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
Continue reading “The Babysitter” by Robert Coover
I wasn’t going to write about Spanking the Maid after I read it, but then I thought, “this isn’t a family blog!” and plus I really liked it. I don’t think it’s just some kind of grotesque curiosity. Well, perhaps I do, but I’m not sure that’s anything at all bad.
The first comparison that might come to mind is to Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style: the same scene replays over and over, of the maid entering the master’s room, attempting to clean it properly, failing, and being punished. The master wakes up, gets out of bed, gets into the shower, punishes her. But the execution is different; subtle variations in action are constantly interrupted by metanarrative, and a progression of sorts is made. Like so:
She enters, deliberately, gravely, without affectation, circumspect in her motions (as she’s been taught), not stamping too loud, nor dragging her legs after her, but advancing sedately, discreetly, glancing briefly at the empty rumpled bed, the cast-off nightclothes. She hesitates. No. Again. She enters. Deliberately and gravely, without affectation, not stamping too loud, nor dragging her legs after her, not marching as if leading a dance, nor keeping time with her head and hands, nor staring or turning her head either one way or the other, but advancing sedately and discreetly through the door, across the polished floor, past the empty rumpled bed and cast-off nightclothes (not glancing, that’s better), to the tall curtains along the far wall.
Actions are repeated with variations; words are repeated with variations; punishments are repeated with variations; the master’s and maid’s roles are repeated with variations. Until they start to wonder—is she testing me? Why does it have to be this hard? Locked into this constant repetition…and what’s really impressive is the execution.
Roy C. Caldwell has written
Continue reading Walpurgisnacht