A Student Again: Reflections on Street Cop by Robert Coover, with drawings by Art Spiegelman

Street Cop by Robert Coover and Art Spiegelman

Isolarii, Subscriptions $15 USD


The last time I saw Bob was in Providence about seven, maybe eight years ago. We met at a cafe in Wayland Square that he preferred for their cappuccini and their pastries. I can’t recall what brought us together that day. I had graduated the year before, so there was no undergraduate thesis to justify our meetings and hide the real reason I asked him to join me at coffee shops around college hill, which was simply to hear another string of stories.


Back when I was his student, we would always begin our meetings in the same way: by talking about the story I was working on. But before long he would find himself recounting the lives of all the authors he wrote alongside in the good old days, the intrigues and petty dramas of faculty from the seventies that have shaped university departments and MFA programs, his first encounters with the writers like Beckett, Kafka, and Cervantes—the writers who made him realize that writing was more a calling than a profession—and countless other literary histories from the lens of someone who had watched decades of them unfold.


Through his stories, I glimpsed a broad and detailed swath of the tapestry[i] of American Letters. I couldn’t hear enough of them. And it seemed like he couldn’t help telling them. Bob had a story about everything, one that could spin out of any moment of conversation or observation, and if I spent more than five minutes sitting with him I’d inevitably get another one. And then, as if planned all along, Bob would end a story right back at the beginning: at the pages that brought us together that day, at whatever half-baked idea I was convinced would be key to the manuscript that would one day become the book that would launch my career in fiction.


This is supposed to be a book review for Bob’s latest book. But I’m beginning in this way because I can’t talk about Bob’s work, any of it, without first acknowledging the presence of his teachings in my life. To be a student of Bob Coover’s is to be invited to an incredible vantage point within a living, literary tradition, and to be empowered to claim the title of writer right away, if you want it. The teacher in this model is less of a mentor and more of a co-conspirator,[ii] in what is ultimately the never-ending practice of dismantling the myths and re-creating the very texts that create us. I think for Bob, there is no point at which you really “become” a writer; you either are, or you aren’t. But the catch is, being a writer requires you to commit to the relentlessness of writing: you have to live it, with a kind of priestly rigor and discipline. Write, read, repeat. You do this because the work is important. Even when it feels hopeless.


I don’t know what brought us together in that coffee shop that day all those years ago, but I do remember how our meeting ended. It ended, as our talks often did, with Bob remarking on his age. Having just entered his eighties around then, he grumbled something about not being long for this world. That he was among the last remaining artifacts of a generation of American writers. He sighed, gathered himself, and said: “Well, I had better get on with the rest of my dwindling life.”


I don’t remember what I said in response. Probably something like: Jesus Christ, what am I supposed to do with that Bob. But whatever I said was enough to keep him there for at least five minutes more. Long enough for him to give me some of the most important writing advice I’ve ever received. He said, Remember to keep the false starts. He said that the thing I was working on at the time may not be “the book” (looking back: it definitely, and thankfully, wasn’t), but I should hang on to everything just the same. He told me that one could write entire stories made up of the stutter-stops, the scraps, the aimless corridors.


This is supposed to be a book review for Bob’s latest book. But before I do that, it’s important that I bring up this matter of failed beginnings. I’ve held the idea close all of these years: keep the false starts. It’s been enough to help me hang on to my identification as a writer, even as the past few years—backdropped by the resurgence of American fascism and the various apocalypses taking shape and converging as I type these words—have made me doubt more than a few times whether committing to an idea of myself as a “writer” was in any way worth it.


It’s very easy to fall into a why-bother space these days, and to point to the absence of something like a complete book in my résumé as a good enough reason to give it all up and place what remains of my energy elsewhere. But even though I don’t have a book, I remember that, at the very least, I have plenty of false starts. According to Bob, that’s enough to keep going.


//


I offered to review the book before I knew anything about it, aside from the fact that Bob wrote it. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Knowing Bob, it could’ve been a relatively standard story collection, or some off-the-wall interactive thing (maybe involving a pair of dice and flash drive, or a set of fictional baseball cards),[iii] or a thousand-page behemoth like the recent sequel to his debut Brunists novel that, full disclosure, I still haven’t been able to finish. What arrived instead was a book about the size of the palm of my hand, wrapped in a transparent book jacket that slightly obscured a drawing by Art Spiegelman on the cover. Street Cop (Isolarii, 2021) looked more like some kind of Bazooka Bubblegum novelty, and the comic on the cover art—the pale figure of the eponymous cop holding a laser gun—could’ve been some kind of alternate timeline bizarro Bazooka Joe.


The story beneath the bubblegum wrapper seemed to last about as long as a stick of gum, too. These days, it’s hard for me to sit and read anything cover to cover, so I was grateful that this tiny novelette (weighing in at 104 pages of 3”x 4 ½” sheets of paper, punctuated by Spiegelman’s illustrations[iv]) could break that trend for me. With only so much real estate to work with, Street Cop minces no words. Set in a distant future that doesn’t feel as comfortably distant as one might like—a future that is entirely automated, grotesque, and fascist—we quickly find out that the Street Cop is hardly a cop at all, and the world around him is changing rapidly to say the very least:


Apartment blocks moved into parks, including the ones he once slept in, leaving behind dangerous wastelands. Neighborhoods switched places. Printing whole streets in recyclable thermoplastics had become a commonplace, turning the city into a baffling maze. A safety measure against terrorism, city management said. Cops could download the confidential map-of-the-day, but he never learned how. [...] Effects no longer followed necessarily upon causes, everything was tentative and illusory. People got shot and died like they always did, but not always in that order. Some things happened twice, events replaying themselves, sometimes several times over, and at different speeds. Clues had become part of a remote database, freed from human intervention and the need to resolve anything whatsoever, adding to that database being more important than using it. He hated it even more than before becoming a cop, but he told himself it beat getting sent to the big house and stopped thinking about it. (pp. 9-13)

Our “hero” is an analog relic trying to navigate a dizzying, increasingly abstract and digitized world. He is constantly at least two steps behind everyone else and increasingly (understandably) suspicious of his directives.


Had this little book come out earlier in Bob’s career, I wonder what kind of a splash it might’ve made. But reading it now, in 2021, as neoliberalism operates more transparently than perhaps ever before—the sleight of hand behind the grand shell game of American “progress” hardly necessary to keep up anymore—it is difficult to feel these words as having any kind of bite[v] by dint of surprise or newness. Had this been a Coover story from the 70s or 80s, maybe the pyrotechnics would have been a bit more dazzling, the vision more alarming. But I look at the passage above and I don’t see anything unfamiliar: I see a proximal metaphor for mass incarceration, gentrification, the rise of the police state, the ongoing “war on terror” colliding with the aftermath of its first iteration, and the normalized time warp of our neoliberal living. In the classic Coover style, Street Cop tries to hold up a funhouse mirror to American life; but maybe the subject is already too grotesque and depraved for another distortion to really resonate. Then again, this lack of room for “surprise” might be one of the primary underlying tensions of the text: when all your moves are anticipated, programmed, and relentlessly normal, where is there room for anything that feels like living?[vi]


As in so many Coover stories, storytelling itself functions as the vital escape hatch to resist this problem in Street Cop. Against the relentless, massive, grinding gears of the fascist society of the Street Cop’s world, our hero has little autonomy. But all it takes is a memory, or a hunch, or just an accident for a new piece of the story to come to life, allowing him to slip through the crevices of those grinding gears and live to see another day. These are the moments when Street Cop is at its best—moments of “lightness,” as Calvino would say (another in Bob’s literary lineage). I’m reminded in particular of one of the earliest examples of this, when the Street Cop is recounting how he became a cop in the first place. In fact, he started out as a criminal. As he was being chased by the cops, he realized he was done for, so he ducked into a police station to turn himself in. The sergeant thought he was there to interview for a job:


He told him his sad story, hands raised abjectly, but the sergeant wasn’t interested. He was hiring a new street cop and all he wanted was a job interview. The interview consisted of being asked to describe the first time he got laid. He made up a tale about a young druggie in the park where he dealt, who paid her bagmen that way, sometimes several in tandem. [...] The sergeant laughed and said he thought the drugs angle gave it authenticity. He was invited to join the force. Walked out in a uniform, joined the hunters chasing a phantom. (pp. 6-7)


Moments like these, Bob reminds you what he can do. What a story can do. That even in this neoliberal hellscape where everything seems pre-programmed, a story’s capacity for the unexpected can jolt the system. In those moments, I can almost see Bob smiling a kind of I’ve-still-got-it smile.


//


If I must “review” this book in the traditional good/bad sense, I guess I could finally begin by saying that the book is by no means perfect. It isn’t Coover’s best writing by a longshot.[vii] But importantly, I don’t think it wants or needs to be. At least for me, the book landed as something more ephemeral[viii]: it’s not a story that grips or bites. It’s a story that just wants to stick with you a bit.[ix] As a reminder, maybe. And, for me anyway, a note about the task of the writer. Reading Street Cop brought back the feeling of being his student again.


Back then, Bob could do no wrong in my eyes. He was the most innovative writer I’d ever read, and all I wanted was to do what he did. I was blown away that he wanted to work with me in the first place, and I still am. But I’ve grown to appreciate, too, valuable critiques of his works for their reliance on reinscribing gendered violence—perhaps most famously evident in the “Babysitter” story from Pricksongs & Descants—to get their point across about the operation of the violence itself. A Robert Coover story will always place the halls of power squarely in its crosshairs, but it won’t always worry about collateral damage. Street Cop is no different and is not without its own deployment of sexist tropes in the course of its telling. The function of women in the story, though they may arrive in different shapes and forms, is reserved mostly for sex and what that might metaphorize. Women arrive, for instance, as the disembodied directives from the beautiful and omniscient computer program Electra (a play on Alexa, no doubt), or as the grotesquely bodied zombie mass of flesh who saves our hero from death (and is also called Electra), and who, despite her hideousness, leaves the Street Cop feeling vaguely aroused. The only woman who exists outside of this role is the memory of the Street Cop’s grandmother. Ever since Pricksongs, Coover’s stories have been bold and unabashed in their depictions of eros, violence, gender dynamics, and plain-old fucking: they are well-known for their use of familiar, sexist tropes (the sex object, the femme fatale, the evil stepmother, the schoolteacher, the grandmother, etc.), followed by their surprising inversion and artful manipulation. But there are limitations to this game that deserve mention. This would come as no surprise to Bob, though.[x] No matter how Coover bends and breaks the rules, no matter how inventive he gets in the telling, the ultimate gesture of his metafictive maneuver is to point directly to the fact that the tale, itself, is complicit in the violence it’s hoping to undo.


But for any of the moments that I found myself disengaging from Street Cop, I was given just as many moments that reminded me of his teaching.[xi] I like to believe that this book was one of Bob’s own false-starts: something from a long time ago that he kept in a drawer somewhere, brushed off just recently, threw up against the cartoonish fascism of Trump’s America and closed off precisely when it had done its job: not when it had declared any kind of a triumph, but when it had successfully instructed, once again, how to get some mileage out of a good story when your back is against the wall.


I don’t know how Bob is faring these days. But I know that Street Cop won’t be his last text. I’m sure he has at least three manuscripts in different stages of completion at this very moment. I’m glad that this one arrived when it did. And if anything, Street Cop reads as a testament to the fact that Bob may be old, but he is by no means done. This, after all, is the bargain: for the writer as a teacher, the work doesn’t finish. So long as there is a student to pick it back up again.


[i] “Tapestry” feels like a particularly appropriate metaphor here: there is always something of a threaded quality to the way Bob’s stories wind around and join themselves. And this maybe has something to do with the incredible tapestries of Pilar Coover, a brilliant artist and Bob’s wife of over sixty years, whose marvelous needlepoint work is featured on the cover of Bob’s first short story collection, Pricksongs & Descants (Grove Press, 1969). For every metaphor of texture, threading, color, and figure that one could make about a Coover story or novel, one could find a harmonious work of Pilar’s that actualizes it, and that pays just as close attention to the narrative operation of folklore and myth that a typical Coover story does. [ii] I am by no means the first of Bob’s students to make this observation about Bob’s approach to his role as a teacher, whether in the classroom/workshop or outside. This short essay by JR Foley about the 1967 student demonstration against Dow Chemical at the University of Iowa, and the making of Bob’s subsequent documentary film about the event, tells you everything you need to know about Bob as a teacher. [iii] Coover’s story collection A Child Again (McSweeney’s, 2005) features a deck of shuffle-able story cards, playing on the Alice in Wonderland story about the Knave of Hearts who Stole the Tarts. Delightfully, you can move the cards around any way you like and it tells a cohesive story. This isn't just schtick for Bob: he was one of the earliest believers in hypertext fiction, convinced that the book as we know it would soon be, at least in a certain sense, obsolete. He also commandeered the Brown University “Cave,” an immersive virtual reality space originally intended for more STEM-my pursuits, to create a class called Cave Writing, which placed writers alongside coders for the purpose of creating three-dimensional, immersive prose and poetry. Bob has always been interested in pushing the envelope like this. When I was younger, I misunderstood that envelope-pushing to be a worthwhile thing to do for nothing more than its own sake. But I now understand that Bob was interested in metafictional play as a tactic for more important work than mere bombastic fun (although the fun matters too). [iv] I wish I had more to say about the equally legendary Art Spiegelman’s contributions to Street Cop, aside from the fact that they seem to be a perfect pairing for the cartoonish frenzy that Coover stages here, underscoring the kind of Fritz the Cat erotic energy that charges the narrative. But given my personal connection to Coover’s fiction and teachings, I’ll be focusing on text rather than image. [v] It’s possible that Bob might be playing with the idea of the story’s lack of “teeth”: oddly, the assignment that launches the plot of Street Cop is to find a body that had been "badly chewed up.” He tries digging around for more information in the old-fashioned style, following hunches and asking around in the seedy old part of town. He ends up getting a tip from an old girlfriend at a nudist bar who says that she'd seen the body, only it didn't look chewed up so much as "gummed." Maybe that’s Bob laughing, in his meta-fictive fashion, saying: if a story like this can’t have much bite when stacked up against this fucked up world, it can at least give it a good gumming. [vi] There is maybe a too-easy allegorical reading here, too: the story of a holdover novelist from the old days, struggling against the sense of his own obsolescence. As if the book wants to ask, What does Robert Coover, now pushing 90, have to offer us in 2021? Is he washed up? Should he not, instead, pack it in, let the younger guns step in and do the telling? I resist that woe-is-me reading for a few reasons. Mainly because I believe, despite his coffee-shop grumblings those years ago about the rest of his “dwindling life,” that this is a misapprehension of Bob’s real hang-up with aging. As I was reading this, I was reminded especially of his collection A Child Again, and its meditations on time, age and death through warped return to classic childhood stories and fairy tales. Both there and in Street Cop, there is a longing for the “good old days,” the ache of old age, and the shadow of death looming heavily. But in neither text is there ever any sense of Coover doubting his own ability to write as he always must: by unmaking and complicating the dominant narratives of his current moment in time, by reminding us that the good old days were never really as good as they seemed, and that the stories themselves are what matter in the end. That they make possible the going-on when, it seems, at last, you can’t—“as someone more poetical has said” (3), the Street Cop might add. [vii] That said: Street Cop does offer us some incredibly satisfying, “Cooveresque” scenes, including the moment when our hero finally betrays his masters and destroys a unit of robot police officers with his nightstick—first by knocking their heads off and then, when that doesn’t slow them down, targeting their asses to see if that’s where their robot brains are located. If that alone doesn’t get you to buy this book I don’t know what will. [viii] It is fitting that this ephemeral little book should find a home with Isolarii Press. A subscription-based model delivering these little “island books” every two months, Isolarii brings together “disparate writers, artists, filmmakers, and architects to help us navigate the world anew.” I will be eager to see how, over time, Street Cop speaks to the other islands in this growing archipelago. [ix] This idea of “sticking” might not be coincidental, if “bite” is something not allowed by the world of Street Cop. It would be worth pointing out that the story closes with an image of residue, sticking to the body: in fact, the last of Spiegelman’s illustrations depicts our hero, pulling off what remains of zombie-Electra’s flesh, like a wad of chewing gum, from his cheek. [x] After all, this is precisely what Bob has been doing across his five-decade career. He traffics in types and figures, makes them come alive and behave and misbehave for the purpose of revealing their permanence in the American imagination. Were I more equipped to make a claim like this, I might call him one of our greatest living folklorists (in more of a practitioner’s sense, rather than an archivist’s). During my sophomore year of college, I lucked into Bob’s “Exemplary Ancient Fictions” class. I remember for our final assignment, he had us scouring through this massive taxonomy of folklore tropes, collected from around the world and indexed to the most granular detail you could imagine. The game was to dig deep into that encyclopedic text, select a few tropes, and turn it into a story. The story I ended up writing was probably somewhat decent, and somewhat problematic. But parts of it have stayed with me: unsurprisingly, they were the sparks that emerged from in between the tropes and ignited something surprising. [xi] I’ve saved all of the emails he sent to our Exemplary Ancient Fictions class (partly because I never delete anything, partly because I always wanted to be sure to have these touchstones of his lessons close at hand). I looked at them again before writing this, and I was particularly struck by the email he sent us about our midterm, which seems to have been an in-class essay about the Metamorphoses. Bob didn’t just give us personal feedback on our essays; in that email, he engaged with all of our essays at once, weaving together quotations from our responses to place our critical work in conversation with one another. The email was a chorus of classmates, each one supporting, contradicting, and transforming the points of another, with Ovid in the mix as well alongside us. Here again is Bob’s pedagogy. I was an eager sophomore with scant real writing experience, but it didn’t matter. There were writers who were infinitely better than me in that class, one of whom won a prestigious award not too long ago for something she was probably working on at that time. But it didn’t matter. We were all writers. Co-conspirators, alongside Ovid himself, and Bob. All of us joined by the common work of interrogating the mythic structures that confine our realities, and the stories that motivate us in spite of them.

Héctor Ramírez is a pocho writer and educator from Covina, California, currently living in Savannah, Georgia with his wife Erin. Héctor received his B.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University in 2012 and his MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2018. His work has appeared in GASHER, Apogee, LIT, Muzzle Magazine, American Book Review, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and elsewhere.