PINOCCHIO IN VENICE By Robert Coover Linden Press/Simon and Schuster 330 pp. $19.95
PINOCCHIO IN VENICE is a relentlessly bawdy and boisterous novel in which the story of the puppet who turns into a boy is freely adapted as the vehicle for a Cooverian farrago of exuberant wordplay, Rabelaisian grotesquerie and ironic reflections on the human condition. Episodic in structure, animated by a vast, bizarre crew of characters and creatures and phantasmagorical in its constant wild shifts and transformations, the book does contain one distinct narrative thread: the quest of Professor Pinenut for his Mamma.
We open with the professor, "world-renowned art historian and critic, social anthropologist, moral philosopher, and theological gadfly," arriving in Venice on a snowy winter night. A Nobel laureate, he has come from America to finish what he hopes will be the masterpiece, and coda, of a distinguished intellectual career. Seeking shelter and heavily burdened with baggage, he finds himself embarked on a bewildering succession of humiliations and abasements. Before long he loses everything, including his manuscript and computer, and filthy with his own excrement falls into the hands of the police.
By this point, tone and tempo have been set, and a frenzied, almost hysterical momentum sweeps both story and language forward. "The professor howls and fumes and crawls about in the tumbling snow and bright lights, demanding, pleading, explaining, chastising, but it's as though the language has lost its referents and is only good for the noise it makes. 'My computer! My life! My entire career -- ' 'Ha ha! don't give us that to drink, you miserable little blister!' they jeer. 'You pezzo di puzzo! You piece of garbage! You shrunken scrotum! You stinking smoke salesman! You gangrenous turd!' They seem to be having a great time." Such scatological matter, and there's plenty of it, is tempered however with glimpses of far loftier stuff, ideas about art, divinity, moral value, ontology. This conflation of high and low, sacred and profane, is quite deliberately executed: the point is to elevate the grossly physical and to ridicule sublimity, transcendence, humanism and academic pretension.
The story of a wooden puppet with a voice and a personality offers a perfectly serviceable framework for just this sort of project, and Coover exploits the possibilities with gusto, venting a vigorously satirical spleen on anything and everything that smacks, however faintly, of the metaphysical. Professor Pinenut is rescued in due course, but as his saviors (a pair of mangy hounds) discourse blasphemously on classical and medieval theology, he discovers to his horror he is turning to wood: He is, in fact, Pinocchio. His ears fall off, his nipples fall off, and he is freezing -- until a lubricious and wanton American co-ed called Bluebell enters the picture. She will be implicated in our hero's quest for Mamma, but for now she's the focus of all his erotic longings.
By this point it's clear that for Pinocchio there is only anguish and humiliation in selfhood, and the sole promise of peace lies in the fusion below: the return to Mamma. But he still has a way to go. He finds himself trapped in a metal rubbish basket, with the pigeons using him as a "public restroom." He is caught in a riot, flung into a canal, again rescued, this time by his old schoolmate Eugenio, and examined by doctors, one of whom pronounces that he is "suffering from lignivorous invasions of all kinds, evil eruptions of xylostroma, probable sclerosis of the resin canals, peduncular collapse, weevil infestation, and galloping wet rot." Then comes Carnival, and "The Procession In Honor of Count Agnello Ziani-Ziani Orseolo and The Madonna of The Organs," truly an orgy of sexual grotesquerie. As for the Madonna, she wears "all her insides on her outside." During the procession Pinocchio glimpses Bluebell again, bare-breasted and "freely exhibiting to the delight of his captive eye every thrilling line and posture of her piquant body . . ."
But before he can attain her he suffers further torments, including being embedded in pizza dough, baked in an oven, and almost devoured alive.
This is an erudite, complex book, but one begins to feel that the subtext is a touch reductive: the message seems to be that all a man has is gross physical existence (the stress on gross), and a matricentric sex drive -- and everything else is fatuous cant. Pinocchio eventually finds a sort of fulfilment, ingenious in terms of the rich formal conversation the book has been intermittently conducting with itself throughout, though there is in it too a howl of despair and disillusion with language, knowledge, morality -- with all the apparently specious products of human consciousness.
Despite its verve and its cleverness, the novel often feels strangely static: There are patches where the academic jokes are too obscure, the scatology too relentless, the wild accumulation of wild events too bewildering, and the vim and zip merely strain and fatigue. But for all that Pinocchio in Venice is as meaty a blast of sustained intellectual skepticism as one could wish for. It's also a rich tribute to its true heroine, that "shabby but bejeweled old tart of a city," Venice herself.
Patrick McGrath is the author of "Blood and Water and Other Tales," "The Grotesque" and, most recently, "Spider."