On Fucked-Up-ness

Jason looks down and finds that it is indeed his wife beneath him, but that she is rotting. Her eyes are open but glazed over, staring up at him, without meaning, but bulging as though in terror of him. The flesh on her face is yellowish and drawn back toward her ears. Her mouth is open in a strangely cruel smile and Jason can see that her gums have dried and pulled back from her teeth. Her lips are black and her blonde hair, now long and tangled, is splayed out over the pillow like a urinal mop spread out to dry. There is a fuzzy stuff like mold around the nipples of her shrunken breasts. Jason tries desperately to get free from her body. But finds to his deepest horror that he is stuck! “This woman has been dead for three weeks,”says the officer in genuine revulsion. Jason strikes wildly against the thighs in his effort to free himself, jolts one leg off the bed so that it dangles there, disjointed and swinging, the long yellow toenails scratching on the wooden floor. The four assistants seize Jason and wrench him forcibly away from the corpse of his dead wife. The body follows him punishingly in movement for a moment, as a sheet of paper will follow a comb after the comb has been run through hair; then, freed by its own weight, it falls back in a pile on the badly soiled sheets. (Coover, 90-91)

Fucked-up-ness. A definition. It is an abstract noun that expresses a particular quality, a particular state. Fucked-up-ness expresses the quality, the state, of being fucked-up. In its adjectival sense, fucked-up usually carries a connotation of disorganization, of complete confusion (”Fucked up,” EVA): “Don’t go over Jim’s right now. His mind is all fucked-up,” a connotation that derives from the verb fuck-up, which means to botch, to bungle, to mishandle: “I’d ask Jim to take care of it, but with his mind all fucked-up, he’ll just fuck-up.”

With that being said, there is another adjectival sense to fucked-up, one that is related to disorganization at the same time as it expands the possibilities of the original term, allowing it to be used to describe those things that, while being highly organized, are indisputably fucked-up; rather than conveying disorganization, this sense conveys a state of total abnormality (”Fucked-up,” Macquerie). Fucked-up-ness. An abstract noun expressing a state of total abnormality. The imagination of Robert Coover begins in fucked-up-ness.

The Stationmaster emerges from his office, kneels down beside Alfred, picks up the knife. “Now watch, Alfred,”he says. “Watch!’ Alfred peeks through his hands, weeping, whimpering, as the Stationmaster severs the tall stranger’s head with three quick strokes. The eyes on the head pop open suddenly and the body jerks spasmodically for a moment. Blood gurgles out of the man’s neck, staining Alfred’s trousers where he kneels on the floor. Alfred continues to weep beside the long body, which twitches still with small private reflexes of its own, as the Stationmaster carries the head into his office. He returns, lifts the body up on his shoulders, and carries it out the door. The carcass can be heard tumbling down steps. (Coover, 103)

Fucked-up-ness need not be signaled by curse words, by the sexual act, nor by violence alone. It is a state, a quality, of total abnormality. The above scene, taken from Coover’s short-story, “In a Train Station,” is fucked-up not because the Stationmaster cuts the head off a man, nor is it fucked-up because the Stationmaster then brings the head into his office, “returns, lifts the body up on his shoulders, and carries it out the door.” No. What gives the scene its fucked-up-ness is the way Coover has blended ridiculous violence and hyperbolic action with the most normal of elements: Alfred wears trousers and weeps like a normal human being, the body twitches reflexively like a normal dying body, the carcass “can be heard tumbling down the steps” like a normal object would tumble down steps. Without those details, the scene would border on gratuitousness, but with them, it enters the sublime state of fucked-up-ness.

“The feeling of the sublime,” Kant writes in his Critique of Judgement, “is a pleasure…produced by the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them, so that it seems to be regarded as emotion–not play, but earnest in the exercise of the imagination…The feeling of the sublime may appear to violate purpose…and yet it is judged to be only more sublime” (83).

Fucked-up-ness is a sublime state. It “violates” normality, but its effect is to make normality flow even stronger. Without the abnormal to check the “vital powers” of normality, all that is beautiful becomes mundane. By writing from a place of fucked-up-ness, Coover requires his readers to recognize the vitality of normality, and propels them to imagine a life beyond the mundane.

for listen I have suffered a lifetime of his doggy stink until I truly felt I couldn’t live without it and child his snore would wake the dead though now I cannot sleep for the silence yes and I have pawed in stewpots with him and have paused to watch him drop a public turd or two on sidewalks and seashores in populous parks and private parlors and granddaughters I have been split with the pain and terrible haste of his thick quick cock and then still itchin and bleedin have gazed on as he leapt other bitches at random and I have watched my own beauty decline my love and still no Prince no Prince and yet you doubt that I understand? and loved him my child loved the damned Beast after all (Coover, 17)

The stories in Coover’s collection, Pricksongs & Descants, often begin, not just in an abstract state of fucked-up-ness, but in its physical state as well. This is not the physical state of fantasy, as in the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien, with its elves and orcs, nor the physical state of science-fiction, as in the universe created by George Lucas, with its Ewoks and Jedis. Where those place a wide gulf between their physical world and the real physical world, Coover intersect his worlds with reality in abnormal ways.

For instance, in “The Magic Poker,” the relatively normal situation of a couple of sisters exploring a deserted island-estate in the middle of a lake becomes fucked-up when Coover introduces the possibility of two men still living on the island. Though the men appear several times throughout the disjointed narrative, Coover also writes, “Once upon a time, two sisters visited a desolate island. They walked its paths…broke a few windows…wrote their names…[and] went home (41-42).” There is no mention of the two men. The fucked-up-ness comes not from their presence, but from the possibility of their presence. By only allowing the reader to acquire the possibility of their presence, Coover creates a world covered in mist and populated by fragments.

In the exact middle of “The Magic Poker,” Coover asks, “At times, I forget that this arrangement is my own invention…Where does this illusion come from, this sensation of “hardness’…” (33-34). He wants to know how the imagination can provide the sensation of something that isn’t really there. The answer is simple: because the imagination is fucked-up. As a sublime state, fucked-up-ness causes normality to flow stronger than it would in other circumstances. When there is nothing, and yet still the sensation of something, it is because the imagination, in its fucked-up-ness, has discovered the sublime: “The sublime,” Kant writes, “is to be found in a formless object [emphasis added]” (82)–the imagination creates the sensation of the object when its form is not present.

Coover consistently uses his imagination to inject abnormal situations into relatively normal locations to help establish a state of fucked-up-ness. In “The Elevator,” he writes 15 numbered passages (one for each floor of the building), each of which take place within the same elevator and each of which describe some fucked-up situation, e.g.:

The elevator shrieks insanely as it drops. Their naked bellies slap together, hands grasp, her vaginal mouth closes spongelike on his rigid organ. Their lips lock, tongues hot. The bodies: how will they find them? Inwardly, he laughs. He thrusts up off the plummeting floor. Her eyes are brown and with tears, love him. (Coover, 134)

If it was as simple as that — abnormal events + normal locations = fucked-up-ness — then writers all over the globe could simply copy the formula and achieve Coover’s critical success. But it’s not as simple as that. The formula is not the combination of equal parts. To achieve the alchemy of creating an object where no form exists, one must struggle to achieve complete normalcy while at the same time giving free reign to the imagination. This leaves the writer at a paradox, because while struggling to achieve something, one works toward something, one has a purpose, but the imagination is only vital when it is free from purpose: “Free beauty,” Kant writes, “presupposes no concept of what the object ought to be…Its satisfaction…is immediately bound up with the representation through which the object is given (not through which it is thought)” (65-67).

What makes Coover so successful is that he allows his imagination to run wild throughout the illusions of heaven, but he keeps his sensations planted firmly on the ground. At the same time as he plummets his man and woman down an elevator shaft while the two of them are having sex (a fucked-up situation if ever there was one), he describes the feel of “her vaginal mouth clos[ing] spongelike on his rigid organ,” the sound of “their bellies slap[ping] together,” the taste of their “tongues hot,” and the wonderful sensation of looking into another’s eyes and seeing love. Coover is successful not because he has an abnormal imagination, nor because he has an abnormal fixation on genitals and violence. Coover’s success comes from showing his readers how the normal becomes sublime.

It’s kind of fucked-up.