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Locating the Uncertainty in Robert Coover's "The Babysitter"

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I recently read, "The Origin of the Brunists," Robert Coover's first novel. It has prompted Me to return to Coover's "The Babysitter."

Cover art of Coover's 1969 "Pricksongs & Descants."

Cover art of Coover's 1969 "Pricksongs & Descants."

"The Babysitter"

For those who know this text, there is often no bound to the time across which we return to it. There are also few limits to the levels of engagement possible. It is not uncommon for people of varying degrees of interest in writing to share discussions of this text.

We will look at some of the recent and time-tested readings and commentary on the text. And then we will return to the text itself to highlight what might be a refreshingly simple, if not observant, possibility.

Where to Look First

With many texts, excluding those such as Julio Cortázar's "Rayuela," it seems obvious where to look first.

"The Babysitter" first appeared in 1969 in Coover's fiction collection, "Pricksongs and Descants." Since that time, publishers, editors, and readers have given the text a life of its own, and it is now available as a Penguin Modern Classics electronic text.

"A writer, says Karl Kraus, is a man who can make a riddle out of an answer." --Donald Barthelme

Maya Sonenberg, the author of "Cartographies," wrote about "The Babysitter" in a short article titled, "Not-Knowing and the Proliferation of Plot or On Reading 'The Babysitter' for the 34th Time." It appeared around 1999 and begins like this: "For the past 30 years, I've been reading Robert Coover's story 'The Babysitter' every year, or nearly so, sometimes more."

It is one of the most robust readings of "The Babysitter" I have encountered, and if You are interested in the text, I recommend Sonenberg's commentary. It contains lengthy sentences forming evocative descriptions: "Like a melody played against the steady beat of time, "The Babysitter" follows the events of a single evening in which our unnamed title character does or does not answer the phone, does or does not do her homework, does or does not take a bath; in which the mother of the family does or does not get greased with butter like a turkey and slipped out of her girdle; in which the babysitter gets tickled—or not—by the little boy she's minding; in which the father of the family returns home (or doesn't) to find the babysitter sitting demurely on the couch, or hiding under a blanket, or having sex with her boyfriend (or at least the boyfriend is trying!), or lolling in the bathtub; in which the babysitter gets raped by or engages in consensual sex with her boyfriend, with his friend, with the father of the children, and/or with the little boy; in which, definitely, the TV is always on although the show is constantly changing; and in which the babysitter and all the children die. Or don't." And it is rife with thought-provoking thoughts: "If plot moves us through time, then proliferation of plot moves us through space."

Yet, one of the primary particles in Sonenberg's text is involved. While it seems that Sonenberg's focus on contradiction represents perceived equality among the proliferating plots, consideration of her desire reveals a bias that some of these plots are somehow less. As she says, "I desire an outcome. Not only a particular outcome (please, let her be safe!) but that there be an outcome, and so the proliferation brings to light not just what we desire, but that we desire."

While arguably no reading, particularly of this text, is wrong, some do seem from a particular perspective weaker. And while I consider Sonenberg's experience of "The Babysitter" remarkably strong, I feel the reading does not bear out the sense Sonenberg expresses toward the end of her article: "There and not-there simultaneously, moment by moment and page by page, the concrete details create the ineffable."

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Considering the Text as Destabilizer

Writing more recently at Literary Hub, Emily Temple has some interesting thoughts about "The Babysitter."

"As you might imagine, the story is terrifying. Sometimes it is also funny. But it's so widely beloved for two main reasons: it says something profound about experience and it says something profound about storytelling."

Temple has some acute observations regarding the text, noting, for instance, that Coover marks some of this dense text explicitly as fantasy. This attention to the text is where our reading will ultimately attempt to settle. And while Temple notes the substance we will use for our reading, She dismisses it in an intriguing, but undeveloped way: "—we are given periodic time stamps, which do not double back; this is a thrown bone—[...]." What might Temple mean by a thrown bone? That's a topic for an interview.

What is known is that for Temple "[t]he very experience of reading the story proves its metafictional point. The entire time, as [She reads], [She waits] to find out the 'truth'—to discover what 'really' happened. Even when [She's] read the story before. [She thinks She] can figure it out, pick out the secret strand of the actual within all the red herrings and fantasies. This story exposes [Her] stubborn insistence about what a story is."

It takes effort to consider all of the details that Temple and Sonenberg hold to our attention. But it also takes considerable effort to neglect a feature. If a single line can set the tone for an entire piece as Temple indicates in regard the destabilizing effect of the first line of "The Babysitter"-- if "The Babysitter" exists in a world where causality and chronology shape stakes and import as in our world, can the certainty of a ticking clock be considered a seduction as Sonenberg describes it, a seduction to ultimately be dismissed or overcome?

released by Penguin Classics in 2014 as an e-book

released by Penguin Classics in 2014 as an e-book

Turning Toward the Diminished

Sonenberg and Temple do much to magnify the uncertainty readers find in "The Babysitter." And it is a feature that some readers find highly compelling. There is a feature many readers note within the text, which may be read as a stable and level path, though. It is not a once-off line. Neither is it an ambiguously detached prominence. Instead, it is the pulse of the text, the recurring and anchoring timestamps.

They recur with remarkable consistency in formatting. These timestamps appear with consistent frequency, ticking off at the half-hour. They are always prominent and attached to a block of text. And for the most, these blocks of text anchored in the stable and objective numbered timestamps are mundane and sequential events in a night. Instead of dismissing these markers in favor of uncertainty, a more compelling reading for Me seems to acknowledge this feature.

So, We can read the text as providing certainty. But beyond and around this certainty is a rich experience: the possibilities and fantasies, the story and the fiction. All of this made crisper by the presence of certainty. A fascinating instance of this is when the numbered timestamps give way to worded narrative. "Soon be nine[...]" This block of text slipping away from objective quantification, enumerated timestamps, into a subjective narrative, into human experience ends with a face in a mirror outside a window and the babysitter's scream. The text's final anchored block echoes this drift into the unreal.

Here the babysitter is slipping into sleep; the newscaster, or a possibility of what the newscaster has said, jolts her back into certainty, reality.

This Was Not to Say

So, while there is substantial support for a reading of certainty, this is not to say that the text should be considered closed. While perhaps not as open as Julio Cortázar's "Rayuela," "The Babysitter" seems to invite multiple experiences. However, one possible reading of this rich text by Coover reveals a complementary and contrasting certainty established within the fiction.

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