Robert Coover has long been included in the canonical list of "postmodern" novelists, by which the makers of these lists intend to point to a certain similarity of concern with the dissolution of post-World War II American culture, with the contemporary fragmentation of the self, and with a predilection for revealing the gears and guywires of fictional technique. This exposure of the novel's inner workings -- known as "metafiction," or fiction about fiction -- is perhaps less overt among the later postmodernists such as Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo, but their formal experimentation and their manner of questioning cultural representations owes much to this earlier group of metafictionists. Think of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, Donald Barthelme's Sixty Stories Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and most importantly, Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh Prop..
Coover, who has been teaching experimental and hypertext fiction writing at Brown University since 1980, has largely fallen below the mainstream reader's radar of late, but Grove Press has begun the project of returning his novels to print, re-releasing Gerald's Party and Pinocchio in Venice in 1997, and The Public Burning in February 1998. The Universal Baseball Association, however, originally published in 1968, has never been out of print. Its remarkable combination of a metafictional exploration of the knife's edge between the "real" and the "fictional" with that core passion of American culture -- baseball -- produces a powerfully engrossing (and slightly mind-altering) read, as well as an ideal introduction to the form of metafiction.
In the novel, we meet Henry Waugh, a 56-year-old accountant who has invented a tabletop baseball game, not unlike that proposed by Paul Auster in his recent memoir Hand to Mouth -- but with a few crucial differences. Waugh's game is played with dice rather than cards. Its voluminous charts and tables of plays, accidents, and extraordinary occurences are based on the soundest accounting principles and actuarial tables. And this game encompasses an entire eight-team baseball league, a league that Waugh has rolled and charted through 55 full seasons of play.
This is the key for Waugh: keeping the records. He is so little interested in the play itself that he has stopped using his mock-up of the field. Instead, he focuses on detailing the statistics of each game, each player, each season, logging them all in countless ledgers and, most importantly, the Book, which contains the numerical, factual information, of course, but also the ephemera of baseball -- newspaper stories, interviews with players, popular ballads about the greats of the game, and so forth. The Book is in fact a book, an entire world that lives and breathes independently of Waugh, its author. He knows the players, their families, their lives -- lives that are more real to him than his own. In fact, this fictional baseball world has become so complex, so intricate, that the players have begun to form political factions.
The game comes to a head in the 56th season. Damon Rutherford, a rookie playing for the Pioneers, pitches a perfect game, as unusual in Waugh's fictional world as in the real one. Rutherford, son of an earlier star of the game, becomes an instant hero. But Waugh senses himself growing overly attached to Rutherford, a situation that portends disaster in a game based entirely on statistics and chance. And, unsurprisingly, disaster does not lurk far behind; in the very next game Rutherford pitches, he is killed at bat by a bean ball thrown by the opposing pitcher.
While the world of the game goes into mourning for the fallen hero, Waugh's exterior world goes into a tailspin of drunkenness and borderline insanity, in which the game, always present in his thoughts, begins bleeding out into the "real" world. Waugh is fired from his job, alienates his few friends, and focuses all his energies on getting even with the other pitcher, Knickerbocker rookie Jock Casey. But in so doing, he purposefully violates the game's own rules and so irreversibly alters the world inside the Book. The game begins to seem to its players arbitrary, ruled by forces that cannot be counted upon. The political structure of the Association erupts in revolution -- and in its place, once the flames have died down, they find the lore of the game transmuted into legend, legend into myth, myth into religion.
Coover has been, throughout his career, deeply interested in the origins and meanings of the stories we tell ourselves as a culture. Briar Rose, his most recent novel, is a retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty; Pinocchio in Venice likewise explores the well-known story of the puppet come alive. But in The Universal Baseball Association, we find perhaps Coover's most successful venture into the ways in which our invented fictions take on uncontrollable lives of their own.