Arts & Culture

Professor reads prescient ’68 election satire

Robert Coover’s story ‘A Political Fable’ bears uncanny similarities to this year’s election season

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 27, 2016

Professor Emeritus of Literary Arts Robert Coover read his story, which cautions against radical change, Wednesday night in the Leung Gallery.

While ineffectual pundits have trod redundant ground in analyzing this election cycle, Professor Emeritus of Literary Arts Robert Coover stands apart from the crowd as a singularly incisive observer. Wednesday night, at the reading of his prescient story “A Political Fable,” Coover offered his Leung Family Gallery audience a more literary angle on the proceedings of the 2016 election.

The short story, narrated by the political analyst Mr. Brown — nicknamed “The Soothsayer” for his prophetic ability to call elections — focuses on the upending of an already crippled party’s convention by the Seussian character the Cat in the Hat. In a move completely unanticipated by Mr. Brown, the Cat becomes the election’s populist pick, compelling Brown to ask whether or not the convention belonged to a political party or to a “carnival freakshow.”

This postmodern rendering of an election fits within the confines of fabulation, a literary tradition in which Coover joins the ranks of Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth as a pivotal player. Functioning as an analogue to magical realism, fabulation aims to juxtapose the serious and the absurd.

“A Political Fable” is an effortless balance of the inane and the mundane. The story’s fabulative tendencies are best epitomized by its inclusion of the Cat, a bedtime story staple, as a means of creating unhinged mania during an otherwise typical election, an interplay that is at once disconcerting and hysterical.

“The work just has this critical whimsy to it,” said Emerson Tenney ’20, who praised Coover’s imagistic writing.

Originally written and published in 1968, the story continues to speak volumes about the current political climate.

“1968 was an even crazier election year than the current one,” Coover wrote in an email to The Herald, noting the fallout of the Civil Rights Movement, the disillusionment with President Lyndon Johnson following the Vietnam War and the gunning down of presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy. That November, Richard Nixon was elected president. President Nixon, who Coover called “easily the worst in American history,” like the Cat, played off of Americans’ discontent.

The Cat, a political outsider who gains appeal unexpectedly and rapidly, says he will offer voters “something impromptu, something new.” These promises uncannily echo the appeals of another ludicrous figure in the current political sphere: Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump, a figure whose iconic comb-over functions as just as much of a signifier of his rogue appeal as the Cat’s namesake hat.

The Cat maintains a “goofy anarchism” that stands in stark contrast to Trump’s “proto-facism and showbiz.” But Coover cautioned against “all calls for radical change.”

“Both are disturbing to the status quo,” Coover said. “They seem to attract the same fanatical support.”

The story urges against the populists’ excitement over the freedom ostensibly offered by candidates detached from establishment politics — an enthusiasm Coover likens to “pausing to pick a flower in the stampede.”

“A Political Fable,” endearingly satirical in a way that does even Oscar Wilde justice, ultimately served as a poignant reminder of the futility of outsider politics to the prospective voters in Wednesday night’s audience. Gravitating toward radicalism and away from more established election practices may initially seem liberating, Coover said, but it is liberation that is ultimately accompanied by “a great sense of loss.”