Robert Coover has entered the narratology-ludoloy debate with his new card-story “Heart Suit” published in McSweeneys 16. Narratology seems to be winning this game of Texas Hold ‘em.

This is a tale told via a set of 15 cards, including the entire hearts suit, a joker, and a start card. It is a tale told by a master, but dealt by an idiot. Card story’s have been done before (Composition No.1 by Mark Saporta) and one could even draw a connection between this tale and the Sticker Novels.

It begins with the premise: The King of Hearts is overly fond of the Queen’s tarts, and someone has stolen them. After a list of “the usual suspects,” from the White Knight to the Jester, the hunt begins on the rest of the cards. The instructions tell the reader to follow whatever order they’d like, provided the Joker is read last. What follows is a series of interchangeable lexias that only King Coover could bake up.

Coover employs an ingenious method of creating indeterminacy by ending each card with a new sentence that has the name of a character followed by… Each card begins with a verb… So (7) may end: The Flautist… While (9) begins “…is found, nigh noon, shackled.” While this allows for many different readings, it ultimately suggests a fungibility within the court of people who are shtupping the Queen and all of whom have had some contact with the tarts.

The usual suspects of Coover’s fiction show up:

  • Sex, Sex, and bawdy innuendo
  • self-referential clues: references to labyrinths, indeterminacy, contingency, unreliable narratives, and dreams
  • hypertext allusions: references to nodes (like the pantry) that are frequently traversed, mention of a list of names on a latrine wall that anyone can add to (possible reference to Brown’s “rape lists” of a decade ago).
  • Constraints: The text on the cards play off the numbers or face name.
  • Usurped Authority: The King plays the roll of the babysitter. He no longer has control of the kiddies of the kingdom and his attempts to assert authority are signs of his loss of power.

In this tale, the kingdom is “a house of cards” –yet ultimately, no many how many times we play it, but after reading it once, as the queen points out “you know everything already” (Joker). (By the way, that’s my all-time favorite MLA citation). The Kind proceds to “shuffle through here again,” as did I (ibid). Coover here comments well on indeterminacy and combinatorics while giving us a pleasantly unified little infinitiy.

As I mentioned, Coover uses a deck of cards, but has set up, most assuredly, a narrative. But what if we used his cards to play a game. Here are some possibilities:

Traditional Card Games: 21 and War can be played reasonably with this deck of cards. In War, you read the “winning” or “losing cards.” Though, I guess there wouldn’t be any “Wars.” 21 would produce the flash fiction version of this story. Will you take another narrative hit.

CLUE/Old Maid King:
Now clue is essentially Old Main with an added degree of complexity, so perhaps we should call this Old Maid King. In this version, the 3 (which reveals the thief), the Joker and one other card will be placed in an envelope. The players will each be dealt the remaining cards. They take turns asking each other for cards, keeping track of tropes, puns, and innuendos. The first one to successfully guess the culprit is called the Lord High Chamberlain and mocked for the rest of the evening.

Coover Hearts: Up to 5 players.
Choose a role: Knave, Viceroy, Flautist, High Chamberlain, Holy Father. (The Cook and Jester only appear on two cards, and the Knight could be anyone).
All the cards are dealt. The unmarked card must be played first.
Proceed clockwise from the player who had the unmarked card.
Playing the Joker ends the game.

Your goal is to play the cards so that other characters are humiliated.
You may forfeit a turn by trading a card with a random card from another player.
You cannot play the Joker while you have other cards.

Each player has two bonus cards upon which they can insert a phrase:
Example. Player one drops the 5, which ends “The Holy Father…”
Player two drops the 4, which begins “…runs forth naked out of the pantry…”
Player three, the Holy Father, inserts a bonus card that says, “…lies but the Viceroy….” (this will divert a card.)
(Presumably lying is better than running forth naked)

Now, Bonus cards can also be inserted into bonus cards)
The next player, player three, might insert another bonus card, so that it now reads:
“lies… with sheep…but the Viceroy” (this will diverse the bonus)
(Presumably lying with sheep is more embarassing than lying)
Now, player five resumes with a card that follows, the 4.

Everyone writes what they think the subsequent card should be. Then, they vote to see if they can guess which was written by Coover.
(Possible Oulipo variations include not using the letter e, writing in concrete poetry that depicts the queen’s tarts, etc.)

Manic, the gathering. In this version, you each take a card. From the text, you assign various traits “Pith” and “Lechery.” Everyone dresses up like members of the Royal Court and watches Xena reruns.

Writers Respond Thus
(but first)
As these examples show, Coover as game would not be any better than Coover the story. Inevitably his work with the play of words and the play of meaning are rewarding games in themselves that play out in their Euclidiean shapes, their vortexes, their infinities, without the need of dice.

Saporta, Marc. Composition No. 1. Paris: Seuil, 1961.

5 Responses to “Coover and the Purloined Tarts”

  1. 1 nick

    Mark, Excellent! Something has finally lured me to go buy another McSweeney’s.

    I greatly appreciate the link and would be glad to deal you a hand of stickers in return for it, but, without having seen Coover’s story, I wanted to mention two books that seem quite clearly connected to it thematically, perhaps moreso than Implementation or Composition No. 1: One of these is Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, in which silent travelers staying at an inn deal cards to mutely tell their stories; the other is Coover’s ludic-narrative The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Prop., which is based on tabletop baseball. Formally, of course, the connection to shufflable or adhesive literature is much stronger, but the link between cards and literature, and between gaming and literature, is explored pretty richly in those two books.

    The Authors Card Game comes to mind, too…

  2. 2 Mark Marino

    Those are interesting connections, Nick. I also felt a little pull towards Invisible Cities with its interchangeable or variously re-imagined cities.

    It’s funny because I realize now that I was inspired by:
    Once Upon a Time

    This page also links to some notes on improvisational story telling, an oral interactive art form that seems to contradict Chris Crawford’s assertion that never before computers did “interactivity” play such a vital role in storytelling.

    Part of the insanity of my proposed games comes from the fact that I wanted to be able to play Coover’s story in addition to being played by it. There’s something about the fact that it always ends with the same card that seems to leave all my ergodic movements on the “trivial” side of meaning making.

  3. 3 Jeremy Douglass


    I’ve only played Once Upon a Time a few times, but I enjoyed it.

    It seems to me that what you are getting it is that fine line between top down and bottom up story generation - inductive and deductive plot, if you will. Once Upon a Time is very much inductive, allowing for a kind of freeform Russian Formalist Mad Libs. If the process fails, incoherency results. By contrast, much of hypertext / IF / etc. is deductive - if the process fails, progress stops.

    If we agree with the formalist proposition that there are kinds of moves (say the Fall or the Ascension) which are abstractly significant apart from their implementation in a concrete example (ending a relationship, being crowned king) then much of our back-and-forth over interactivity has to do with which half of the equation is being provided by the interactor - the kind of move, or the way the move is done?

    Do you get to CYOA, in which Hamlet rises or falls, but not the specifics? Or do you rather choose the precise way in which he falls, within a predefined structure of failure?

    In Once Upon a Time, you get to do both. In Coover’s cards, it seems a bit of both and a bit of neither - every sequencing action is a choice from a limited set of choices, but because identities shift across the gap, resequencing is less a question of what story happens, or how, and more a question of “to whom?”

  4. 4 Mark Marino

    Yes, I wonder if Mark Bernstein and Diane Greco’s proposals for Card Sharks and Thespis don’t better fit what I’m discussing. They even mention the possibility of assigning cards point values.

    I guess this comes to a question of combinatorics in random-access hypertexts: at what point is the user negated by the system’s structural fungibility, where choice is replaced by chance and where the some of the pieces is always the same.

  5. 5 Tim Ramick

    I wrote a structure a couple years ago, called Foursquare, after the playground game, in which the page is divided into quadrants and the reader can begin in any square and move to any other square on the page (or any on the next page). The last page wraps around to the first page (or one can backtrack through the pages). This, as well as other structured works (some more successfully attempted than others) can be found here in .pdf format:

    Not one of them, I confess, is quite as provocative as Coover’s, and it is unlikely any of them could be made into games (or at least games that would be fun to play).

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