In Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” the experimental application of chronology renders it a textbook example of how post-modernistic writing can be a welcome return to storytelling as an end in itself. While clearly based in a very familiar late-twentieth century suburban neighborhood, the short story’s delivery of information elicits a most visceral reaction from the reader. Babies, toddlers, children, teenagers, adults, television characters and pinball machines are manipulated by men, women, boys and girls in a sequence that screams to be silenced. Not wanting to discover our worst fears, we read on.
More than simply a description of a Friday night gone wrong, “The Babysitter” uses a seemingly unorganized sequence of events (which incidentally can be organized if enough time is given to it—though doing so falls in the category of crime, I think) to simply affect the reader. The successful employment of this technique results in a victorious argument for the joy of reading.
Did a father molest a girl? Did that girl sleep with those evil boys? What the heck happened in the bathroom? Those questions are only asked by readers who just recently finished Aesop’s Fables. For Coover there is no moral. There is no guiding principle. There is no lesson. And this real-time affect the story has on the reader? It dissipates in the same amount of time it takes to read from the opening paragraph to the second paragraph’s first line.
The taboo subject matter is not taboo—though certainly still intended for adults—when conveyed using this post-modern form. There is a certain genius demonstrated in the ability to make what is become what is not. In “The Babysitter,” we enter a house full of distorting confusions and leave feeling better for it.