The Babysitter by Robert Coover, 1969
The magic trick:
Presenting the real and the imagined without telling the reader which is which
Robert Coover doesn’t have time for your boring, old straight-line stories. Sure, he could tell you what happened in the order that it happened. But why bother when he can make an even more powerful point by scattering events – both real and imagined – throughout the text with no adherence to chronology?
“The Babysitter” is separated into different chunks, each from a different character’s point of view. The real kicker: Coover oh-so-cleverly uses pronouns in place of names, so it often is not clear from whose point of view we are reading. Very quickly, the reader becomes aware that some of these chunks – maybe most of these chunks – detail events that are only imagined. It all becomes chaotic and cacophonous in the best possible way.
This is not to say the story fails to build tension and drama and danger. Even if the reader doesn’t know which of these sections is really happening, the mere possibility that any could be reality causes anxiety enough.
The swapping of points of view and pronouns also further emphasizes the sense of sexuality. There is a massive sense of aggressive sex, repressed sex, obsessive sex. And since we don’t know which character is imagining which sexual scenario, it begins to just feel like the whole world – adults, adolescents and children alike – is lost in paranoid delusions of sexual tension. Which of course is the whole point. And that’s quite a trick on Coover’s part.
She’s watching television. All alone. It seems like a good time to go in. Just remember: really, no matter what she says, she wants it. They’re standing in the bushes, trying to get up the nerve. “We’ll tell her to be good,” Mark whispers, “and if she’s not good, we’ll spank her.” Jack giggles softly, but his knees are weak. She stands. They freeze. She looks right at them. “She can’t see us,” Mark whispers tensely. “Is she coming out?”“No,” says Mark, “She’s going into – that must be the bathroom!” Jack takes a deep breath, his heart pounding. “Hey, is there a window back there?” Mark asks.