Friday, June 16, 2006

Book: "Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?"

Many people like to write œuotes from books they particularly liked into a notebook. First time I was inclined to start one such notebook and write down a couple of articles was when reading Robert Coover's wonderful novel „Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?“, it really contained a few memorable paragraphs and quite a bit of emotion that i wouldn't've expected from such cynic.
Coover belongs to the school of American postmodern experimental writers, shoulder to shoulder with Donald Barthelmy, John Barth, Guy Davenport and others. These writers made radical expiments with language, structure, and other traditional elements of writing during seventies and eighties. While Barthelmy esseyed about trash as a fodder for new, modern literature, Davenport was making up short ridiculous stories featuring Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and Barth was intersecting story tissue with editorial comments of the same story, grammar and structuralules and, at times, explaining in details why the story was badly concieved inside the same story.
Coover might've been the most radical of them; my first contact with him was an excellent story "Babysitter" in which he allowed a mundane plot to branch into all directions, intersecting various story arcs, various branchs, and reality with character's fantasies and plots of movies going on tv; as the story goes on, chaos increases, storylines are harder to differ from each others, planes of reality promiscuously mix until it all comes down to a single spot, a sort of narrative black hole where nothing of it matters anymore and even the most eager reader doesn't care what just happened there. The story was one of the most intense reading experiences i've had.
„Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?“ was, on the other hand, a novellette i found at the dustiest shelf of a local library and let me tell you, a good library in your neighbourhood is worth gold. This novel is one from later period of Coover's works, after he's already been praised for his well-known „Public burning“, and it's generally considered less important work, but I find in it so much of reality achieved, typically postmodernistic, by leaping from it.
What happened with Gloomy Gus is that he died in political protest, a day before the novel begins. His death is mentioned on first pages, before it turns around for a retrospective look at Gus's life. But he wasn't really supposed to die, maybe he wasn't supposed to be there either; he was dragged into it, he wasn't a protester. You could say that he wasn't really a human to begin with, that he was just dragged into a game of pretending to be one, or from the other perspective that he was a human whom following an iron-strong will made less and less a human, actually less and less capable to react to outside world humanly. Outside world turns into a set of triggers that start preprogrammed reactions – reactions which should lead to succes in given situations.
Yeah, Gloomy Gus might've been a machine, Coover's prototype of a man with all qualities of a robot, an allegory of a man led by his belief in an iron will. Which doesn't mean he has it bad, he is scarily succesful in fields he pursues and since success is an important factor in being human, so is he in pretending to be human actuall. Traditional interpreting of the novel is that it's an alegory about Nixon, in which Gus's dedication to achieving success in football and sex is parallel to the one Nixon had for political career. Mind you, interpretation that doesn't mean much to a person who didn't grom admist American cultural vortex, thus I choose to interpret it as different, more general metaphore or, if that fails, as an interesting character portrait, a wonderful exercise. What makes it all interesting is that he is paradoxal, conflicting creature, a system that works against all odds.
Take his high school days, for instance; he is succesful student in everything but in football and women, two not incidentally chosen fields. So he starts working on those two fields so hard that he starts failing in everything else. His approach is automatic, methodic. He learns entire procedures of picking up women, starting with pickup lines and ending with sex. He is incapable of stepping out of any of those procedures once he starts them, and there's even an amusingly unpleasant scene in which he and a shy local woman are caught during sex, at which he doesn't notice anything around him until he's finished. On earlier occasion when he mixes another football player for a date and is unable to stop a well-practiced routine, it all ends up with being beaten to a pulp by policemen.
Same for footbal. That's why he's not good after a while, he's a predictable player, once oponents learn all his procedures. he looks for new fiel and gets similarly involved into acting, then into leftist politics of America's 30ies. That's where he dies in fights on a street, leaving narrator to wonder over this man, this walking alegory, whether this new age man is the future, or is he doomed to die because he always repeats the same mistakes.
Narrator is, incidentally, a syndical activist, social person and at tha spare time, as artist. Using found metal junk like screws, bolts, paperclips, he wields sculptures of sportsmen in movement; football players, most of all. One of those few memorable paragraphs comes from his explanation of the art that he finds in sport, the essence of footbal that is freedom of movement and not the possesion of the Ball, and that the freedom is what he's trying to capture. Narrator is, apparently, the more obsessed with flexibility and freedom as he meets Gloomy Gus and as he sees results of lack of flexibility and freedom on him. Narrator is concearned over his art, as it is not being politically charged and depicts mundane themes, it is trivial to his politically involved friends. It's not trivial, of course, and not art for the sake of art, but in times of big political changes, everything that isn't directly political seems so. So narrator suffers from same doubts as Coover does, between choosing his political view or esthetics of his art. I would like to quote the novel here, but i haven't got english (or any, right now) version of the book and i'd like to leave you as many reasons as i can to read the it.
The other memorable quote... Well, it comes from the very end where Gloomy Gus, dying, through haze mistakes narrator for his old coach and asks him why he's destined to always make the same mestakes... And just as narrator thinks he's reached the answer, Gloomy Gus dies before hearing the answer.
A real forgotten jewel, this is another example of what can be done when we step out of literary conventions which is why i lbelieve that postmodern literature gives better answer to modern man's problems than traditional literature. What surprises me is the ease of Coover's writing, the naturality of every alien element that makes me believe in them no matter how much fantastic they are. Note that here, we are talking about no known genre of fantasy, but about something that could make a new genre of „character fantasy“.


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