Dream Eaters of the Apocalypse: A Review of Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath — Natalie Helberg
The Brunist Day of Wrath reflects a decade’s worth of labour and attention; it is a book that should, and does, take time to read, a book that, through mysterious means, nonetheless feels pressed on by some urgency. It seems feverish—serious and self-committed—though it is also pun-funny and clever-funny, daffy and delirious. And yet its eye, casting itself around like a billiard ball, picking up small-town grit and gossip, is uneasy, and should be, for it is accountable for its thousand crimes, self-conscious of its own apocalyptic imaginings… —Natalie Helberg
The Brunist Day of Wrath
1100 pages, $30.00
Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath is a boisterous, bloody, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring—for any writer, humbling—sometimes painfully, but always expertly, protracted ride. Countless characters and their countless voices well up out of its thousand pages, mingling as subplots crisscross and ramify: Cultists clash with the local and power-laden in a high-profile scrimmage for property; cult benefactors drain joint bank-accounts, screwing local, power-laden husbands out of their underpinning monies; skeptics balk, hoot, and forewarn; believers pray, persist together, at odds, or else, defecting, wail for reckoning; trailer-brats rapture cats; fathers disown sons and sons abandon fathers; signs are deciphered, then, ad hoc, re-deciphered; God is named, variously; musically-inclined yokels hit it big; an aspiring saint is gang-raped; demons are conceived, and, on a rooftop in the midst of a bloodbath to end bloodbaths, a murderous, evangelical biker is volatized by choppers.
The book before the book, The Origin of the Brunists, like the fictive doomsday cult whose origin it catalogues, begins with light. An explosion. Confused prose conveys its confused wake: ‘There was light and / post drill leaped smashed the/turned over the whole goddamn car kicking / felt it in his ears, grabbed his bucket, and turned from the face.’ Light: Two shadows, miners, duck out of sight; a cigarette in a small earthen chamber disintegrates the next instant. Gas. Light. Flame feeding flame. Black smoke furling into shafts, tunnels. Blocked passageways and rubble. The sentient shadows die. Or live. Many die. Most. Laboriously, for lack of oxygen. Singly and in groups. A message wrapped in a preacher’s fingers—stiff fingers—makes it to the surface. It prophesies the coming of light, the end of the world.
The accident at Deepwater No. 9 Coalmine, the essence of West Condon, ushers in the town’s demise, its economic and spiritual ruin. It gives rise to the Brunists, who inaugurate and so-name themselves so as to better await an end that, as livelihoods are lost and reputations are ruined, as sermons bubble forth alongside bar talk and smack talk, as lechers skulk to their lovers, and as poseurs pose to achieve base purposes, is endlessly deferred.
The Brunist Day of Wrath picks up here: Five years later, not much has changed. Those who lost everything in the first novel have lost or are in the process of losing more. The Brunists, having dispersed, gather once more in anticipation of the End’s anniversary (puzzling, they know). Only this time there are hellions: The children of the tyrannical Reverend Baxter—wife-beater, child-beater, convert but erstwhile Brunist nemesis #1—a man as fiery as the Book of Revelations itself—have grown up. Once friendly, neighbourhood terrorizers flaunting a charred human hand, eldest and youngest son are now cold-blooded gangsters. They bow to a ferocious god akin to that of the Old Testament (‘the Big One’) and, with a clutch of armed bikers—not Brunist-endorsed, though their tats are Brunist—not to mention with Nitro foraged from the abandoned mine site, plan to rev up, rip through and blitz West Condon.
Thus The Brunist Day of Wrath, like some horrible ouroboros, curls back to touch its origin: The mine explodes, ejecting prophecy—‘the Coming of the Light’—which, moving through a complicated chain of human intercessors, begets further explosion.
And yet there is a day beyond this day of wrath, an end beyond the end: an epilogue in which the novel becomes fully self-reflexive; this is a text about a writer, writing. It reminds us that The Brunist Day of Wrath, like most of Coover’s work, is largely preoccupied with signs and symbols, stories, story-forms and tropes. It is a book about the power they have over us, about the fact that they are human-generated, the fact that they rigidify around us in deleterious ways (or become crusty, as Coover says), and the even more momentous fact that they are tractable to invention: they can be appropriated and rejiggered; they can be wildly embellished upon.
Coover has devoted his art to shifting and embellishing upon them, partly by creating work that is self-interrogating (he is called a fabulist for this reason): In books like Briar Rose, in which an old crone subjects a sleeping beauty to innumerable variations on the eponymous tale, he creates the tale anew as a series of its own novel versions, and this despite the princess’s unremitting protestation (perhaps representative of a culture’s) that this is not how stories are told. But these stories, repeated, are both the dreams the child (culture) dreams and her waking reality; to not refashion them, to merely accept what has—for whatever corresponds, in real time, to Beauty’s 100-year slumber—been handed down, would be, for the crone, to risk sinking into ‘a sleep as deep’ as the princess inhabits: a dangerous, unnecessary, and even laughable automatism.
In Pricksongs and Descants, Coover uses a similar technique to refresh the short-story form; in, for example, “The Babysitter” from that collection, he varies a handful of scenarios across a series of short, disconnected paragraphs. The story is ‘modular’ in Madison Smartt Bell’s sense of the term: Key details are altered or swapped for reasonable facsimiles in corresponding paragraphs (text blocks): in one, the baby has asphyxiated on a diaper pin; in another, it is screaming; in another, she, the babysitter, strangles it; in still another, it is at the bottom of the bathtub, ‘not swimming or anything.’ Text blocks can corroborate or contradict one another; they ‘mean’ together paratactically, or resonate with more than follow from one another. Thus tone can shift from block to block, as can point of view; in fact anything, as Bell says, can happen. Variation, as a technique, is reflective of what Coover has called his wish to unpack a piece’s full range of possibilities, of an effort, as he puts it, ‘to explore the whole.’
Though The Brunist Day of Wrath has a realist quality uncharacteristic of some of Coover’s other work, it nevertheless preserves a drive toward narrative playfulness and the absurd. That being said, the book’s flights of fancy, unlike those in a work like Pricksongs and Descants, remain at all times recuperable by something like realism: It is not the case that anything can happen from, say, one free-floating text block to another: In fact, in both The Origin of the Brunists and The Brunist Day of Wrath, if we encounter something disjoined or surreal, this is likely because we are reading a character’s letter or journal entry. Similarly, Jesus, in the latter narrative, who has taken up residence in an apostate, cannot disappear into thin air; his presence, not to mention his bantering sacrilege, his fun, off-colour reasoning, can be explained using the real-world term ‘alter-ego’; he both is and isn’t a mere voice in a mind—a fact which doesn’t preclude carnal baptisms with members of his ex-congregation:
‘I’m ready to do anything for you,’ Prissy whispers, peeling down her leotards…She steps into the tub and kneels between his feet and commences to wash them, one at a time. And then she lifts them and kisses them. ‘You are so beautiful,’ she says. ‘You are the most beautiful man I have ever known.’ When she says this, she is gazing affectionately past his feet at his middle parts, which are beginning to stir as though in enactment of the day’s [Easter] legend. It is not hard to prophecy what will happen next. Is he being tested? Be anxious for nothing, Jesus says. As it is written, no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. She has a car, she can be helpful to us. I, too, have known the company of helpful women of dubious morals.
What is notable on a stylistic level about The Brunist Day of Wrath is the sheer excess of Coover’s prose (the paragraphs in this work sprawl), and, relatedly, the amount of detail packed into nearly every character imagined: These characters are full-bodied, notably unique—unique as any of us are, perhaps more—and very far from the stock figures that dominate so many of his other pieces: princesses and private eyes, dames and woodsmen, characters whose respective profiles are, understandably and likely intentionally, blank as a trope’s. In some ways, the work is working realism through excess—conventional realism, anyway, since, as a character points out, ‘The conventional way of telling stories is a kind of religion,’ of course ‘the true realists are the lens-breakers’; ‘[t]ight-assed little paragraphs laid out like snapshots in a photo album are not for me.’ If the project, then, does, to a certain extent, locate itself within, and limit itself to, realism, it does so in order re-locate, or push, realism’s very mode of telling. Perhaps this pushing of realism is the reason Jesus, in the text, remains at all times plausible (certifiable). Perhaps it is also the reason characters, not Coover, pen the work’s zaniest digressions.
The text’s catalogue of kinds of signs and symbols—its interest in how ideas, experiences and phenomena are encoded and translated—is another point of excess; it is likely not unrelated to Coover’s commitment to the text’s full (and, in this case, metaphoric) potential: Dreams, dances and gypsy cards pepper these pages; if they are interpretations themselves, they must again be interpreted. Mute stroke victims blink eyes as visitors suss out their communications. Two bible college drop-outs even attempt to reconstruct the history of the Brunist cult’s formation; they use newspapers, stories, pornographic photographs and tape-recordings—versions, in short, to create a newer version. The Origin of the Brunists itself is more or less translated into the sequel, where it is mediated by the other characters’ acts of retrospection: We get it a second time in mosaic form, each pane perspectival.
Though The Origin of the Brunists shares some of the above preoccupations, musing on similar themes, specifically on ‘messages’—there are messages everywhere: ambiguous messages which are therefore as meaningful as they are meaningless: ‘the spirits never [say] things plain’ and ‘sometimes, well, words can mean two things, that’s all’—it nevertheless refrains from insisting on a message. This is perhaps less true (but not untrue) of The Brunist Day of Wrath. While in true postmodern fashion, The Origin of the Brunists mobilizes contradictory voices, allowing perceptive renderings of devout thought-processes and those of the incredulous, mocking, opportunistic newspaper editor (and perhaps absurdist), Miller, to exist on par, The Brunist Day of Wrath cedes itself to Sally:
Sally is Miller—one of the few central characters not carried over into the sequel—re-envisioned. She is a skeptic, a wit and a writer, and, in the epilogue it is she who, self-taxed, writes a version of the apocalypse, as it was manifest in West Condon. This book within the book, mentioned in a chapter written so as to seem to reference—so as to riff off the existence of—The Brunist Day of Wrath, institutes, within the text, the spectre of the author (for one thing, Sally is advised to try her hand writing from a male perspective—she uses some biographical details, though changes others). In some ways, she seems to channel Coover, who was inspired to complete his novel after George W. Bush was elected: the fundamentalists rose up and terror with them (Coover says ‘Young Bush,’ writes ‘Young Baxter’). As Sally says, ‘It’s like people are caught up in a dangerously insane story and they don’t know how to get out of it…’
This is why Sally, like Coover, in her capacity as a writer, aspires to shred story, to mutate the domain of the interpreted and the interpretable, to maintain its fluidity, or eat dreams (so she puts it). For in her text-world, truth is no more than a mode of rendering; lies expressed in the correct mode become true and effective, while truths expressed as opinions are dismissed in court. Even beyond the courtroom, a slick simpleton garbles facts to tenderly manipulate the dying and a West Condon reprobate lies to himself long enough, and elaborately enough, to confect sweet, false memories. Perhaps the only thing Coover’s book insists upon is story’s ontological potency. The work teems with real-world significance precisely because it is a story about story.
The Brunist Day of Wrath reflects a decade’s worth of labour and attention; it is a book that should, and does, take time to read, a book that, through mysterious means, nonetheless feels pressed on by some urgency. It seems feverish—serious and self-committed—though it is also pun-funny and clever-funny, daffy and delirious. And yet its eye, casting itself around like a billiard ball, picking up small-town grit and gossip, is uneasy, and should be, for it is accountable for its thousand crimes, self-conscious of its own apocalyptic imaginings: ‘What’s the toll now from all this madness?’ Sally asks, answering, ‘You might say a story has killed them all.’
Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.
- Joel Katelnikoff quotes Bell’s Narrative Design in his dissertation SCROLL / NETWORK / HACK: A Poetics of ASCII Literature (1983-1989). He also suggests that Coover’s stories in Pricksongs and Descants are modular in design, though without discussing particular examples. ↵
- See also an interview with Robert Coover on Numéro Cinq and readings and interviews at the University of Pennsylvania’s Pennsound.↵