Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady

Friday nights are not what they used to be. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Cross your heart and tell me honestly –  are you sure you want your pre-lockdown Friday nights back? 

I guess that depends on how you spent them. All night bar-hopping can be fun, yes, but how much do you miss waking up to that slap of remorse on Saturday morning?

Going to movies is certainly missed – but thanks to Netflix at least there are options. What I am longing for most, though, what I’ve truly got an appetite for, is dinner somewhere nice. Flickering candles, starched napkins, the background buzz of fellow diners. I miss the leisurely perusing of a menu, now replaced with the wearied scanning of instructions on yet another supermarket deal.

Guess what – those dinner places miss us too; and more than that – they need our support as they struggle to stay afloat. The once guilty ritual of a takeaway has become a good deed! Tap in to those karma points and order something local. 

What ‘Dinner with a Book’ will do is provide you with a delicious theme and good company. ‘Company’? I hear you ask. 

But no, we won’t accompany you ourselves, and we won’t suggest you break the rules with illicit meet-ups. For what is better company than a good book? 

Let’s start this Lunar year with a new routine: stop by your library, get the book, then pick up that takeaway. Come home, set up the solo dinnertable of your dreams, and live your Fridays anew.


Robert Coover  –  Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady

The three stories that make up this little pocketbook, were selected by Penguin from Robert Coover’s larger book of short fiction ‘Pricksongs & Descants’, to celebrate half a century of their Modern Classics series. It is a good sample of that book and a fair introduction to his work, and it cost just £3.00 in 2011, which was the price of a fancy cup of coffee. In case you had to choose between the two, consuming these grotesque, violent and erotic stories would provide a longer-lasting mental clarity, if you want bang-for-your-buck, that is.

The first story, after which this book is named, is a ludicrous circus romance between a Thin Man and his Fat Lady, who are ‘more or less the ultimate image of our common everyday romances’ taken to extremes. All these two really want is to meet halfway: gaining muscles and loosing weight where necessary, but what fun is that? Mr Ringmaster keeps them on steady diets of overeating and starving, investing food/lack of it into their valuable laughing stock.

Except Fat Lady doesn’t want to be fat anymore. She’s depressed, not eating well, her fat and her ability to entertain are diminishing and Mr Ringmaster is considering selling her. The night before the sale of the poor Fat Lady he is overthrown and castrated by rebellious performers, who wonder why they ever needed him in the first place:

‘Suddenly it hits you, see. All your life you been looking at circuses and you say, that’s how circuses are. But what if they ain’t? What if that’s all a goddamn myth propagated by Ringmasters? You dig? What if it’s all open-ended, and we can, if we want to, live by love?’

Next story, ’The Babysitter’, is well-known for its experimental, broken-up narrative. Married middle-aged couple goes to a dinner party, leaves their kids with a teenage babysitter, then they come back. That’s the plot. What Robert Coover does is create a funhouse of alternative scenarios where: babysitter sexually abuses the boy; babysitter is sexually abused by the father who comes back ’to get some aspirin’; while he’s at it, his wife, who is wearing a girdle and still at the party, goes to the bathroom and then can’t put that girdle back on, so party guests take turns trying to push her back into it, basting her midriff with warm butter where necessary; babysitter’s boyfriend and his pal come to rape babysitter; babysitter murders one of the children, etc. These narratives start blending together and suddenly it makes sense that they can co-exist, and Schrödinger’s cat can be dead and alive at the same time, and even walk from one steel chamber to another and back again.

In the last story, ’A Pedestrian Accident’, Paul is hit by a truck. He’s laying perpendicular to the truck, conscious but mute. Crowd gathers. The driver claims Paul walked right into his ‘poor ole truck’, ’just burstin for a bustin!’ Policeman arrives and starts questioning. What follows resembles a reality TV show with more characters from the crowd emerging and demanding to be heard. A doctor arrives (‘Oh, thank God! – I’d rather you thanked the profession’), he insists on moving the truck in order to examine Paul, which results in Paul being run over two more times. The audience is either laughing, cheering, being horrified or approaching to examine the ‘mulligan stew’ his body is turned into, but eventually everyone gets bored and leaves.

Paul is still alive at the end of the story, a beggar near him waiting to take clothes off the corpse and a pack of dogs approaching to feed on that mulligan stew. He wonders: ‘How much longer must this go on?’

Obviously, these are not ’soup for soul’ type of stories. They push boundaries and imagination from the familiar arbitrary constraints, make us self-aware and less likely to join the portrayed cruel audiences, hungry for entertainment. Yes, they are uncomfortable, but no one is preaching to us (oh, thank God!). There’s no deception either, for:

‘We can hang on to nothing. Least of all the simple.’

Of course we all wish this were not true; that life were more than a carnival, and our grand plans, struggles and dreams worth more than peanuts. They are. They are not. We don’t have to live by one narrative, is what Robert Coover says. 

Putting words into action, these churros, inspired by the carnival theme of his work, are supposedly going to bring me several hundred calories closer to the Fat Lady. But that’s only if I’m limited by nutritionally simple explanations of the world. Which I, (*cheerily chomping chocolate churros), am not.


‘Dinner with a Book’ is a new Londnr feature created & written by book blogger, Yelena from Foliovore.

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