Literary Hub

On the Destabilizing Brilliance of Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter”

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Robert Coover’s oft-anthologized (and ofter-taught) story “The Babysitter” begins unremarkably. The babysitter arrives at the Tuckers’ house. It’s 7:40. She’s ten minutes late. After that, it’s a little hard to describe. Over the course of the story, told in 106 fragments separated by white space, the babysitter will invite her boyfriend Jack over, and not invite him over. Jack will call her and it will go well and it will go poorly. Jack will come to the house with his friend Mark and they will watch television together, and they will rape her, and Jack will prevent Mark from raping her, and the babysitter will seduce them into a threesome, and they will be interrupted by Mr. Tucker, who has come home to seduce the babysitter. They will be outside looking through the window when Mr. Tucker comes, and they will be inside on the couch with the babysitter when Mr. Tucker comes, and they will run away and Mr. Tucker will kick them out and rape the babysitter himself, and they will peacefully watch television while Mr. Tucker goes to the bathroom. Mr. Tucker will get there first and they’ll find him, and Mr. Tucker will not find them at all. Everyone will take a bath, and will not take a bath. On the television, one of a number of programs will play: people will fight and murder each other and make love. The babysitter will drown in the bath and the baby will choke on its diaper pin and the babysitter will do the dishes before Mr. Tucker drives her home at the end of the night. In the end, the babysitter will be dead, along with all three of the children, and she will also be just waking up after dozing in front of the television at the end of an uneventful evening. You see what I mean.

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.

The magic is this: you don’t know what happens in the story. It is told by a third person narrator, but close behind the consciousness of multiple characters: the babysitter, Mr. Tucker, Mrs. Tucker, Jack, the children, even the television. Fine, we’re used to this. But the story as presented doesn’t make sense. Things move forward quasi-chronologically—we are given periodic time stamps, which do not double back; this is a thrown bone—though sometimes simultaneously (reading it again this week, I couldn’t help but think of “Jeremy Bearimy”). But Coover keeps revising the turn of events, presenting multiple possibilities for every character and every moment, without weighting one over another. Everything that could happen with these scattered characters over these few hours does happen. Which also means it does not happen—because of course not everything can. (Are we sure about that?)

Furthering the overall confusion is the fact that some of what we read is clearly marked as fantasy, and some isn’t. Mr. Tucker fantasizes about the babysitter while he’s at the party, and then he goes back to his house to act on his fantasies. Or not, because there’s no real indication in the text that the fantasy has ended.

(Returning to the first paragraph after reading through the story, the paragraph that’s supposed to be “unremarkable,” a normal beginning, I was struck by the subtle markers of the destabilization you’re about to experience: the babysitter is late, but she’s also not late, because Mr. and Mrs. Tucker and not ready to go. Then: “From other rooms come the sounds of a baby screaming, water running, a television musical (no words: probably a dance number—patterns of gliding figures come to mind).” Instantly we are provided with a kind of layering effect, the sense of multiple scenarios playing out at once, with undue emphasis on the television. And it’s not entirely obvious who’s mind those gliding figures are coming to—is it the babysitter’s or the narrator’s?)

Anyway, if you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, I shouldn’t have to tell you that this story breaks all the rules. You’re supposed to pick one point of view and stick with it. You’re supposed to write a timeline that makes sense. You’re supposed to be clear about what’s happening in the story. You’re supposed to identify your characters when they think or speak or do things. Like, all the time! But this, of course, is what makes “The Babysitter” so brilliant. Coover flouts the rules, and in doing so has written a story about story.

In Understanding Robert Coover, Brian Evenson writes:

“The Babysitter” is metafiction at its best. It not only forces us to think about fiction, about how stories are put together, but it also gives us all the enjoyment that one—or several—conventional and suspenseful stories might provide. It offers a critique of the concerns of contemporary life, points out the superficialities of lives whose most intense relationships seem to be with the TV. In the place of the purified, monolithic, and officially sanctioned myths of the dominant order, in place of rarefied stories with a moral message, in place of realism or sexploitation or suspense, Coover offers a piece of fiction that gives all the versions, that offers all the merry and not so merry possibilities of life. It is a story that quivers with possibility without ever gelling into one narrative. “The Babysitter” represents all that fiction usually discards, all it tends to repress.

The very experience of reading the story proves its metafictional point. The entire time, as you read, you wait to find out the “truth”—to discover what “really” happened. Even when you’ve read the story before. You think you can figure it out, pick out the secret strand of the actual within all the red herrings and fantasies. This story exposes our stubborn insistence about what a story is. Or as Maya Sonenberg puts it in an essay:

The events and their combinations proliferate endlessly but the story’s plots and characters also call out separately: “Follow me! No, follow me! It won’t be easy but once you do, you’ll figure out what really happened. Believe us!” My need for order and for answers is irrepressible, no matter how very hard the text right in front of me cautions against the search—or is it enticing me to search and teasing me with order even as it jettisons both caution and order? The story’s ticking clock seduces me into thinking that there can’t possibly be countless plots at work but just a few, or really, maybe just one, if I can only figure it out. If I just decide which character’s path to follow—the real path, the one true way—I will be able to dismiss all the others as fantasy or madness or the mutterings of the TV. Indeed, following the path of a single character through this story might be possible, but followed together, the contradictions tangle, form a dense web, and are finally impossible to tease apart. . . . 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.

Coover does not satisfy this desire. And yet, there is another desire that he does satisfy. As William H. Gass said in a review of the collection Pricksongs & Descants, “our author says yes to everything; we’ve been reading a remarkable fugue—the stock fears and wishes, desires and dangers of our time done into Bach.” You’re reading this story; you’re reading every story. In this sense, the television is particularly important. Sure, it’s a critique of our modern obsessions, the “desires and dangers of our time,” but also I can’t help but think: every conceivable story is playing out on the television at all times. Which one you buy into—because we do buy in—depends on the channel to which you turn. In that light, “The Babysitter” mimics flipping through the channels.

Is the story sexist? I have heard that it is, but I don’t think so. It’s true that the story sexualizes a teenage girl (who is, importantly, nameless, unless her name is Jeannie) and traffics largely in male fantasies about her body. But these fantasies are not exactly indulged—the story paints the men as monsters and creeps (making calls and hanging up, their faces dodging in and out of the window), and also allows the babysitter some creepy fantasies of her own (perhaps she does seduce that little boy). In some ways, the story is a warning: sure, buddy, you might get what you fantasize about—but everyone might also end up dead. Is it worth it?

In the end, we are offered two competing possibilities for the final moments of the night. It’s worth pointing out that for the first time in the story, Coover weights his hand very slightly. Here’s the first option, which ends the story at the Tucker house:

[The babysitter] wakes, startled, to find Mr. Tucker hovering over her. “I must have dozed off!” she exclaims. “Did you hear the news about the babysitter?” Mrs. Tucker asks. “Part of it,” she says, rising. “Too bad. wasn’t it?” Mr. Tucker is watching the report of the ball scores and golf tournaments. “I’ll drive you home in just a minute, dear,” he says. “Why, how nice!” Mrs. Tucker exclaims from the kitchen. “The dishes are all done!”

Here’s the second option, which ends the story with Mrs. Tucker at the party:

“What can I say, Dolly?” the host says with a sigh, twisting the buttered strands of her ripped girdle between his fingers. “Your children are murdered, your husband gone, a corpse in your bathtub, and your house is wrecked. I’m sorry. But what can I say?” On the TV, the news is over, and they’re selling aspirin. “Hell, I don’t know,” she says. “Let’s see what’s on the late late movie.”

Both, we notice, highlight the television. But the first option is realistic; the second fantastical—even despite the hilarious surreality of the ordeal Mrs. Dolly Tucker has endured at the party, which I won’t ruin for you by describing, it is possible. What isn’t possible is the host’s knowledge of the events of the story—even if we imagine he just saw them on the news, how would he know her husband was gone?—or either of their cold reactions to them. Coover employs traditional fairy tale flatness here, and though it’s not the only place in the story where he does, it subtly suggests that the latter ending is the fantasy.

But of course, it doesn’t really matter. I like to think of “The Babysitter” as Schrödinger’s short story: until you open the box, the babysitter is dead and the babysitter is alive. The babysitter’s panties are both hanging like a broken balloon from the rabbit ear antennae on the TV, and they are securely under her skirt, and they are on the floor, where she wants them. The only problem is there’s no way to open the box.

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