November 18, 2005
I’ve managed a certain ironic detachment from McSweeney’s for quite a while, but issue #16 (which includes a piece that Harry Mathews collaborated on and, in an unusual homage to Duchamp, an actual comb) has something in it that finally compelled me to deal out the asking price. This is a piece by Robert Coover, “Heart Suit.”
“Heart Suit” is printed on fifteen cards that are full of text on one side, and backed and cornered like playing cards. There is a “title” card, deuce through ace, and a joker. The instructions, which appear on the title card, read the “middle” thirteen in any order, and conclude with the joker. The tale, so shuffled, will be a story of tart theft in the court of hearts, will involve a bit of inquisition and investigation, will incude a great deal of queen-shtupping by a pack of paramours, and will conclude with a final – or perhaps not so final – meting out of punishment.
There are a few formal literary antecedents worth mentioning, ones that involve randomly re-orderable rectangles of text:
- Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (1961), a box of loose pages to be read in any order.
- B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969), a box of sheets and packets which, like “Heart Suit,” have a designated initial and final text.
- William Gillespie’s “Letter to Linus: a Hypercube” (2002), which, like “Heart Suit,” starts each text mid-sentence and breaks each off mid-sentence.
Here are the dramatis personae:
- The King of Hearts, “only a kitchen urchin until a discovered birthmark changed his life” (Q) … “What? Did he steal his own tarts?” (5)
- The Queen of Hearts, “plays no favorites among her many lovers, but rules their hearts with fairness and generosity” (A)
Plus the following suspects, “eight persons close to the royal family … Chosen by lot, they shuffle in, one by one …” (Title Card)
- The Knave of Hearts, “the King’s favorite page, a serving boy of humble birth, recently dubbed a knight in spite of his thieving ways” (J)
- The White Knight, “mysterious … never without his white visor” (10)
- The Lord High Chamberlain, “known for his cruelty” (6)
- The Royal Chaplain, the Holy Father, “with his scandalous weakness for sensual pleasures” (0)
- The Cook, “like a father to … the King” (6)
- The Flautist of the King’s Musicians, “takes great pleasure in getting his fife blown and, in turn, mouthing the Queen’s fuzzy ocarina” (9)
- The Viceroy, “the King’s double-dealing Number Two” (2)
- The Jester, “if somewhat dwarfed … otherwise quite handomely endowed” (A)
As for the tale itself? It’s quite a play with the form of the pack. The effect of shuffling and reading on me was not to set certain sentences together by reading one card after another, but as much to loosen the ones that were set, making me wonder if things said of one character in the canonical text might equally well apply to others. And, I should mention, it’s quite a funny pack of texts, one to which I have already returned and will no doubt return again.
Other comments on Coover’s piece can be found at Writer Response Theory – I believe Mark tipped me off to the existence of “Heart Suit” there; thanks for that.