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'A child again': Alice, the Pied Piper and Bluebeard play new games

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``A Child Again" by Robert Coover; McSweeney's ($20)


Of all the American experimental writers who emerged from the 1960s, Robert Coover may the best - not necessarily because he's the wildest experimenter, but because he's the finest writer.

And in his latest collection of tales, many of which turn traditional fairy tales on their heads, he delivers some of his most enchanting and eloquent prose yet.

The stories in "A Child Again" are much toned down from the funhouse-nightmare excess of his 1977 masterpiece "The Public Burning" (in which Coover did for McCarthy-era anti-Communist hysteria what Gunter Grass did for Nazi Germany in "The Tin Drum").

Now Coover, in his 70s, has old age and mortality on his mind. The twist here is that he's chosen the most unlikely candidates - the stories of Bluebeard and the Pied Piper, the tales of Aesop, H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man," and even the lyrics to "Puff the Magic Dragon" - as his storytelling springboards.

Coover's favorite ploy is to drop you into a story after its familiar actions have concluded. In "Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock," an aged Alice, "still at timeless tea with her demented companions the Hatter and the Hare," can't find any ingestibles to shrink her down to girl-size and let her go home again. (Coover's pastiche of Lewis Carroll's punning prose and imaginative leaps is delightfully on target.)

Beginning to wonder if "her whole life aboveground had only been a dream," she turns from one Wonderland character to another, lamenting her decrepit state: "My teeth hurt, my chest is as crinkly as funeral crepe, I'm growing a mustache, I can't remember yesterday." All the while the Jabberwock - who seems as much a shadow on the mind as a physical predatory monster - approaches. It doesn't take much to figure out the Jabberwock is Death itself.

If Alice's last moments in Wonderland are as antic as they are frantic, the events in "The Return of the Dark Children" are powerfully eerie. In this tale about a post-Pied Piper Hamlin where all music is forbidden and all new-born children are closely watched, parental mistrust, communal hysteria and the power of the past to haunt all converge.

Coover throws in some tales purely of his own invention, too. In "Stick Man," a rather sweet little stick figure is invited to the human world "to represent officially for us the human condition, as we understand it. We feel somehow you can encapsulate it in economical ways difficult to achieve for those of us with a, what can one say, more complex personal architecture."

The deal turns out to be a bad one for Stick Man, and the tale can be read any number of ways: as a jaundiced parable about the role of the artist in society, as a bleak contemplation of how one finally tires of this life and this world, or as a cautionary tale about the dehumanizing perils of xenophobia, objectification and exploitation.

The most dense and intricate story, "Playing House," offers a rewarding reading. What seems at first a children's game of imagining fanciful playhouses ("Once there was a house ... built of water ...") becomes a way of showing how life seeks meaning and consciousness shapes reality.

Not everything here works. Coover, a longtime champion of hypertext in which stories can be read in any order you choose, turns the controls over to the reader in "Heart Suit," printed on 13 cards enclosed with the book. Frankly, it's better when Coover's at the helm.

Sometimes, too, Coover is only as strong as his source material. The Pied Piper and Lewis Carroll's Alice, to my mind, give him more to work with than, say, "Casey at the Bat."

Still, the best entries here rank with Coover's finest, most penetrating work. Yes, there are games being played here - but they're ingenious games, games that stir the soul.


(c) 2005, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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