“The Babysitter” by Robert Coover

Even without any prompting, my brilliant readers connected Robert Coover’s short story “The Babysitter” with Spanking the Maid when I described the repetition, with variation, in the novel. But I believe there is an important difference between the two, which wouldn’t have been made clear from my first post, now that I’ve read “The Babysitter.”

In Spanking the Maid, there are actually two kinds of repetition. Sometimes, the narrative is repeated and “improved,” but at the same time, the maid’s and master’s actions really do replay, within the world of the novel. The maid really does come in, morning after morning, to clean the master’s room, with slightly different things going wrong each time. Though some of the actions are “undone” and “redone” by the metanarrative, the master and maid clearly have a memory of repeating their general routine time and time again—leading to the increasingly desperate emotions they feel toward the end.

In “The Babysitter,” instead, we are presented only with forking alternatives. There are several forks in which the babysitter takes a bath—in this one, she’s interrupted by little Jimmy; in that one by Jack and Mark; in the other one by Mr. Tucker—but she definitely takes, at most, a single bath. There are several forks in which Jack comes over to play—he brings Mark or doesn’t; he comes with permission or doesn’t; they get caught by Mr. Tucker or don’t—but in any case only one of these, at most, can happen.

That turns out to be a key difference, as it means the reader’s experience of the story differs greatly from that of the characters. The master and the maid are living their lives over and over again along with us; the babysitter & co. are not. When Walpurgisnacht arrives in Spanking the Maid, it arrives for all three of us together. But as the forked threads of “The Babysitter” weave in and out, a moment of horror in one path gives way to a peaceful evening front of the TV in another, while the excitement of the reader can only build—switching narratives jars us, but leaves us on the edge, wanting more, just as bad, bad things are happening.

Thus it is that the second-to-last thread can give us a happy ending, after much anguish. And not one where the characters have gone through hell with us and experienced catharsis, but one where the babysitter just had a sleepy evening on the couch.

And the last last thread isn’t a straight bad one either. Instead, it’s Coover’s signature grotesque element, which he introduces when Dolly can’t get back into her girdle. Now that‘s something for a Walpurgisnacht: a room full of middle-aged partygoers greasing up chubby Mrs. Tucker and trying to stuff her back into her underclothes. The comic becomes dark when it turns out everyone dies in this fork, but how dark can it be with the host of the party “twisting the buttered strands of her ripped girdle between his fingers”?

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