Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Public Burning (1977)

Robert Coover's weird, contemporaneous "novel" about Richard Nixon and the Rosenbergs trial was an interesting study for me in levels of reading difficulty. I use the scare quotes because, while it is plainly fiction, it is steeped in historical events to such an extent that it knowingly blurs lines we are trained to keep distinct. Although it runs over 500 pages, the language is perfectly clear, even exquisite in a self-consciously American way. I was often amazed at the levels on which Coover operates—drawing on American mythology and vernacular both (along with a profound sense for how the American mind thinks and feels and acts), it hits some real heights of expression, satire, and plain sardonic observation. Perhaps the single most amazing aspect, out of a handful or more of them, is not only how spot-on Coover is in capturing the interior voice of Richard Nixon—it sounds just like him! or I believed it anyway—but how well he succeeds in making Nixon a sympathetic character, without changing a jot of the man's ridiculous and painful self-pitying narcissism (nor his instinctive bent to be a crook). It's plain amazing, I tells ya, and the half of the book narrated by Nixon is the best part. My problem—and one I suspect puts me squarely in the camp of middlebrow, where I belong—is that I knew basically from page one how the story ends, with adjustments for Coover's flights of fancy, such as moving the Rosenberg executions to Times Square, the intrigue Ethel Rosenberg has with Nixon (and where it takes them here), etc., etc. I appreciated the language, the detail, and the humor. But it does get a bit dense. I should say something about the things everybody talks about. It is indeed an odd novel in the way it so directly involved a living, well-known personage, Nixon, in a historical setting that many readers likely remembered well at the time the book was published in 1977, over which extravagant fabulations are lathered on with heavy hand. It is so bitter as to be startling. Because the Rosenberg case and execution happened before I was born, and I'd never heard much or read up on it, much of the book was instructive (though I had to consult Wikipedia now and then to verify or debunk specific plot points). In fact, I kind of got mad all over again for the first time about it. As (peripherally) guilty of espionage as the Rosenbergs may have been, they were hardly major players in getting crucial nuclear information to the Russians, and they certainly did not deserve death sentences. It's a sad chapter in American history. But it's only incidental to what I think Coover is mainly up to here anyway. Obviously this is as much about Watergate as it is about the Rosenberg executions. Even more than that, it's about the American character, which sounds a bit vague and inflated until one sees how well Coover has put together so many baffling and infuriating quirks and conflicts that are all at once so familiar. I must say it goes beyond the pale for me in the last scene with Nixon and Uncle Sam, but I chalk it up to Coover wanting to make sure we got the point. There are actually some very funny things here along the way, even laugh out loud funny. But this book is not for the laughs.

In case it's not at the library.

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