Robert Coover: Open House
The location of this novel is a penthouse suite one hundred floors up in a Manhattan high-rise. A party is taking place. But what party? We and most (all?) of the participants have no idea. Is it, as the title of the book suggests, an open house with a view to selling the property? Or is it something else? No-one seems to know? There is at least one estate agent there, who tries to sell the property but it appears that she, like quite a few others, is crooked and has no authority to sell the property and is trying a scam. Is the owner of the property there? Again we do not know. More than one person claims to be the owner but is almost certainly not. Equally some of the guests identify other guests as the likely owner but it is likely that they are mistaken.
And the guests, who are they? Well, there is a sign on a door saying Come On In! so people have done but but how come they just happened to be wandering around on the top floor of a high-rise building? One person thinks he might know the owner and the owner might have phoned him to invite him but he is not sure. Another says she saw the light on – the only apartment in the building with the light on – and that attracted her but do normal people go up a hundred floors just because a light is on?
We know that the owners (or someone) had paid for food and drink and staff to serve them and for a three piece band but, if they know who has paid them they are not saying. The band is, in fact, three separate musicians who barely know one another and all have serious mental health, drug and alcohol issues.
For example: This sax man is a loser, too, but he doesn’t look like a junkie. Just a bloated drunk in loud clothes with a battered horn. Doesn’t smell all that good either. .
The food and drink staff are not much better. The barman, for example, says Memory’s mostly fucked, but I do remember all the cocktail recipes. The food is provided by the only named character: Cookie, only name I know him by, a crippled migrant deep-fat fryer, one staggering step from the crazy house.
Those present are the various narrators. They take turns at narrating and while, on the whole, it is clear who is talking, it is not always and there is often no clear indication when we have switched narrators. Indeed, on one occasion, we switch narrators from a woman being raped to her rapist during the act.
What we do know is that there are a lot of decidedly unsavoury characters there. There is a gang of gangsters who try and steal the suite as does the estate agent. Someone steals a a cello, another lifts the phone from someone’s bag (Where am I? No idea. I ask the cellphone I found in a lady’s handbag to locate me, but the app seems not to be working), there is a pickpocket and a man with guns while it seems that several unfortunate people are thrown over the balcony. One is thrown down the laundry chute.
And, of course there is sex. There is a nun. It seems she has been somewhat over-energetic with the penis of one of the guests so much so that is it is sore and green and he has to have it hanging out as it is too painful to put it away. She later describes herself as a stripper for the Lord. This is not the only sexual activity. There is a lot more sex going on, not all voluntary.
There is even a writer (Coover himself?), described as this old man, whom I later learned is an unknown experimental taleteller of some dubious sort who says If this were one of my stories, I’d probably imagine this penthouse as the melancholic setting for the universal metaphor, the experience of nothingness, afloat in or on darkness. But there are other writers: a successful lady novelist, a playwright who wants to write a realistic novel about zombies and a would-be writer who wants to write an autobiographical novel about her life growing up on a farm but spice it up with sex and violence.
Most of those present, according to one of the guests, are stupid drunks mostly, blowing sickly sweet party smoke and sucking up the freebies. However we have a wedding (it turns out that she has not merely obtained a legal separation from her new husband in the hours since then, she has, for the second time today, been widowed and a woman giving birth.
So what is it? I think it is fairly clear that this is Coover’s mocking of contemporary (i.e. Trump’s) USA. We have lots of sex, debauchery, drunkenness, violence, random deaths, brutality and so on. We have lawyers, estate agents, writers and so on, as well as marriage, birth and deaths. Cookie is the only person we know to be non-white and he is staff, just as Trump would like it. There is the gangster who illegally seizes possession of the property and can be said to to be the Trump character. He is brash, bullying, violent and likes assaulting women. In short one hundred floors up in Manhattan, Trump’s USA shows its true colours.
First published in 2023 by OR Books