Reading Robert Coover's "Gerald's Party" is like entering someone else's dream or attending a party in which everyone else is hallucinating. The outlines of reality are discernable. There are guests (which one doesn't know) and food (provided with comic regularity by the wife), conversation (in abundance), entertainment, even a video cameraman recording the party. There is also a dead body in the middle of the floor. Several more dead bodies. And the police. And a man who goes about collecting everyone's watch. Several naked women, naked men, a child with a stuffed rabbit, the Inspector of Police with the same stuffed rabbit, a plumber, a TV repairman. . . .
Gerald has these parties because he is lonely. He and his wife are lonely. Roger and Ros are lonely; (early in the book they are also dead). Allison and Allison's husband are lonely. Vic and Sally Ann are lonely.
Gerald is searching for some synthesis, either through love or art; but in his orgiastic evening, Gerald confronts only his own and friends' mortality.
On the thinnest surface, the book is a murder mystery, though by the time the murderer is discovered, the reader and the characters don't really care, for too much else is going on and more violent events have interceded. The murderer is not relevant as a character, only as he relates to the mythic overlay of the book.
"Our murder here tonight seems much more sinister than that," observes the Police Inspector, determined to find or impose order on the chaos of the evening, "a search for disjunction, a corrupt desire to disturb, distort--a murder committed perhaps out of curiosity or impudence . . . or even love, which is well-known for its destructive powers."
Using the myth of the "Beauty and the Beast," Coover argues that the beast, rather than serving beauty, rises up and murders beauty because of its own inadequacy, its need to destroy that which isn't itself or even perhaps because of its need to establish its own beauty. In love and art, the synthesis of beauty and beast is fleeting largely because we are locked into our own ego-centered, self-indulgent worlds, Coover suggests.
"You look scary, Daddy!" Gerald's child exclaims at one point when he comes unexpectedly upon his father in an embrace with a woman, not his mother.
" 'We've been playing monsters,' I laughed, and made a face."
" 'Can I play?' "
" 'Not yet. When you grow up.' "
If "Gerald's Party" is the measurement, the effect of all this self-gratification is a breakdown in order. Coover's view of this breakdown is less clear, for there rises over the book a nihilistic vision.
One character asks Gerald, just after Gerald has killed his best friend, "How do you feel about nihilism, then, as a viable art form?" Gerald offers no answer, but the book invites the question by a kind of enacted nihilism of both form and substance.
The representatives of established order in the book--such as the Police Inspector, the wife, the mother-in-law--are portrayed as either violent authoritarians, "evanescent" keepers of domestic rituals or rigid moralists.
Coover compares the breakdown of societal and moral order to the biblical tale of the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, only in "Gerald's Party," the meaning is recast: "But the radical message of that legend is that incest, sodomy, betrayal and all that are not crimes--only turning back is: rigidified memory, attachment to the past."
The difficulty in this position is that in denying the past, in denying moral codes, order, form, beauty, Coover creates a chaos that, for all its wonderful manic moments, does not transcend itself and eventually falls exhausted in its effort.
Author of the critically acclaimed "The Public Burning," "The Origin of Brunists" and other works, Coover tests his readers' patience in his new book. At several points, Gerald and other characters question the reality and necessity of an audience in art. "I had suggested that night that theatre, like all art, was a kind of hallucination at the service of reality, and that full appreciation of it required total abject surrender--like religion. . . . 'Or love. . . .' " Whether or not the audience, as well as the artist, must surrender is a question that the book engages.
The effect of reading "Gerald's Party" is similar to being closed up in a small larder with a Fellini movie romping in Technicolor on one wall, "A Clockwork Orange" raging in Dolby stereo on the other and commentary and hors d'oeuvres offered by the Mad Hatter. The atmosphere is at once comic, claustrophobic, violent, unreal, surreal. But ultimately one feels an enormous relief when the door opens, and he is released from the closet. Coover may argue that the release is only an illusion. Well then, let us at least have the choice of illusions.