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Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Public Burning (1977) by Robert Coover

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage in the 1950's.  
Book Review
The Public Burning (1977)
by Robert Coover

  Robert Coover is one of those author's who managed to secure a life on the strength of his writing.   He hasn't managed to secure one of the first tier literary awards and none of his titles have the kind of immortal hit status that seems likely to stand the test of time.  But, he's still alive and still writing books, so any kind of final judgment about his status as a canonical author will have to wait.

  The Public Burning is Coover's third novel and it's the now familiar combination of historical meta fiction, magical realism and fabulism.  In 2016, that combination of elements seemingly describes almost every major prize winning book of the last decade.  In 1975 it was still a novel combination.  The plot of The Public Burning is Coover's reworking of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.  The narrator is none other than Vice-President Richard Nixon.   Readers expecting the monstrous boogey man of the liberal imagination will be disappointed.  Coover's Nixon is a sensitive fellow trapped in a grown man's game.

   Checking in at 500 pages plus, The Public Burning is neither a light nor a fun read.  It is, however, comprehensible.  There is nothing remotely experimental about the form of the novel, with the exception of several "intermezzo's," interstitial chapters which feature various characters from the novel singing their lines in opera form.  It's almost better as a quirky Richard Nixon biography.  The Rosenbergs, seen also here in slightly disguised form in E.L. Doctorow's, The Book of Daniel are no longer the potent culture symbols they were in the mid 1970's.

  Reading it, I questioned whether The Public Burning was really worthy of the 1001 Books list, between the length, the diminished importance of the characters involved and the general dominance of the historical metafiction/magical realism/fabulist mode of story telling in the novel over the last several decades.   So I wasn't surprised to see that it was dropped from the revised edition of 1001 Books.  This leave the short story collection by Coover, Pricksongs and Descants as his sole title on the list.

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