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John's Wife: A Novel
Published in Hardcover by Simon & Schuster (1999)
Author: Robert Coover
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James Joyce Meets Harold Robbins
Coover's lengthy tome presents the intertwined tales of the lives of bizarre folks in a small town. The pseudo-stream-of-consciousness styling necessitates constant repetition of basic facts about the characters, so that the reader doesn't forget who's who. Despite my average rating, I stuck with it to the end, who knows, maybe you will too.

A metronomic meditation on how we avoid our Selves
I had never heard of Coover before seeing the book in the discount section of a bookstore. The first paragraph of the book was on the cover, and it was so well written, so interesting, that I purchased it on the spot.

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.

A dense and difficult treat
Is that a contradiction? Perhaps. The mountains of expository prose without dialougue breaks or chapter divisions make this a forbidding work, and yet Coover's prose is so incandescent, so witty with its turns of phrase, puns, and moments of sublime insight that I couldn't put it down. The first half of the book is a satire on small town life, the second half is both surreal and sad, but engaging throughout. I especially liked the contrast between John and John's Wife, between the man of action (destructive action) and his evanescent spouse, as if Coover were contrasting the world and the spirit in this unlikely paring. A excellent book, and I plan to read more by this author

First person; conversations on writers & writing with Glenway Wescott, John Dos Passos, Robert Penn Warren, John Updike, John Barth, Robert Coover
Published in Unknown Binding by Union College Press; [distributed by Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, N.Y.] ()
Author: Frank Gado
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