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Pricksongs and Descants by Coover


Pricksongs and Descants by Robert Coover
Published in: 1969
Reviewed by: Jen and Book Worm
Find it/Buy it here: Pricksongs & Descants

Synopsis (from Amazon): Pricksongs & Descants, originally published in 1969, is a virtuoso performance that established its author – already a William Faulkner Award winner for his first novel – as a writer of enduring power and unquestionable brilliance, a promise he has fulfilled over a stellar career. It also began Coover’s now-trademark riffs on fairy tales and bedtime stories. In these riotously word-drunk fictional romps, two children follow an old man into the woods, trailing bread crumbs behind and edging helplessly toward a sinister end that never comes; a husband walks toward the bed where his wife awaits his caresses, but by the time he arrives she’s been dead three weeks and detectives are pounding down the door; a teenaged babysitter’s evening becomes a kaleidoscope of dangerous erotic fantasies-her employer’s, her boyfriend’s, her own; an aging, humble carpenter marries a beautiful but frigid woman, and after he’s waited weeks to consummate their union she announces that God has made her pregnant. Now available in a Grove paperback, Pricksongs & Descants is a cornerstone of Robert Coover’s remarkable career and a brilliant work by a major American writer.

Book Worm and I feel very differently about this book. Keep reading to find out who loved it and who hated it.

Jen’s Review:
Book Worm and I read this book for a reading challenge. I was the odd person out in my rating because everyone else seemed to hate it. Pricksongs and Descants was like nothing I’ve every read before and, unlike everyone else, I loved it. The writing was wonderful and the stories deliciously creepy, bizarre, and often disturbing. These stories are most certainly not your traditional children’s tales and they are for the mature reader. I normally dislike short stories but I enjoyed these ones. I like strange, bizarre, and seemingly absurd books (perhaps this is why I like Kafka so much).

Pricksongs and Descants is very meta. It’s a book about fiction, short stories, and mythology. Coover challenges what we know about the genre. He takes pieces of biblical stories, fairytales, and popular myths and reworks them in a way that makes them almost unrecognizable. In the process he plays with both narrative structure and content. It’s a book that is the exemplification of experimental literature. One story, “The Babysitter,” is essentially 20 stories in one because Coover is constantly interrupting the narrative flow to present multiple possible versions of what happens. Is it a horror story or just an average and boring night? Coover challenges what we know, or what we think we know, at every twist and turn. In some cases we are simply along for the ride and in other cases we are the ones who decide how to interpret the story.

I loved the way that Coover’s stories were so different in tone, style, perspective from one to the next. In several stories he pulls the reader in the narrative (the Leper), making us wonder how we are complicit in the story. I liked the experimental nature of the stories and how he deconstructed what we normally view as fiction or fairy tales. And the writing! Whoever wrote the Amazon synopsis wasn’t wrong when they claimed that the book is  “riotously word-drunk.”‘ Here are some quotes that exemplify the style:

A moment of grace settles between them, but Karen turns her back on it clumsily.

It’s a sad place,” she says “and all too much like my own life.” He nods. “You mean, the losing struggle against inscrutable blind forces, young dreams brought to ruin?” “Yes, something like that,” she says. “And getting kicked in and gutted and shat upon.”

Poverty and resignation weigh on the old man. His cloth jacket is patched and threadbare, unbleached white over the shoulders, worn through on the elbows. His feet do not lift, but shuffle through the dust. White hair. Parched skin. Secret forces of despair and guilt seem to pull him earthward.

The old man’s gaze is straight ahead, but at what? Perhaps at nothing. Some invisible destination. Some irrecoverable point of departure. Once thing can be said about the eyes: they are tired. Whether they have seen too much or too little, they betray no will to see yet more.

Lamps pulse. Lovely Lady shyly reveals belly. Not crimson at all, but creamy with a blush of salmon pink. Shouts and whistles. Hoo-boys and zams. Salmon: semen. There we are again. Stickle: tickle. Belly: bag. Lovely one too.

It is not a book I would recommend to many readers. Some of the content is disturbing and it is most certainly not appropriate for young readers.

Book Worm’s Review
This is a collection of short stories and I should say upfront that I am not a fan of short stories, however it wasn’t just the fact that this was a short story collection that put me off, it was the stories themselves.

I was excited about reading this book as it promised to be a new take on old fairy tales, folk tales etc. Bring it on! I love new takes! Any film or TV show that remakes a fairytale (Snow White and the Huntsman, Malificent, Grimm, Storyville), I am there. So I was extremely disappointed when I read the “introduction” and realized that I would not be getting the kind of remake I hoped for.

I am willing to admit I may not be intelligent enough to understand what Coover was doing with these stories. Call me old fashioned but I prefer my stories to: 1) make sense and 2) not make me feel sick. These failed on both counts (with a few exceptions).

It has been said that Coover’s use of language is genius but for me it was just meh. I couldn’t engage with the stories and all I cared about in terms of language and writing was that it would be over with soon. After reading this I felt the need to comfort myself with some trashy romance reading — where you know what you are getting before you read the first page.

Read it for yourself and see which one of us you agree with. You can find it here: Pricksongs & Descants

We want to hear from you. Have you read this book? What did you think? If not, who convinced you? Think it’s a book you’ll like or dislike?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lynsey #

    I’m with Bookworm on this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    July 13, 2015
    • Yeah, this is definitely not a book I would recommend to you 🙂


      July 13, 2015

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