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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Colonel's Daughter" by Robert Coover

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...because the long fiction has too much cholesterol. 

Issue: Sept. 2, 2013

Story: "The Colonel's Daughter"

Author: Robert Coover

Plot: A group of conspirators engaged in a coup d'etat sit in the Colonel's office. Distracted by the sudden appearance of his daughter, serving coffee, brandy, and biscuits, the Colonel watches them to try and discover who could be the Traitor among them. Ultimately, the coup is disrupted, the Colonel killed, and the identity of the Traitor(s) very carefully and subtly revealed.

Review: I'm having an impossibly difficult time trying to work-up a conventional "review" of this story and having written those very words essentially means I've given up. Prose-wise it's kind of like reading a really long, well-written screenplay scene direction. Or rather, an arduously detailed elaboration of a painting, in which the author takes a crowded scene and dissects the thoughts and motivations of the various characters.

I feel like I burned about 1,000 calories reading this story. Coover fans, hopelessly committed New Yorker fiction reviewers, and other smug high-minded literary types are probably the only types who stuck with this story long enough to properly interpret it. Having read (and re-read) this story as closely as time and my wafer-thin patience would allow...I have to say it's worth it.

Great pieces of literature (short or long) bear re-reading and yield more and richer rewards the more closely the reader examines them. Coover is well-respected, experimental writer (about whom I know far too little) and therefore, sure, you can assume his stuff is labored-over and rich with layers of subtext and manifold possibilities for interpretation. This story, however, goes one degree further, in that it is, quite-consciously, a puzzle: a test of the reader's focus and attention. The answer to the puzzle lies hidden right in the text and is readily available to those willing to do the work of close-reading.

Frankly, I don't usually have a lot of patience for this kind of thing. I tend to prefer dialog-heavy stories with linear plots that take place in real or at least very firmly grounded settings. These swimming, texture-less, un-moored narratives with hyper-shifting perspective and obvious tongue-in-cheek trickery by the author tend to make my skin itchy and my eyes glaze over. But, to have dismissed this story with cursory glance would have been to deny myself the opportunity to expand a little-used part of my literary "brain" and to have betrayed the very purpose of this project.

So, my loyal readers (assuming there are more than one of you) that is how I must leave you on this review. It would do no one (least of all me) any service to write 1,000 words on how I carefully pored over this story in order to find the one key sentence that unlocked it all. The only thing I can do for you is say reading and decoding this story will make you a better reader.


sloopie72 said…
Now that's just mean. Come on, spill it: which sentence?
Grant Catton said…
Hey! Thanks for reading! Actually, it's a couple different sentences. But, my guess (and it seems pretty obvious in retrospect) is that the betrayer was the real estate developer. He was the one who got to the Police Chief, with promises of "financing" for a new National Security Department.
sloopie72 said…
It's funny, I didn't really care about figuring out who the traitor was. Maybe because I'm so bad at that kind of logic puzzle. I was more interested in the daughter, and in the notion that a year from now, a new group of revolutionaries are going to have the same meeting to overthrow the government this crew overthrew...
Karen Carlson (for some reason my name doesn't show up on blogspot posts)

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