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Robert Coover: John’s Wife
On one level, this novel reads like Peyton Place on speed or, rather, John Updike on speed, which is like saying Peyton Place but with tits and cock. It’s the story of a small town somewhere in the USA, where the denizens, apart from their everyday lives and jobs, have just two interest – sex (of course) and John and his wife. Coover recounts, at an almost breathless pace, their shattered dreams, their sex lives and their antics, all too often revolving around John and his wife. John is the richest man in town. He has taken a moderately successful construction business and made it into a successful business empire but he still lives in the town and even socialises, to a certain degree, with the town’s inhabitants. Most of the novel, indeed, is taken up with these inhabitants and their doings and their relationship to John and his wife.
But Coover is neither John Updike nor Grace Metalious and there are two key differences from these writers. The first is the ending. As a good post-modernist, Coover brings in myth and legend. In this case, he brings in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. In Into the Woods, Sondheim takes various traditional myths, legends and nursery tales and mixes them all together. Coover does more or less the same thing, starting with the ever-growing Alice-in-Wonderland woman (who, of course, goes into the woods). Coover, unlike Sondheim, is purely out to have fun and fun he has, as all hell breaks loose when the giant woman and her husband’s first wife, risen from the dead, trigger mayhem in the town.
But the story is, it would seem, about John’s wife. John, as I have shown, is the richest man in town. His wife is Schrödinger’s cat, neither here nor there, neither real nor unreal. This was a strange thing about John’s wife: a thereness that was not there. She always seemed to be at the very heart of things in town, an endearing and ubiquitous presence, yet few of the town’s citizens, if asked, could have described her, even as she passed before their eyes, or said what made her tick…”. She doesn’t even have a name, known only as John’s wife or, before her marriage, referred to as Audrey’s and Barnaby’s daughter. Unlike the other major characters, through whose eyes we see the action, we only see John’s wife through the eyes of others. She is desirable – many of the men covet her though, in some cases, this because she is John’s wife, rather than for herself. Gordon, the town photographer, is obsessed with her, photographing her on every occasion. But does she really exist? Different people give different descriptions of her. Her wedding to John was a major event but did it happen? Like Schrödinger’s cat, we will never know.
First published 1996 by Simon & Schuster