“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”?

Walpurgisnacht

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 an excellent paper on the book, “For an American nouveau roman: Reading Coover’s Spanking the Maid.” He puts my instinctive feelings about the text into words:

Nowhere is this more evident than in the last section of the novel. Instead of closure, Spanking the Maid concludes with a grand ouverture, an explosion of language, a spectacular feu/jeu d’artifice of new combinations of signs previously introduced in the text.

Barthes claims that repetition itself engenders pleasure (jouissance), that we can experience a kind of erotic pleasure from the word itself—from the word repeated excessively, or from the unexpected or novel word. Both conditions of pleasure are present here. …[W]ord-play—an operation which had been restricted to the series used by the master to describe his dream—is now unleashed and runs rampant through the entire field of the text. …The conclusion of the novel represents a kind of Walpurgisnacht, where words dance wildly and couple freely. The novel closes with an orgy, but its orgy is entirely textual.

Walpurgisnacht should give release, shouldn’t it? And I suppose it does here, but there’s still a tension at the end. The master is falling into “a bottomless hole,” but “perhaps today then…at last” he can stop, and he does, because the book stops. But for the reader who also sees himself locked into an endless repetition, there is no similar way out. Get up, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast…

Notwithstanding that somewhat disturbing thought, I also want to emphasize that what I really like here is this is a pretty successfully experimental work. The text is definitely nontraditional, but completely accessible, and I think really draws a reaction from the reader. And yeah, it’s not a grotesque curiosity, even though Coover incorporates the grotesque into everything. Nope, there was a lot more there there than I expected there to be.