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The Public Burning by Robert Coover

The Public Burning (1977)

by Robert Coover

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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Well holy shit! The last 100 pages of this book REALLY take off! I sort of felt, for the first few hundred pages, that this was more of a 3/5 kind of book. The premise and idea behind it are all 5/5... but the writing and the actual content just wasn't grabbing me. Then... then Nixon visits Ethel in prison, and things really take off. Or maybe it was a little bit before that... regardless, the last 100 pages are 100% phenomenal writing and content. WOW.

Also, it's pretty pathetic how much of this resonates with today. 60 years later, and a lot of the issues that this book tries to address we are still fucking around with. Trump could easily replace Uncle Sam; ISIS/Al-Qaeda could replace Communism... I don't know who would replace Ethel and Julius. America tends to kill its U.S. citizens overseas with drone bombs now.
This would all be hilarious if it wasn't so god damn sad and pathetic.

Read this book. ( )
1 vote weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |
100 pages in, I had to stop....just not interested. ( )
  AmieB7 | Jan 21, 2016 |
There's a bit of a comfort curve with this one, as outlined aptly in the otherwise gassy introduction by William H. Gass: we're used to seeing Nixon the caricature, Nixon the cackling supervillain, whereas here we get Nixon certainly the venial, the self-justifying, the puffed up, but also the self-loathing, the sensitive, even the smart and ruefully cynical. Nixon the hero of The Public Burning, is a more fully realized character than Nixon, the actual dude, and if that's an accomplishment it also makes you realize how hard it is to abandon the Nixon in your mind and embrace this confused-but-not-yet-quite-monstrous young striver. One thing this book does is posit the Rosenberg trial as Nixon's supervillain-origin story, and with the grotesque (and slightly homophobic) fate that he meets at the end, and the fact that you know he's gonna go from that into loss to Kennedy and eight years of exile, all of a sudden the Futurama-Nixon who has a robot body and destroys the galaxy seems a lot more possible.

So you can see that this is not a measured recreation of the fears and hates of McCarthy-era America, not a sober repudiation of the great evil done to the Rosenbergs (Coover flirts with representing it as singular or a loss of innocence, which I find just too simplistic and banal for words); no, it's a sneer, a sharp cutter wielded with eyes lit up by malice. (It's also, as others have noted, a weird interpolation of Ulysses.) In that sense it's powerful, and while I don't get too much on board with the Uncle Sam character (spending too much time with caricature can't help but betray a delight in said caricature on the part of the author), I think that he amply demonstrates his purpose in the final symphony of contempt, which starts with a sexy, repulsive, heartbreaking encounter between Nixon and Ethel Rosenberg in the death chamber--weirdly, the most real part of the whole book: if it was all over for you in a world gone topsy-turvy horrid, you'd cling to anyone you could, even your jowly executioner, just to keep on feeling--but then explodes into what's not only an auto-da-fe, the execution of Ethel and her husband live in Times Square, but also a national pageant of shame and celebration building to a nibelungian climax that has to be read to be believed. There's a little too much self-satisfaction visible when the spectacle recedes below the high-water mark to its stupider lows, but hey, that's Uncle Sam's America. ( )
6 vote MeditationesMartini | Sep 7, 2011 |
"I am asking everyone tonight to step forward - right now! - and drop his pants for America!"

Some music writer (Lester Bangs? Byron Coley?) said the VU had a lot to answer for, having spawned generation after generation of poor imitations. The Public Burning is a book that never could have been written if Joyce had not first produced Ulysses. Three days instead of one. Nixon as Bloom. It could be execrable. However, Coover pulls it off quite nicely.

The overheated Prologue is the weakest section of the book. If you make it past that bit, you will find yourself engaged with a suprisingly immersive and creative tome. Lots of vernacular and pomo done very well. And, notwithstanding that, a lot of forward momentum in the story line.

Readers tend to focus on the politics, but this is first and foremost a Coover take on Ulysses and Finnegans Wake that happens to use as its subject matter Nixon/Rosenberg, not a polemic dynamiting fish in a barrel. Coover does an incredible job conjuring up a radically subjective sense of the reality of the Cold War era as experienced by the Nixon crowd at the same time he parodies it and lays it low. Without that, I don't think the book would be half as interesting, the parody would not work for long, and the constant verbal pyrotechnics and storytelling tricks would lose their lustre. ( )
7 vote slickdpdx | Sep 4, 2011 |
Most vicious satire Ive ever read although I had to skip one whole voice or every other chapter (I cannot remember how the book was structured ( )
  x57 | Aug 29, 2011 |
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For Justice William O. Douglas, who exchanged a greeting with me while out walking on the old canal towpath one day not long after these events...
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On June 24, 1950, less than five years after the end of World War II, the Korean War begins, American boys are again sent off in uniforms to die for Liberty, and a few weeks later, two New York City Jews, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, are arrested by the FBI and charged with having conspired to steal atomic secrets and pass them to the Russians.
Uncle Sam turns and gazes compassionately down upon all these common people whom the Lord and careless fucking have made so many of...
I am asking everyone tonight to step forward - right now! - and drop his pants for America!
traffic is rerouted so as to cause the maximum congestion and rage, a solid belt of fury at the periphery being an essential liturgical complement to the melting calm at the center
He used to think that if he could just find his way onto these tablets everything would be all right, but now he knows this is impossible: nothing living ever appears here at all, only presumptions, newly fleshed out from day to day, keeping intact that vast, intricate, yet static tableau-The New York Times's greatest creation-within which a reasonable and orderly picture of life can unfold. No matter how crazy it is.
Intimations reach you like a subtle change of temperature; real awareness hits you like a bolt of lightning.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0802135277, Paperback)

For quite some time after the 1977 publication of The Public Burning, it was almost impossible to find a copy. The book's own publisher seemed--no, was reluctant to admit it even existed. That's because this imaginative reconstruction of the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted for giving atom bomb secrets to the Soviets, was the first major work of modern fiction to feature a still-living historical figure as a prominent character. The book's obscurity was the publisher's attempt to avoid legal repercussions from Richard Nixon, who over the course of the book engages in a romantic interlude with Ethel Rosenberg and graphically surrenders himself to a rapacious Uncle Sam.

Now that Nixon's dead, however, readers are free to marvel at one of the few American novels to rival Joyce's Ulysses for sustained stylistic inventiveness. Snippets of speeches and articles from Time are recast in poetic form, entire scenes are presented in dramatic verse, as events in the Rosenberg case move towards their historically destined conclusion. --Ron Hogan

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:28 -0400)

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