, the author had them chicken out or choose the easy path and sink back into the self-deluded oblivion of their small town lives and loves.
And, in the end, that is what this book is all about--how we bury ourselves in self-delusions of grandeur, greed, sex, food, money, lust, work, religion, and art in order to obscure our own cowardice from ourselves. Coover leaves us with an incredibly bleak (if comedic) view of suburban life, but let's face it, like all dark comedies, it is the truth that makes it have relevance.
The title character, John's Wife, is the ultimate focal point of all of the character's neurotic longings. Not surprisingly, she is a total figment of their corporate imagination, so much so that she has no independent existence at all, not even a name.
As the characters become engulfed by their neurotic behavior and longings, they lose their focus on John's Wife and she starts to disappear and reappear in startling ways. At the climax of the novel, with the very fabric of reality tearing apart (all sorts of fantastic things occur with bewildering normalcy), John's Wife has disappeared altogether, except for a few mercy visits to try to heal the wounds like the Virgin Mary miraculously appearing. Life only becomes stabilized (if remaining incredibly vacuous) in the morning light when this central fantasy (John's Wife) reappears and is restored to centrality.
One can read each of the neurotic characters as one aspect of one personality--say, the author, who invites this transference through his "Artist as Editor" character. In a sense, we have internalized all sorts of neurotic habits in order to mask the larger unpleasant truth--that we are solely responsible for our own happiness and self-development, and that facing into our Selves is beyond our capacity. And we then focus our efforts on one unreal, externalized, unattainable goal--John's Wife--so as to fool ourselves into thinking that we are making progress.
Have I read too much into what other reviewers have seen merely as a dark comment on suburbanism? Possibly, but the author invites this speculation, which raises this book above the level of just a good read to, dare I say it, art.
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