Playing at Life: Robert Coover and His Fiction

by R. Grant Nutter and Robert Johnston

R. Grant Nutter is a first-year student at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, Indiana. Robert K. Johnston, associate professor of religion at Western Kentucky University, in the author of Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice (John Knox).

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 16, 1979, p. 549. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Coover suggests that we live in an essentially random universe and that whatever order may be derived says, more about the creative and imaginative faculties of men and women than about the world itself. In his latest book, Coover debunks America’s patriotic fervor and its quasi-religious sense of destiny.

The Public Burning, Robert Coover’s most recent book (Viking, 1977), has proved to be one of the most controversial novels of the decade. Like his earlier fiction, the book mounts a frontal attack on the ways people order their existence in the hope of giving it meaning. In his award-winning novel The Origin of the Brunists (Ballantine, 1966), Coover satirized religious institutions. In The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (Signet, 1968), he mercilessly caricatured Christian theology. In his latest volume Coover debunks America’s patriotic fervor and its quasi-religious sense of destiny.

No Larger Patterns

To accomplish this exposé, the novelist uses, in highly fictionalized form, the very real executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted on charges of espionage in the early 1950s. The story is related by Richard Nixon himself -- a figure who, in Coover’s portrayal, has totally accepted the American Myth and sought unflinchingly to become its personification as president, representative of the American Way of Life and symbol of the national psyche.

Though Coover painstakingly researched his subjects, he has compounded the impact of his borrowings from history with fantastic excursions: the executions at Sing Sing Prison, for example, are transposed to Times Square; Richard Nixon is fancifully shown trying to win favor with Uncle Sam by extracting a last-minute confession from Ethel Rosenberg, only to make love to her instead; Nixon’s fictionalized reward is his sodomization by Uncle Sam.

The book is intended to outrage, and it does. Newsweek’s reviewer called it “genuinely shocking: grossly funny, relentless in its determination to go too far.” It is particularly the lack of distinction between political history and fantasy that has made some readers uneasy. Time magazine (Coover terms that institution the “National Poet Laureate”) wrote: “His portrait [of Nixon] . . . is remarkably comprehensive and even moving. If only the character were not named Nixon, all would be well.” Norman Podhoretz, commenting in Saturday Review, issued a scathing analysis, calling the book a “cowardly lie.”

Certainly Coover’s particular blend of fact and fiction has caused political conservatives to recoil in distaste from the novelist’s authorial license. However, liberals as well as conservatives will miss the full force of Coover’s book if they see it merely as heavy-handed political satire. For in The Public Burning, Robert Coover is giving serious voice to his view of humankind. Denying human history any overarching sense of meaning, he has his Richard Nixon tell Ethel Rosenberg:

We’ve both been victims of the same lie, Ethel! There is no purpose, there are no causes, all that’s just stuff we make up to hold the goddamn world together  -- all we’ve really got is what we have right here and now: being alive! [p. 436].

For Coover, there are no larger patterns to life, no underlying meanings to be extracted. The American Myth is a sham which people adopt in their need to give life meaning. Patriotic zeal arises from our natural desire for order, from our longing to categorize what is good and bad, right and wrong. But though patriotism is one of several tools humanity utilizes to make sense of its world (religion and theology are others), it has, in Coover’s view, no existence apart from creative human imagination.

For Coover believes that we live in an essentially random universe and that whatever order may be derived says more about the creative and imaginative faculties of men and women than about the world itself. Point a man toward the heavens and the serendipitous array of stars and he will see a Big Dipper, a bear, a ram and a pair of fish. Show him some accidental inkblots, and he will conjure up all manner of images. Humanity is compulsively driven toward creating pattern and meaning, the novelist suggests, because it fears more than anything else the alternative.

Keeping Confusion at Bay

The alternative to this fictitious ordering of life is made concrete in The Public Burning through the character of the Phantom, that “mysterious fearsome force,” to quote Uncle Sam, “which from time immemorious has menaced the peace and security of mankind and buggered the hopes of the holy” (p.335).

At a superficial level, the Phantom is the embodiment of everything (e.g., communism, atheism) that disturbs one’s ordered world by introducing a “different” interpretive principle. At a deeper, existential level, however, it is the suppressed recognition that chaos and entropy -- which mock all ordered systems -- are the true foundations of the world. Given the Phantom’s reality, people will go to any length to defend their creations (in the case of The Public Burning, their patriotic zeal, given focus in the character of Uncle Sam).

Despite his belief that we live in an ultimately random universe, Coover paradoxically asserts that what one does to order one’s world is nonetheless important. It is not the “truthfulness” of a particular world view that interests him, but the ability of people through their imaginative powers to create meaning out of the chaos they find. Thus he is fascinated by the conflicting visions of Nixon and the Rosenbergs. Humanity needs orderliness, Coover is saying, and all the accouterments (i.e., myth, ritual, history, legend, language) that go into its making. Through our creative and imaginative powers, we are able to fulfill this need, making rules about how we will perceive the world and interpret our experience, thereby keeping the forces of confusion at bay. In this achievement is humankind’s glory.

The human being is, in Coover’s eyes, a sort of player, and life is but a game. People respond differently to such sport, but all participate in it. Some become so wrapped up in their imaginative creations that they are no longer able to experience the world as it is. Within Coover’s fiction, Ethel Rosenberg is such an individual. Others, like Coover’s Nixon, come to a partial recognition of themselves as the game-players they are and understand the kind of artifice they are engaged in. Such self-aware participants are Coover’s ideal. It is they who can creatively and joyfully order their world without becoming ensnared by their imposed system.

Rather than focusing attention on some pattern of meaning out there (e.g., the American Myth or, in Coover’s other novels, Christian theology and organized religion), the skillful player will center on the ability to create order (any order) out of chaos. For Coover, the particular game one plays is less important than the fact that one is playing. To recognize one’s involvement allows for the shaping of a more fulfilled life, as well as for an occasional burst of laughter. And that, says Coover, is the most mature human response possible in a random universe.

Playing at Religion

The theme of humans as game-players underlies Coover’s two other major fictional works as well. In both The Origin of the Brunists and The Universal Baseball Association, the novelist similarly satirizes the human propensity for creating meaning. The former work focuses on religious rather than political institutions; the latter is a highly inventive recasting of Christian theology. Both seek to expose the lack of meaning at the center of the cosmos, even while they explore ways by which men and women can continue to live. The major difference in the books, perhaps, is the perspectives on game-playing which their central characters adopt.

In The Origin of the Brunists, Justin “Tiger” Miller, a newspaperman who joins a doomsday cult in order to research a sensational story, knows that the new religious sect is without real substance. He realizes that the songs, rituals and legends that give the adherents’ world a sense of purpose are bogus. Although the faithful are fooled by such patterns, Miller is not. He remains as cynical in his view of these pious folk as he does of the Reverend Edwards and his “common sense,” enculturated, modern form of Christianity. Whether one conjures up phantoms and bogeymen and things that go bump in the night (as the Brunists do), or commits oneself to the empty forms of an institutionalized religion informed by a positivistic culture (as the Reverend Edwards does), Miller understands that to become so involved in the game of religion that one no longer recognizes the world for “the mad scatter it [is]” (p. 160) is to be lost. The insistence that the end of the world is imminent and the belief that a disembodied Christianity is vital are equally misguided notions. In both cases the “game” has be. come so important that the players forego their one real possession -- an awareness of the dynamic present.

Miller counters such foolhardiness by playing at religion without the risk of commitment.

Games are what kept Miller going. Games, and the pacifying of mind and organs. Miller perceived existence as a loose concatenation of separate and ultimately inconsequential instants, each colored by the actions that preceded it, but each possessed of a small wanton freedom of its own. Life, then, was a series of adjustments to these actions and, if one kept his sense of humor and produced as many of these actions himself as possible, adjustment was easier [p. 161].

As the novel ends, Miller, recovering from a nearly fatal, orgiastic encounter with the Brunists, is ministered to by a nurse named Happy Bottom -- a fellow skeptic and sometime bedmate. Realizing his affection for her, Miller asks Happy Bottom why she has continued to remain open and loving to him:

He expected her to make some crack, but instead she only smiled and said, “I don’t know. I guess because I like tile way you laugh.” Yes, there was that. Not the void within and ahead, but the immediate living space between two [p. 506].

Laughing in the presence of the immediate spaces life provides -- such is Coover’s vision of the human.

Playing at Theology

In The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh (who is Yahweh -- JHWH -- recast) fails to perceive life’s comic randomness. Henry, a middle-aged accountant, escapes his humdrum work life by setting up an imaginary baseball league in his kitchen. The driving force behind his league is the random roll of three dice which, together with some charts, approximates the actual occurrences of a baseball game. Henry becomes unable to distance himself from his imagined sports world and loses his job (and perhaps his mind). There are several key moments in his downfall. The roll of the dice having produced a perfect game, he is threatened by the stasis of perfection. Moreover, when the throw of the dice dictates that his perfect-game pitcher (Damon Rutherford) be killed by a “bean ball,” Henry loses what equilibrium he has. Intervening in the game’s randomness, he seeks to re-establish some balance by rigging the dice so that they kill the responsible pitcher (Jock Casey). But such meddling with the mindless and unpredictable dice fails to bring peace. Although Jock Casey has become a Christlike sacrificial lamb, upon which all the evil of J. Henry Waugh’s (Yahweh’s) creation is deposited, and although Henry subsequently fashions a written account of the first 56 seasons of the Universal Baseball Association (UBA) by one of the imagined ballplayers, order remains absent.

Henry disappears in the final chapter of Coover’s narrative as later generations of UBA ballplayers theologize on the origins of the league and its creator. Readers overhear the players commenting: “I don’t know if there’s really a record-keeper up there or not, Paunch. But even if there weren’t, I think we’d have to play the game as though there were”; and “I’m afraid, Gringo, I must agree, with our distinguished folklorist and foremost witness to the ontological revelations of the patterns of history . . . and [I] have come to the conclusion that God exists and he is a nut” (pp. 167.68).

J. Henry Waugh is indeed a “nut,” for he loses himself in his own ordered universe, a baseball association complete with statistics, history and probabilities. Even Henry’s sex life can be stimulated only when he imagines himself to be his star pitcher, Damon Rutherford. The imaginary ball games become all-important, for they alone provide the data whereby pattern and order can be observed. There is a fine line, says Coover, that humankind must walk in moving through that uncharted surd we call history. Our imagination gives life a necessary “plot,” an order in an otherwise all-too-often nightmarish situation. But if we forget, as Henry does, that such “plots” are just that -- story lines we impose on our random present -- our play, our “fiction,” proves inhibiting if not destructive. Our imaginative efforts blind us to the dynamic present and impede our laughter.

For Coover, our fictions -- whether they be expressed in theologizing, churchgoing or patriotism -- can be either enervating or energizing. If we participate in such “games” not to discover some ultimate meaning, but because we love to play, we will be provided with laughter and joy. If we invest our play-worlds with the need for truth and/or ultimacy, we risk chaos (the Brunists), madness (J. Henry Waugh) and death (the Rosenbergs).

At the novel’s close we hear the self-searching doubts of one of the players of the Universal Baseball Association, catcher Paul Trench (are we to think of Paul Tillich?). He is not sure why he continues to play until his pitcher says: “Hey, wait, buddy! You love this game, don’t you?” And that is enough. Paul Trench has no adequate theology -- he doesn’t know whether he is a Caseyite or a Damonite -- but that is irrelevant.

. . . it doesn’t even matter that he’s going to die, all that counts is that he is here and here’s The Man and here’s the boys and there’s the crowd, the sun, the noise.

“It’s not a trial,” says Damon. . . . “It’s not even a lesson. It’s just what it is.” Damon holds the baseball up between them. It is hard and white and alive in the sun.

He laughs. It’s beautiful, that ball. He punches Damon lightly in the ribs with his mitt. “Hang loose,” he says, and pulling down his mask, trots back behind home plate [p. 174].

To Be a Game-Player

According to Coover, we play the game of life because we love it, and that is enough. We create myths and legends, we pledge allegiance to church and state, because of our propensity for order and meaning. That such arrangements are of our own invention matters not, for the laughter generated by such pleasures remains. Humans are “game-players” who by means of their imagination make rules, set boundaries, and occasionally give a pep talk or two.

To be a self-conscious game-player, as Coover portrays that role, is to recognize what Albert Camus has called the “absurd” -- the disrelation between an individual who demands meaning, justice and unity in the world, and a universe that responds to human demands with mute silence. Coover should not be grouped with existentialists like Camus, however, for whereas Camus seeks to challenge the absurd through action and thereby affirm self in the face of the tragic human condition, Coover is more inclined just to accept life’s condition, to play the game for what it is.

If Coover is to be categorized philosophically (and this is perhaps appropriate given his former employment as a professor of philosophy), he would better fit in the positivistic tradition that views as nonsensical whatever is incapable of verification. Coover complicates even this assessment, however, by finding religious and patriotic assertions that lack an empirical “truth-content” to be of significance nonetheless. Such language objectifies our gossamer existence; religion and politics, though the products of our imagination, are paradoxically what make our experiences “real.”

Viewed theologically, Coover’s comic vision is perplexing, however engagingly presented. For if life is but “vanity,” as the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests, can one truly find pleasure in it by imposing upon it a meaning through an act of imagination and will? Moreover, can such an effort allow one truly to rest in the dynamic present, experiencing most fully the joys life has to offer? J. Henry Waugh found that effort difficult, as did “Richard Nixon.” It is significant that even Coover’s fictional exemplars, “Tiger” Miller and Paul Trench, come to their full realization of life’s “joys” only as their stories end. Coover does not provide insights into how a protracted life of game-playing might prove workable.

For the writer of Ecclesiastes, the stark reality of death, the amorality of life and the uncertainty of circumstance threaten existence. In this regard, Coover is like this Old Testament wisdom writer. Moreover, there are similarities in the common call they sound for life to be accepted as it presents itself. But whereas Coover believes that we can enjoy the opportunities of our dynamic present if we but realize the ultimate “vanity” of all of life, the writer of Ecclesiastes finds the human being able to be at peace only with the realization that life is a gift given by God. Although eternity remains unknowable and ultimate meaning impossible, one can enjoy oneself in eating and drinking and toiling  -- for life is God’s gift (cf. Eccles. 3:1-14).

Coover’s vision of the human being as game-player seems finally ephemeral and without adequate foundation. But his writing is nonetheless important. For he is one of a group of young American novelists who, writing from a post-Christian stance, challenge the church to rethink its faith. Coover’s theological importance resides in the kinds of questions his fiction raises -- questions that deal with the nature of humanity, examine our secular and religious institutions, and spotlight the omnipresence of myth and ritual in our lives. The whole thrust of his work appears to revolve around the question: Is there order in the universe beyond my experience, and if not, what is it that gives me the impression of orderliness? In working his way toward a resolution of this problem, he whittles away at the stereotyped ways in which we all too often experience the world, superficially identifying ourselves with secular and religious institutions, using memories, legends and songs to order our experiences.

In one of his shorter works, Coover writes:

The novelist uses familiar mythic or historical forms to combat the content of those forms and to conduct the reader (lector amantisimo!) to the real, away from mystification to clarification, away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelation [Pricksongs and Descants (New American Library, 1970), p. 791.

Such is Robert Coover’s agenda. Though he does not succeed entirely, his questions challenge readers to clarify their own commitments, to seek a maturity in their own understanding of the human, and to explicate that revelation which is available to humankind.