Without a reader of his own, he creates one in a story he calls “The Reader.” He decides that she is sensitive, intelligent, discerning, appreciative, widely read—in short, his perfect reader—and she is also exquisitely beautiful with an endearing smile and a loving, compliant nature. She professes to adore his writing, written specifically for her to read, which encourages him to believe she adores him too. Well, of course she does, it’s his story, how could she do otherwise? So, she loves him, adores him, but necessarily in the abstract, as a reader loves the absent writer, alive or dead, lacking the circumstances to express her love more directly, which is his plight as well. He writes a poem inspired by her, brilliant in concept and powerful in its execution, and she reads it, adores it, clasps it to her breasts. Having designed them himself, he knows everything about those breasts. When she presses the poem to them, it’s as though his hands are there too, his lips. But they are not. He can’t touch them, though he knows she longs for him to do so. Because he loves her and wants her to be happy, he invents a handsome young man to keep her company, himself genteel, highly literate, of a warm and generous nature. This development in his story happens during a visit one morning to his local bookstore. As he sits there in the worn leather chair where he always sits, having a second cup of coffee, browsing yesterday’s newspapers, and taking notes in his little blue notepad, he decides that this is where the two will meet, and they do. She is reading one of his books. The young man has also read it. It is their shared affection for the author that brings them together. The man takes another of the author’s books down from the shelf and remarks on its narrative subtleties, its irresistible lyricism, its nobility of purpose. She is awed by his intimate knowledge of a book so dear to her. Soon they are naked. Love blooms between them. She is happy. But he who has brought all this about is not. In fact, writing about them, he suffers a terrible surge of jealousy at the very moment the young man kisses her breasts. Never mind that this man also loves his writing, he’s gone. Hit by a truck. A tragedy. She is deeply sorrowed, being a sensitive person, but too bad, he was not right for her. She knows that now. So he enters the story himself. Or someone bearing his name and likeness does. They meet in the same bookstore. He is sitting at a table, giving a public reading to a packed, admiring audience and, at the moment she first sees him, she forgets her grief and falls desperately in love with him. It is total surrender. He may do with her as he pleases. First, of course, he has to introduce himself. She does that for him by handing him a book to sign, telling him that it is her favorite of all he has written, and the greatest book she has ever read. He smiles up at her, catching the lovelight in her eyes, his own eyes perhaps reflecting it. It is, he says evocatively, a mere trifle compared to the book he is working on now. She gasps in recognition of the revelatory moment, her hand at those breasts where his will soon be. Perhaps she intuits that the new book is for her and for her alone. Would you like a cup of coffee, he asks in a seductive manner, returning the signed book to her, or perhaps a glass of wine? No, thank you, says the woman sitting in the worn leather chair opposite him with a book in her lap, staring at him with something between curiosity, concern, and alarm. He apologizes, explaining that he is an actor; he is auditioning for a play and was practicing his lines. It’s called “The Reader,” he says when she asks, as he leaves the bookstore, intending never to return. The reader has also left the bookstore. She is in the apartment of the famous writer she has just met, which is to say, his own apartment, or one much like it, though cleaner and more elegantly furnished, with famous etchings on the walls instead of pages torn from magazines. She is admiring his vast library (not much room for etchings actually). Have you read all these books? she asks. All those in this room, yes. The unread ones are in the bedroom. May I see them? Of course. She picks one up from the stack on his bedside table. By now she is naked again. She does this so easily. The writer in the story is also removing his clothes. As is he himself, less gracefully perhaps than the other two. But what next? He has his hero and heroine naked in a bedroom together, and they’re excited, he’s excited, but the story is going nowhere. Her radiant beauty, all the more dazzling with her clothes off, has made him forget who she is. Should she be reading something? The book she has picked up, he sees, is a science fiction novel about creatures from outer space, which does not seem promising. He decides to put his clothes on again and go back to the bookstore. Luckily the chair he prefers is unoccupied and the same woman is in the chair opposite. It is all quite convenient, and he wonders for a moment if he is in a story someone else is writing. The woman asks him if he got the part for which he was auditioning and he apologizes and explains that really he is a writer, not an actor. He had been trying to invade the thoughts and feelings of his characters and became so intensely engaged with them that he got carried away and started speaking their lines out loud, but was ashamed to say so. She finds that quite amusing and says she knows how it can happen. He asks if she is also a writer and she replies that, no, she is only a reader, but she has often heard writers talk about getting confused as to what was real in their lives and what was imaginary, and sometimes something like that happens to her as a reader. He asks her if she has ever felt like she was living in somebody else’s story. All the time, she says. But I’m never the main character, she adds with a sad smile. She recalls the line he spoke aloud about going for a glass of wine, and asks if that offer is still on. Soon they are both naked, lying on a mattress in her apartment, each with a glass of red wine on the floor beside them. It seems to him that it has happened as easily as in the story he is writing. She is not beautiful and the book she has been reading is a cheap romance, but he is grateful to her. The love felt between the writer, the one who is like himself and bears his name, and the beautiful reader has been consummated, and now the story can move on. She is still deliriously in love, of course, but what about him? On the one hand, he knows that he owes it to his public to remain true to his craft, undistracted by wives and lovers, and on the other, she is his public. The beautiful reader turns toward him with a dreamy smile. I am so honored, she whispers, and his heart melts. As am I, he murmurs, yet he understands that something has been broken between them. You are beautiful, he adds, but—and his heart aches to say so—you have ruined my story. Her smile does not change. She seems not to have heard him. Well, of course, it was not the writer in his story who said this, it was he himself. The woman lying next to him has risen, perhaps offended. She is already dressing. If you have any money, she says, I’ll go buy us a pizza. He untangles his cast-off pants and fishes around in the pockets, realizing that he is indeed very hungry. In his creative throes, he has forgotten about eating. While he’s on his hands and knees doing that, she whops his behind. See what else I can ruin, she says with a crooked grin and swats it again. Mushrooms, pepperoni, sausage, extra cheese, and garlic? Great. He hands her a bill and, with a wink, sinks back on the mattress. He will leave his writer and reader to their own uncertainties. This is how a story ought to end.
Robert Coover is the author of three story collections, including Pricksongs and Descants; and ten novels, among them The Origin of the Brunists, The Public Burning, and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (all Grove Press). His most recent books are Noir (Overlook) and A Child Again (McSweeney’s).