• Moliere
    1.6k
    In imitation of @csalisbury's thread because I thought it was fun to share thoughts about a short story --

    I read this story years ago and it just stuck with me. I don't want to preface it too much because I don't want to slant opinions or feelings towards it one way or another. But I would be interested in reading reactions, critiques, or various other sundry responses to Robert Coover's The Babysitter.

    PDF link
  • Bitter Crank
    7.6k
    I read somewhere that Robert Coover is a convicted fabulist. He's also been apprehended while writing metafiction.

    A teenager shows up for a babysitting job. The parents (Harry and Dolly Tucker) leave and the children misbehave in predictable fashion, but after some playtime, television, and junk food, they fall asleep. The babysitter washes the dishes, straightens up the house, does her homework, and doses off in front of the television. The parents return. Not much of a story.

    Except, of course, there is a much larger cast of characters performing the author's erotic fantasies about the babysitter, Harry Tucker, Jack, her boyfriend, and Mark, Jack's friend. Then there are the imagined monstrous children, and the bath in the Tucker's large tub that is never taken.

    Coover has a quaint fantasy about Dolly Tucker who loosened her girdle, but then can not get it back on. She ends up on the floor, coated in butter while the other guests attempt to stuff her back in.

    The story has the feel of one version of 1950s suburbia--not a bad thing here. Many of the author's fantasies play up to suburban fears of naughty babysitters (naughty = taking baths or watching TV with a boyfriend while on duty), sexually adventurous boys and the bad girls who they entertain, parties at which the adults smoke and drink and later regret, pinball machines, middle-aged people past their primes, and so forth.

    The characters seem to be vehicles for the author's masturbatory fantasies, and say really nothing about actual, real people.

    As such, it was a moderately amusing story, but it is no reflection on reality. This is just sliced and diced phantasy.
  • Baden
    7.6k


    It's not a farce in my view (like a PJ Wodehouse type thing, an amusing story as you put it) and it's not just a vehicle for the author's erotic fantasies either. No author of this level of skill (as is apparent by how well-written it is) is going to go to all that trouble simply to reveal himself as some kind of a perv. Besides, the relationships and interplay between the cuts show that there's a lot of effort put in to interweave into and mirror the theme of sexuality in just about everything, subtly and not so subtly. There's also a lot of purposeful misdirection here. I'd say it's more a complex deconstruction of modern suburban life than a fantasy vehicle. And though I agreed with you about "Cat Person", I now think you are a complete philistine. How things change! :razz:

    The characters seem to be vehicles for the author's masturbatory fantasies, and say really nothing about actual, real people.Bitter Crank

    In order to say something about real people, you don't need characters who act like real people though. You may want characters who seem like real people. But you don't even need that. Watch any David Lynch movie. Are any of the characters anything like real people? Real individuals don't reflect reality on a grand scale very well because they're diluted and messy representations when what you want is distilled characters who play their particular part in the engine of the work. In a story like this, the characters are deliberately 2D, sexually frustrated husband, sexy young babysitter, amoral teenage boys, naughty kids etc. They slot into a particular function and play it consistently. The complexity comes then from the form. Lynch does this too, his characters are often odd and extreme but fairly predictable "types", so in a way are simplistic. But his movies tend to play with form in interesting ways in terms of how they are constructed.

    More to say later, but my initial reaction is that I like it and think there's a lot to it.
  • csalisbury
    1.7k
    Halfway through, but enjoying it so far. Very curious to see how he wraps things up.

    Btw, I've had Pricksongs and Descants kicking around on my shelves for years, but had only ever read the first story up to now. I know this a heavily anthologized story, so I'm not sure if you read it in Pricksongs, but that collection opens with two quotes, which seem to apply very much to The Babysitter.

    He thrusts, she heaves — John Cleland, Fanny Hill

    They therefore set me this problem of the equality of appearance and numbers. — Paul Valery, Variations on the Eclogues

    Will report back when finished.
  • Bitter Crank
    7.6k
    a complex deconstructionBaden

    fabulist — Wikipedia

    metafiction — Wikipedia

    Alarm bells ring.

    I will admit to not being fond of complexly deconstructing things, metafiction, fabulism, and such. This isn't the first piece of fiction of this species that I've read, and I just don't happen to like it very much. I usually prefer a much more linear plot.

    09"]And though I agreed with you about "Cat Person", I now think you are a complete philistine. How things change![/quote]

    And right you are. Some days I'm a genuine Renaissance Man, other days an idiot savant, and every now and then, a philistine--and more besides. I should note, I've enjoyed some very non-linear movies--just to let you know I'm not a complete philistine, and some of them were not in English and I still thought they were good.

    If you, Gaelic fellow, haven't read and enjoyed -- actually marveled at -- Ulysses, you are not eligible to call me a Philistine, or a Palestinian, either§ I'll have you know I attended and enjoyed the opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, libretto by Gertrude Stein. En Gard:



    Hey, I've even seen this quoted in a political opinion piece and got the joke:

    CHORUS I
    Saint Teresa seated and not surrounded. There are a great many persons and places near together. Saint Teresa not seated.

    So, I'll retract the sentence "The characters seem to be vehicles for the author's masturbatory fantasies", and I didn't say the author went "to all that trouble simply to reveal himself as some kind of a perv". Even if these were masturbatory fantasies (a statement I withdrew above), I don't find anything perverted about them.

    In my days as an English Major, Babysitter could probably have been described as a "literary travesty"--travesty not being a pejorative term.

    My guess is that future posters will laud Babysitter as "well written" "inventive" (probably not innovative, since he didn't invent this form), perceptive, insightful, even if "laud" is a word they never use. I can stand it.

    The scene where the partygoers attempt to stuff Mrs. Dobson back into her girdle (using butter to lubricate the lard) is nothing if not burlesque. Girdles used to be a bigger thing than they are now. My mother (born in 1907) wore girdles. I think by the 1970s the policy was more along the lines of just let it all hang out.

    I'll also grant that as a plot slicer and splicer, Coover does manage to keep control--the spliced material "works". That doesn't make it a landmark in literature, but it works. In less unskilled hands the technique would end up produce an incomprehensible mess.

    §I tried. I really did. It, like St Theresa, is not surrounded.
  • csalisbury
    1.7k
    I finished it. Really liked it. Still thinking it over. I think it's probably significant that the final section takes the wife's viewpoint. Not only that, but it takes the viewpoint of the wife's deepest fears (I don't think the final section is meant to be 'what really happened.') I thought ending it on this note was a brilliant stroke. Suddenly all the masturbatory fantasies are rewritten as Dolly's fears (even if there's a lot of truth to those fears.) Everything she could have feared happened, and so what's left? She doesn't know - she just wants to watch the late night movie

    (fwiw my copy - used bookstore - has all sorts of sober, analytic notes (feminine handwriting) in the margins, but under the final paragraph it just says 'What the hell?!')

    @Bitter Crank I don't think the butter/girdle thing was Benny HIll travesty, tho there's a taste of that - I think its something more like uncomfortably childish need for touch and texture, mediated by her own anxieties and the general vibe of the party she's at (packs of humiliating drunk golf-boys....basically frat boys) Like: Based on how shitty these dudes are, and how uncomfortable she feels, what's a fantasy that could get her out of the bathroom, touch-and-texture-focused, and into the party? She's too old for [something more obscene] so this is something else. (Think about the butter in relation to the bath and the wrestling) Humiliating, yes, but she lives in humiliation (self and male-driven) and sexual fantasies always have to work through that kind of stuff. This is the maso-submissive correlate to the sado-dominate butter scene in Last Tango.

    I didn't like the pinball thing. I thought it was too obvious, and heavy-handed. It might work a little better if you recontextualize it as Dolly's fantasy about Jack & Mark's fantasy. (in the lynchian reading, this would be Bobby and his friend from twin peaks)

    So I'm 100% sure I'm severely over-simplifying, but just as conversation-fodder this is my initial reading: The Babysitter is told from Dolly's perspective - a feminine fear-fantasy about masculine fantasies about the object of desire. (I think its appropriate to talk about this in terms of standard gender roles given the setting of the story. I'm not trying to say anything essentializing about male v female roles)

    (Alt reading would put the focus on the wrestling to the cowboy movie instead....but, yeah, there's a lot going on here, just throwing a few thoughts out)
  • csalisbury
    1.7k
    Lynch comparison is spot on. I can totally see this as a twin peaks episode (I mean in a lot of ways Laura is the babysitter if she were an actual self-aware person) Don't have much more to say, but I think that's the right track.
  • Bitter Crank
    7.6k
    The short story as Rorschach Test. One can read all sorts of things into the story. Everybody does this; #metoo. I tend to prefer stories that clearly reflect the author's understanding of the world. Babysitter doesn't do that particularly well. But that is my preference, not the last word in Lit Crit.

    (fwiw my copy - used bookstore - has all sorts of sober, analytic notes (feminine handwriting) in the margins, but under the final paragraph it just says 'What the hell?!')csalisbury

    "What the hell?!" probably applied to the whole story. Buying used books is good ecology and economy.
  • csalisbury
    1.7k
    The short story as Rorschach Test
    I was gonna object, but then remembered I also wrote a paper in college about how Joyce's The Dead was about female butter fantasies, butter coded as 'snow'.

    Nah, I think that's a good way of looking at this story. Coover provides a lot of 'ins' perspective-wise


    I tend to prefer stories that clearly reflect the author's understanding of the world

    I think this counts though! I guess I tend to prefer stories that reflect an understanding as confused as mine (Nabokov, for instance, is consistently and elegantly all over the place). I think Coover is communicating an understanding, but he's doing it circuitously, obliquely. What that means about Coover, I'm not sure. (My guess is he is a pervert, and writing smart stories about perversion gives a kind of cover, even though he means it.) But I think it does clearly reflect his understanding. It isn't a clear understanding, but the story clearly reflects that inclarity (as well as an attempt to organize the confused elements to try to make it all fit....I think that's the significance of the Valery quote ---I think it's a fool's quest, myself, but I think I get where he's coming from.)

    Yeah, maybe there's something to be said for a story that is potent enough to elicit strong reactions and debate as an end-in-itself.....But...still...I want to say he has a particular view he's trying to get across
  • Baden
    7.6k
    If you, Gaelic fellow, haven't read and enjoyed -- actually marveled at -- Ulysses, you are not eligible to call me a Philistine, or a Palestinian, either§ I'll have you know I attended and enjoyed the opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, libretto by Gertrude Stein. En Gard:Bitter Crank

    I have no real doubt about your bona-fides here, BC. And I admit to not finishing Ulysses, so I am suitably hoist by my own petard. :)
  • Bitter Crank
    7.6k
    When we read a published story that has become 'accepted' as a good piece of literature (or history, science, psychology...) we are generally inclined to believe that the author is offering us an insightful, true or real picture. Quite often, of course, the author has gotten things right. But we shouldn't take it for granted.

    In this week's Guardian book review, Joanna Trollope says that "Most well-known authors seem to have got married life unbelievably wrong; they could write about it, but couldn’t do it." She was talking about a book that explored the marriages of some famous writers during the inter-war period (20th century).

    No one should read Cat Person or Babysitter (and truck loads more) with the assumption that the authors offer exceptional insight into human experience. They may, but just as likely, they may not. We have to test the story against such experiences as we have, for whatever they might be worth.

    I haven't been able to interest anyone in reading Flannery O'Connor, who did offer pretty good insight (imho). I could also suggest Muriel Spark, who some people think was very insightful, and others thought was not. But I won't. I'll just add this from O'Connor's critical writing:

    "There's many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." and "Everywhere I go, I'm asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."
  • Moliere
    1.6k
    I think the story is emotionally intense. It jumps from the erotic to the horrific and intermingles those two emotions throughout.

    There is a linear timeline in the passages -- it slowly goes from 740 and builds to 1000. But there simply is not a single storyline. From embarassing booze fueled attempts at sneaking a peak on teanagers having sex to supplant them only to find the three teenagers sitting on the couch watching TV, to dead babies and children to rape, to a horrific scenes of the party game of getting Mrs Tucker back into her garter, to the dishes just being done and everything be just fine at the end... it's just a wild ride that cannot have a single story.

    Plus it blends television with "reality" -- sometimes the characters take on the roles of the western, in particular. But even the invalid drama story seems to be part of the character's fantasies who want to save the babysitter from some other man and have her.

    I tend to think of Mrs. Tucker and The Babysitter as foils to one another. Mrs. Tucker is even an object of desire to the host in the same way that the Babysitter is an object of desire to Mr Tucker. And both Mr Tucker and the host both dream of oddly kinky games to play with their object of desire, in spite of how horrid it is shown to be for their respective objects.

    So, yeah. I think that the story is unresolvable into a linear plot. But the subject matter is one of desire -- hence all the erotic tropes, including the title of the short story. So in a way it's a showcase of desire -- both its possessive attractiveness and the horrors that this leads to. Though maybe not quite as moralistic as all that. I think the author is playing off of notions of storytelling, as well, by making the plot unresolvable, melding the fiction of the story with the fiction in the story (the television and the fantasies of the characters are many times hard to distinguish from what's "real" in the story), yet still making it emotionally compelling enough to want to read it.


    It sits in a weird place in my mind, but I found it so compelling that I never really forgot about it. I read the story in a collection of short stories I bought for a class on American short stories I took maybe about dozen years ago, and I still remember it more freshly than most of the stories we read.
  • Moliere
    1.6k
    I think that the reason it kept flipping into my mind while reading Cat Person was because of the subject of both was erotic desire, but in an unpleasant way. Plus you had in Cat Person desire contradicting itself, so it just kept leaping to mind. Though clearly they aren't the same kind of story, either.
  • Moliere
    1.6k
    I'd say that the story does say something about the nature of desire, though.

    Not that this is the whole take. I think you're right to point out that it's metafiction -- it is fiction that is about fiction, playing with the tools of fiction.

    But there is something about desire that is communicated in the story -- how it melds with reality and crosses from mere imagination to collective imagination to mass media. And how desire, as contorted like this, is fragmented. It is a ecstatic high, but it's also pitted against itself and totally confusing.
  • Moliere
    1.6k
    Oh yeah! Something else I wanted to mention to hear what others thought...

    There's a number of times that the babysitter is either looking at a penis or imagining that she has a penis. It's never flattering -- the penis is small and rubbery and she imagines how funny it must feel to have it come out of the hole in male underwear. In some sense, to my mind, it almost seems like a desire to escape being the object of desire. Because the men are never mistreated in the story. And it points out how funny that a little rubbery bit flopping between the legs ready to piss over everything (as evinced with the Jimmy) makes such a huge difference.
  • Baden
    7.6k
    (My guess is he is a pervert, and writing smart stories about perversion gives a kind of cover, even though he means it.)csalisbury

    I like that reading. He's a smart writer who writes like a pervert. But don't be fooled by that, he really is a pervert.

    I'd say that the story does say something about the nature of desire, though.Moliere

    For sure. What's most striking is how he lets desire out to play but instead of writing a story about repressed desires where the main characters struggle with themselves, suffer guilt and eventually pursue their dreams/ideals or not over the course of a linear narrative, the fractured narrative landscape itself represents the struggle. The main characters (apart from the babysitter who is the object) are straightforward symbols of drives, desires etc but they have to wind their way through this confusing landscape of mini-scenes where even time doesn't behave itself to try to get their way. And by the end they dissipate in Dolly's fantasy. So, I think it's saying something about the sublimination of drives and desires through entertainment particularly and how this creates fractured selves in which drives/desires/fears fight and die while our only means to resolve the struggle is to subliminate more, watch more "late night movies", and start the cycle over again no matter how "horrific" the consequences.

    So, I agree with csal it's about Dolly and I think what we're seeing is a picture of her psyche, and we're given hints throughout about how the picture is created. In this way, it's like we're invited to construct Dolly from her disparate parts and in doing so reconstruct the culture that created her and look on it critically. I don't see a particular "message" as yet except "this is the way we live now".

    There's heaps in here though and I've only read it once so far.
  • Baden
    7.6k
    There is a linear timeline in the passagesMoliere

    I thought it went backwards once or twice but I'll have to double check. I definitely haven't worked out the threads of the different stories yet.
  • Moliere
    1.6k
    well, I double checked before saying that :D. But maybe I missed something. I thought that the timeline as presented vs. events actually reported was one of the meta-fiction conflicts, but maybe I missed something.
  • Baden
    7.6k


    Probably I just got my threads mixed up. I'm going to print the thing out and make some notes. Hate reading off a phone.
  • csalisbury
    1.7k
    There's a number of times that the babysitter is either looking at a penis or imagining that she has a penis. It's never flattering -- the penis is small and rubbery and she imagines how funny it must feel to have it come out of the hole in male underwear. In some sense, to my mind, it almost seems like a desire to escape being the object of desire. Because the men are never mistreated in the story. And it points out how funny that a little rubbery bit flopping between the legs ready to piss over everything (as evinced with the Jimmy) makes such a huge difference.

    ha, yeah! I'd passed over those passages without really registering them, but you're right - penis envy with the twist that the phallus is kind of a stupid thing (tho not-having one has severe ramifications.) ( I have a memory of being very young and looking at my penis and being like 'this is so weird.') I would kill to have a similar story written by a woman.

    The tv aspect is huge too, and I'm having trouble pinning down its significance. I thought it was interesting that the one time desire and television neatly converged in a single scene was when the kids were wrestling with the babysitter. Scenes from the western echo a lot of other scenes, but they usually do so at a distance - like you have a western scene, and in another paragraph, some time later, you see it repeated. But there's that one paragraph where the western and the wrestling all kind of converge into one thing.
  • Moliere
    1.6k
    The tv aspect is huge too, and I'm having trouble pinning down its significancecsalisbury

    For me I think the television just serves as a strange setting to make the distinction between reality and imagination yet even more difficult to discern. There's also this notion of how the tropes of television seem to constitute the imagination -- sort of like a collective imagination that bridges the gap between persons, erasing their individuality and turning them into Babysitters or Sheriffs or Lovers.
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