Arts Of hypertext and holograms

The Heart Without Borders festival explores the literary frontier with Robert Coover

In the pantheon of experimental American writing, no one wears the Hamburgler’s grin quite like Robert Coover. Since he made his debut in 1966 with Origin of the Brunists, the 74-year-old prankster has played three-card monte with the conventions and ornaments of literary forms. Along the way he has roped everyone from Alice of Wonderland to Richard Nixon into his fictions.

Robert Coover

As he approaches his 80th year, Coover has become an outspoken proponent of technology as a savior to storytelling, not its grim reaper. At Brown University, where he teaches, Coover instructs students how to use the virtual-reality lab in the Technology Center for Advanced Scientific Computing and Visualization.

Last week, the Ivy League school held its annual “E fest,” a celebration of new hyper media. Answering questions by e-mail, Coover described the contours of this brave new world.

I understand you will be giving a lecture in San Antonio next week `at Our Lady of the Lake’s Heart Without Borders/Corazón sin Fronteras literary festival` that features a hologram. Will you actually be in Texas or are you appearing Princess Leia style?

No, I’ll be showing a video of our writing experiments within the immersive virtual reality of our “Cave.” The difference between a hologram and immersive VR is that you can only admire Princess Leia as hologram from a safe distance; in immersive VR you can be IN Princess Leia, or pick her up and toss her around, etc., though she can be given powers, too, and make you less than comfortable.

In your essay, “The End of Books,” you talked about hypertext fictions possibly replacing written novels. Do you feel like we are seeing that now with the beginnings of blogs? Or is this another phenomenon?

Print novels are not threatened by web-based fictions. They are threatened by their own economics. In this age of light and the ubiquity of digital communications, they are cumbersome, wasteful, expensive to transport and market, largely unavailable throughout the world. I drew my students toward the digital world to protect them from print’s uneasy future, not to fight against the book, which I love (it is my own art form, after all). But literary hypermedia will not kill off print literature any more than photography killed off painting. Blogs invite sloppy writing. But many quality writers are turning to it as a new art form, and as the great ones float to the top, they will receive the same respect as that given quality print works.

Your last work of fiction came with a story printed on a deck of playing cards. Is that the closest physical approximation of a hypertext?

There have been other shuffle-able narratives; I think mine is tighter than most (and therefore less hypertextual) because of its quaint adherence to linear fiction. The closest physical approximations to hypertexts are books like Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch or Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars. Maybe, to some extent, my own John’s Wife.

Richard Nixon appears in The Public Burning and Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears. Do you think of him still; is he a quintessential American character?

When I wrote his obituary for Newsday (“Tears of a Clown”), I said goodbye to him. Quintessence in America is impossible to define, there being so much (or little) of it. But, yes, the sonuvabitch certainly marked our generation.

A walk through the future: technology taking literature into a new era
11am Fri, Mar 31
Sueltenfuss Library Community Room

Robert Coover and John Phillip Santos readings
5:30pm Fri, Mar 31
Thiry Auditorium
Our Lady of the Lake University
411 SW 24th St.
434-6711, Ext. 2091
For a complete festival schedule:

There is a great silliness in your work and at the same time a tremendous moral seriousness. Is it possible the two are one in the same?

Learned my craft at the knees of many, including professional stand-up and fall-down comedians and classic Greek tragedy, but one of the essential masters was Samuel Beckett, of whom something similar could be said. My primary moral commitment is to the inner truth of the chosen metaphor(s).

You often rework myths and fables in your fictions. As Americans read less and less, do you feel like inter-textual fictions will need to use pop-culture figures to be relevant?

No. Just one way to burrow into human consciousness. As for contemporary American reading habits, has anyone looked into them? My guess, from the activity I see in e-mails, blogs, and informational websites, is that they may be reading more, just not on paper. That means the traditional literary arts, which do not fare well on the internet, are taking a serious hit. Trying to do something about that.

You have written a Western, short stories, novels, plays, poetry, fictions about the movies, and even screenplays. Is there a form or genre you enjoy working in most?

The play with form (whatever) is what I enjoy most.

Brown sponsors a freedom-to-write International Writers’ Project that brings in endangered writers and gives them a safe place to work. Aside from the obvious merits of the program, have you learned much by interacting with these writers?

They are for all of us, but especially for writers, a creative eye onto corners of the world not normally seen.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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