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Interview and Excerpt: Robert Coover’s New Book, The Enchanted Prince

An innovative author continues to test the limits of genre

Robert Coover, author of innovative fiction such as Pricksongs & Descants, The Public Burning, and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors’ Cut, has had a long and influential career in avant-garde literature.

His latest book, The Enchanted Prince (Foxrock Books/The Evergreen Review, 2018), continues to expand the genre. In 62 pages of mischievous parody, flamboyant image-making, and observation, Coover presents the story of “The Enchanted Prince”: a crude “classic” film that became a hit, and then a remake, and then another remake… And so on. Coover skewers audience appetites, film world fashion, and digital technology. Over the shoulder of the retired original “Princess,” we watch the dailies of the latest iteration of “The Enchanted Prince.” It’s a romance, it’s a disaster. It’s a comedy. You decide.

***

After reading The Enchanted Prince, Public Seminar editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham asked Robert Coover how the book came into being.

Evangeline Riddiford Graham [ERG]: You’ve described to the New York Times that the “residue” of the last work you write can flavor the next. How did the residue of your previous books, such as A Night at the Movies, influence The Enchanted Prince?

Robert Coover [RC]: The generative “residue” is never that of a single book, but that of all the books, including books read. My first collection of short fictions, Pricksongs & Descants, was published in 1969. By then I had more than a bookful, so I separated out tales that might work in other sets or collections later on. One of those sets was movie stories, of which I already had completed a couple that would later appear in A Night at the Movies. That same creative period, the nineteen-sixties, was concurrent with the New Wave and other continental film movements, and clearly my fictions of the time were deeply influenced, not only by the radically new film forms, but also by the writing about them.

I had published several stories that had filmic connections and formal devices in Pricksongs, as well as a small set of “sentient lens” stories, and I was working on a New Wave story that would eventually become, nearly forty years later, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors’ Cut (as retitled by my publishers; my title was Raw Footage). By the time A Night at the Movies appeared nearly twenty years after Pricksongs in 1987, I had already written several feature-length movie stories, like “Charlie in the House of Rue” and “You Must Remember This,” and only needed to fill in the gaps. The book followed the old night-at-the-movies pattern (somewhat expanded) of previews of coming attractions, a weekly serial, full-length feature films (adventure, comedy, romance), a cartoon and travelogue, other selected short subjects — even an intermission story (long night).

Again, there were tales engaged experimentally with film that were not included, so I began considering a kind of sequel to the first set to be called Son of A Night at the Movies. Pinocchio and Lucky then took up most of my “movie-story” energies for several years, along with book-length film genre narratives like Ghost Town (1998) and Noir (2008), and it was only after all those books were done and dusted that I returned seriously to the “Son of” ambitions.

When I did, it became obvious to me that the stories in A Night at the Movies were, in effect, “New Wave” versions of old films and filmic techniques from the nineteen-fifties and earlier (what Deleuze calls “movement-image” films), and that if “Son of” were to have any meaning, I would now have to take on the New Wave era and beyond (what Deleuze called the “direct time-image” films, which I here call “metacinema” to link the movement to the literary postmodernist one) in the same critical way.

ERG: And now we have The Enchanted Prince, set in a film world where digital technology is up to the minute, and contemporary parallels to the culture exposed by the #MeToo movement abound. How did this project arrive at the cinema of the present?

RC: Most of what has happened in the film world since the radical self-questioning innovations of the nineteen-sixties I find pretty depressing, and consequently I’m less of a movie-goer than I was then, though I still keep up with the technical advances. Both main characters have living models from that earlier era, and both are suffering from disillusionment, though in very different ways. I’m quite familiar with cutting-edge digital technology, as I started teaching multidirectional digital writing in 1990, when I launched my first “hyperfiction” workshops, and taught in immersive VR environments from 2001 on. I’m still waiting for the creative imagination to catch up with the new technology. It was in such a frame of mind (you could call it disenchantment) that I launched The Enchanted Prince.

The Enchanted Prince

The Prince is in his private chambers, sitting at his writing desk, parchment before him, inked quill in hand. Perhaps he is writing a letter to his beloved, a Princess from a rival kingdom who is forbidden to come here. True love, however, always finds a way, even if it is not clearly explained. She bursts through the door, grinning expectantly, prepared to throw herself into his arms. This is not easy on a walker, especially after having dropped her spectacles and stepped on them. The Prince is in the room somewhere, but it’s all a blur. The Prince is no longer able to stand without falling down, so he has to receive her in his wheelchair. Will the cutie make it that far? She won’t. She does the last stretch on her hands and knees, having fallen from her walker. Her bony knees knock the faux-marble floor like little hammers, her pale scrawny rump the highest part of her, cheeks decorated for the occasion with bright red clown spots. Give her credit, she’s a gamer. The Prince ogles her, or something in her vicinity, leering contentedly, his crown down around his ears. He is supposed to embrace her and feverishly undress her, item by item, but he cannot even undress himself, so the Princess has been sent in with nothing on to make it easier. She reaches the desk, striking her head on it, but she has missed the Prince by a yard or two. She wags her head back and forth, sniffing. He can’t be far away.

“What is this piece of shit?” asks the original Princess with customary demureness. She is sitting with the director in the screening room, watching a batch of unedited dailies on a large video monitor. It’s her job to provide a voice-over script for the finished film.

“It’s a romance,” he says.

“It’s a disaster movie,” she says. “I can’t talk about this.”

“It’s the final remake of the film that made you famous. Which was also of course a piece of shit.”

“It’s not a remake, it’s a travesty. You should be ashamed.”

The director winces behind his scraggly white beard. “OK,” he says, “it’s not a romance. It’s a comedy. It’s very funny.”

“You think senility is funny?”

“Cracks me up,” he says, clawing morosely at his crotch.

“I hate it. It’s as funny as the inside of my fridge after I’ve been away for a summer.”

“Exactly. Hilarious.”

“The best thing I’ve seen so far is your use of old clips. I could talk about those. We were young then. We were hot. And in good shape. We didn’t have to hide our bodies.”

“We’re not hiding them now,” says the director.

“No, you sure as hell aren’t, you heartless bastard. Look at her! No one her age, in her right mind, would crawl around naked like that in front of cameras. But of course the twit’s not in her right mind. You took advantage of her.” The director sighs as though aggrieved. The Princess has found a chair leg and is stroking it. One can only hope she doesn’t think it might fit.

The bewildered Prince is still fumbling with his breeches. They didn’t have zippers in fairytale times, but the wardrobe crew could have made an exception. One of them comes in to help him, a young starlet whom the director is grooming. She has done well with ingénue roles, if they can still be called that, and now she has a big hit with her first grown-up part in a Catwoman remake. The way she arches her back while baring her claws seems almost beyond ordinary human capability. The director watches her appreciatively. She’s probably going to get an acting credit for this walk-on.

While the Prince’s doublet and trousers are being removed, there’s a cut to the same scene, shot several decades ago, of this same Princess momentarily escaping captivity and flinging herself with a tearful whoop into the arms of the young golden-haired Prince. It doesn’t belong in this tape of the day’s takes, but the director might have tucked it in to help her with the voice-over. The ex-Princess was already skinny back then, the romanticization of junkies at the time making skinny fashionable, so long as it was underslung by an invitingly plump butt. Extra eye shadow on the emaciated face, rouge accents on the butt, ruthlessly parodied today by the director’s makeup crew. She was no kid. Either the Prince had lowered his demands or, easy mark that he was, they conned him. A couple of remakes later, she was cast as the witchy stepmother, a more apt role she kept for years, bitterly envious enemy of every new Princess that came along.

This old clip is taken from a film that was also a remake of course. Until a dozen years ago, when the Prince began to lose it and they had to resort to reruns, there were as many remakes as the market could bear, and, thanks to a clause in the Prince’s contract, there was a new Princess for each of them. But there was only one original Enchanted Prince movie, and this bimbo was not in it.

The movie’s plot was a folktale cliché. Until the box office tallies came in, critics treated it as a joke. A Prince on a knightly quest to liberate an oppressed and bewitched people comes on a runaway Princess of the corrupt kingdom and they fall in love on the spot. The Queen has died and her father the King, under a spell, has been trapped in marriage by an old harpy with brutish unshaven sons who grunt like hogs. The Prince whisks the Princess back to his place, but on her wedding day she’s abducted by her badboy stepbrothers, with black-magic assistance from their mother, and forced to work in the scullery. She’s eventually rescued by the Prince, and they fall into a forever-after kiss at their wedding.

Such plots appeal to the studios because, if they strike on a monster hit, a thousand variations suggest themselves without disturbing the storyline. One remake turned the Prince’s heroic rescue of the Princess from her stepbrothers into a battlefield action movie, another complicated the love romance with shape-shifting temptresses. There was one early remake that featured the Princess getting her ass blistered by her stepbrothers, and it was such a huge success, girl-torture became a permanent remake highlight, though she herself was thankfully well out of it by then. Young males turned up in the audience to grunt along with the brothers, hooting with laughter with every stroke, which in turn inspired a weird musical, with the hog-brothers doing a hunh!hunh! song-and-dance number that topped the charts for a month or two. By that time, the abused butt was bare, and the world was changing.

In the archive snippet they’re watching now, the tearful reunion of the skinny Princess and the handsome young Prince has evolved into something more like advanced petting. Heavy breathing, dry humps, busy hands. “See what our generation enabled with its radical high-minded ideas. Full frontal pathos.”

“Yup. Giant leap for mankind.”

“Not all mankind. When the Code fell like leaden underpants, a lot of heroic careers came up a few inches short. But not the Throb’s. He rose straight to international stardom.”

“The Throb?”

“Short for Heartthrob. His name among his fans before Enchanted caught on at the box office and everyone started calling him the Prince. We fought over him, boys and girls alike, a mass crush. It was the era of the weepy squealers, and we followed him around, weeping and squealing.” The young Prince has his paw under the Princess’s thick scullery-maid skirts, which she has conveniently hiked for him. His face is flushed, hers is not. “The Throb was a lousy actor, but beautiful in his parts. I was crazy about him myself, even though you could have a livelier conversation with a dildo. And kissing him was a nightmare. His breath could knock birds out of the sky. My major acting achievement was not to gag in the final clinch. Uh oh. Here we go again…”

The archival film clip has been cut short, just as the Princess’s blushing cheeks were coming into view under the rack of her scrawny back, her thumbs hooked in the waistband of her pantaloons like a sheriff’s in his gunbelt (stimulation and frustration, fort and da: it’s only the dailies, but the old metacineast is at it again), and it’s back to the current rushes of the ancient Prince in his wheelchair and his spindly ex-Princess. She has been planted sideways on his soft naked lap like an unstrung stick puppet, simpering mindlessly. Neither of them seems to know where they are. For variety’s sake, past remakes experimented with different causes of the Prince’s enchantment, and here, in what’s probably the last of its kind, the magic spell seems to be galloping dementia. The director hates fantasy, considers himself an intransigent realist, even if of a grotesque and hallucinatory sort, so maybe he’s making a statement. But one wonders why he’s even directing this thing. Probably because he needs a paying job, and has to take what the industry offers. It’s not that his own films aren’t grossing enough. They’re not grossing anything.

“The original,” she says, “was scripted straight from the fairytale: The magic elixir was love. The Prince was enchanted by me.” The director already knows this. She’s not talking to him. She’s trying out images, phrases, looking for a way to get started. Romantic nonsense is not her scene, hasn’t been for nearly seventy years. This is like being dragged back into an embarrassing childhood. “There was blood then, you know. Real blood.”

“Blood?”

“I was fourteen. I was in love. Those were benighted times. I don’t know if I knew what was happening. We were out in the woods, filming the Prince’s discovery of the Princess, our first scene together. I was alone, kneeling by a brook, wearing nothing but my little crown of wilting wildflowers and a glittery see-through Princess gown.” Her memory is slipping but she remembers the gown. It was like wearing air. “The Prince was very agitated, couldn’t wait. Took about three minutes. Everyone watched, cameras humming. Then, though I could hardly walk, they cleaned me up and reshot the scene.”

“Ah, that might explain…” the director muses, combing his beard with his fingers. “I wonder where the old footage is…”

“Old footage was a fire hazard. They’d have shitcanned it long ago.”

“Maybe. Anyway, blood shouldn’t be hard to work in digitally.”

“You can do techy stuff like that?”

“The brainy kids helping me can.”

“Do you think it’s something little children would like?”

“They’d love it.”

Given the phenomenal success of The Enchanted Prince, she expected to be asked back for a sequel, but after a few months of the usual movie hype, they dropped her without so much as a thankyou bump for her lost maidenhead. She didn’t have an agent yet, so there was no contract, she was on salary and the job was over. But the Prince adored her, didn’t he? He’d said so over and over during the shoot with tears in his eyes. It was just like the fairytale: they were keeping him away from his true love. So she put herself in his way one day with a big welcoming smile on her face. Got knocked on her ass. He didn’t even know who it was he’d run over.

On the monitor, the Prince is chewing on something. His mouth is inky. “Good grief, is he eating the quill? Why didn’t you stop him?”

“Still a sucker for symbolism, I guess.”

“Typical of a film-school airhead. Digging for hidden treasure. It’s exactly what it is, or it isn’t anything.”

Symbolism was how critics, after uniformly dissing Enchanted as juvenile rubbish, tried to explain its immense popularity. Film schools had become booming industry accessories back then, talent and audience farms for the sponsoring studios, and all those students and their newly minted profs had to write about something. But the making of symbols requires a thinking mind, and the only busy heads associated with that movie’s production were those of the bookkeepers, money the single symbol that had their attention. Counting remakes, sequels, prequels, reruns, and all the profitable spinoffs, The Enchanted Prince was the most successful film series of all time. Fairytale magic, a royal damsel in distress, choreographed heroics against a savage enemy, and a happy ending sealed with a power kiss all had something to do with it, but the filmgoers’ mysterious addiction has never been fully deciphered.

And now this final remake is intended as a series wrap, and as a promotional introduction to the new animated series being made so that the Prince in his virile beauty can live on forever. That’s the story she has to tell. The director is shooting scenes that are supposed to help, but so far she hasn’t seen them.

The daffy old thing on the Prince’s lap is squirming and whimpering. They lift her off to see what’s niggling her. The Prince has an erection! It’s a kind of miracle! The crew gather round to take pictures on their smartphones, applauding the apparition. The Prince smiles at all the attention, showing the gaps in his rotting teeth. He doesn’t know what he’s done, but he knows it’s something good.

“Nauseating. Coffee break.” Leaning on her cane, she stretches up out of the screening room’s plush seat, salvaged from some demolished movie palace. She and her bad back can get along without the stick, but it helps clear space in front of her, and lends her stagger a certain false dignity.

One of the most revered contemporary American authors, Robert Coover’s most recent books are The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors’ Cut, Stepmother, and A Child Again. He is the recipient of the William Faulkner, Brandeis University, American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Endowment of the Arts, Rea Lifetime Short Story, Rhode Island Governor’s Arts, Pell, and Clifton Fadiman awards; and Rockefeller, Guggenheim, Lannan Foundation, and DAAD fellowships.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher from The Enchanted Prince (Foxrock/Evergreen Review, 2018).

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