Coover, Robert. "Charlie in the House of Rue".
The Beautiful Woman in the Hallway: Charlie finds himself in the middle of the hallway of a posh mansion. The place is well-kept and in perfect order. The white-and-black chequered floor is waxed, the balustrade of the broad staircase is polished. The hall is brightly lit by a crystal chandelier. There are paintings and mirrors, a wide-antlered deer’s head is mounted over one of the doors. The staircase is banked by large leafy plants. At first Charlie stands as though amazed but then he starts examining the place curiously. He discovers a box of cigars lying on a table and helps himself to one. He has nothing but holes in his pockets so he asks a suit of armour for a light. There is naturally no response. When he is about to pocket the cigar box, he notices a beautiful but strangely baleful young woman standing on the stair landing. She is wearing a long white gown. He offers a cigar, but she keeps gazing past him unseeing. Charlie returns the box apologetically to its place and backs away out of the hall.
The Fat Man in the Kitchen: Charlie now finds himself in a large kitchen with a wealth of various kitchen utensils and provisions. Fire is blazing in the open hearth, freshly baked custard pies are set out to cool on a counter. ‘There’s no place like home,’ says a tiled plaque on the wall. In the middle of the room there is a table at which a fat bald-headed man sits. He has thick moustaches, wide suspenders and a bright white napkin tucked under his double chin. He is staring lugubriously at a steaming bowl of soup set before him. Charlie asks the man for a light, but the man completely ignores him and continues staring sullenly at his soup. Charlie proceeds to taste his soup. He adds some salt. He is about to add some pepper but is overcome by a mighty sneeze which sends the soup flying into the man’s face. There is no reaction from the man, though soup is dripping from his moustaches. Charlie backs away fearfully through the nearest door.
The Maid in the Boudoir: Charlie finds himself in a lady’s boudoir. There is a profusion of mirrors, flowers and fancy clothing; shoes and flimsy underthings are scattered over the floor. A beautiful young woman is standing beside the bed, removing her negligee. Charlie covers his eyes in embarrassment and makes himself to go, but the door is gone, and he smacks up against the wall. The undressing woman disappears, and a maid appears in her place. She is wearing a black uniform with a white apron and is bent over making the rumpled bed. Charlie examines the room inquisitively. When he is finished, he starts to lift the maid’s skirt with his cane. She pays him no heed. Charlie goes on hooking the skirt, when suddenly the lights go out. They come on again, and Charlie is seen holding his cane with the skirt hanging from it. The maid is frozen in a position with a big O of mock surprise on her lips, her white bloomers reflected several times in the surrounding mirrors. The lights go out and come on again. The maid is back making the bed, bent nearly double and peeking coquettishly at Charlie between her knees. Charlie watches with terror as his cane rips away the maid’s skirt again and backs frantically out of the room.
Back to the Lady on the Staircase: On his escape Charlie loses his balance and falls over the balustrade. He grasps for something to hold on to, which turns out to be the end of a ribbon bound around the waist of the beautiful lady on the stair landing. The ribbon unwinds and slows down his fall. Charlie accidentally sends flying a large porcelain vase in his fall. He manages to catch it and sets it carefully back. Then he deliberately knocks the vase to the tiled floor, it shatters into pieces. The lady does not notice anything: ‘She stares off into the distance as before, as though crushed by grief, or regret, her loosened ribbons hanging down like hopes abandoned’ (p. 91). In order to attract her attention, Charlie commences to perform funny tricks. He smashes another vase, eats up his cigar, tosses roses at her, dances a wistful little arabesque with a rose between his teeth. All to no avail. Then unexpectedly the lady reaches out to touch his face, Charlie ducks his head shyly and in the instant finds himself somersaulting backwards down the stairs.
The Old Man in the Library: Charlie finds himself now in a library. The floor is covered with Oriental carpets, there are bulky leather chairs and overstuffed sofas. The room is decorated by classical statuary, multitudinous clocks and large dark paintings. The windows are thickly draped, and a chandelier with milky hemispheres is lit. There is a drink trolley with glittering glasses and bottles of liquor. At the trolley there stands an old man with a long white goatee and a pince-nez, wearing a formal black suit and a silk top hat. The man drinks alone, and Charlie attempts to join him: ‘Charlie simpers, dips, doffs his derby, hangs it on his cane over his shoulder, holds a glass out hopefully, but the old man, his pale face desolated by some inconsolable sorrow, ignores it’ (p. 92). Charlie distracts the man’s attention and switches glasses, replacing the filled glass with an empty one. Charlie takes a box of matches out of the man’s pocket and finally lights his cigar. He makes himself comfortable on a sofa. The man gazes down at Charlie through his pince-nez and continues pouring the liquor, though the glass is already overflowing. Charlie supplies new glasses, drinks some and pours out others, while the man keeps on emptying the bottle until it falls from his hand. Charlie tries to reach his hat on the end of his cane and while doing so, he keeps on breaking the vases and statues and tearing the paintings. The man takes a new bottle and Charlie attempts to return to him, but the floor keeps tipping him in the other direction.
The Policeman in the Bathroom: Charlie finds himself in a bathroom. He has fallen into an empty bathtub. He keeps on slipping and sliding drunkenly in the tub, trying to get out. His hat gets mashed down over his nose, but he discovers a toilet plunger and uses the rubber suction cup to free himself. Now he can see a helmeted policeman with a large handlebar moustache fishing in the toilet bowl, using his cane for a rod. Charlie tries to take his cane back, and there is a struggle between the two. Meanwhile the line goes out of the toilet and there is a crab hooked on the end. The crab whirls around the room, smashing mirrors and bottles, while the men fight for the cane. One of the crab’s pincers catches Charlie’s nose and the other the policeman’s. Charlie manages to get rid of his pincer and attaches it to the policeman’s big toe. Pleased by his victory, Charlie stamps on one of the policeman’s feet and tickles the other, then he sticks the toilet plunger onto the policeman’s backside and exits.
Back to the Man in the Kitchen: Charlie is back to the kitchen now. He attempts to light his wet cigar at the fireplace but ends up with his face smudged and the cigar remaining unlit. He mashes it out on what turns out to be the bald head of the man at the table. Charlie sweeps the cigar off his head with a straw broom, but the butt falls in the man’s soup. Staring in horror at what he had done, Charlie goes to fetch the man a fresh bowl. He is too drunk to manage, and the soup is eventually spilt all over the place and the man: ‘The man, meanwhile, has not stirred, has not even ceased his dark sullen stare’ (p. 97). Charlie starts to provoke the man, he teases him, challenges him to a fist fight, assaults him, but all to no avail. Finally, closing his eyes, he slaps a custard pie into the man’s face.
Character Transformations: When Charlie opens his eyes again, he sees that the pie hit the face of the beautiful lady on the hallway landing. He stares at her smeared face in shock and disbelief, then he pulls down some heavy drapes and uses them as a towel. He wipes her face and dabs gently at her eyes: ‘The lady stands there by the balustrade, high above the checkerboard marble floor below, gazing off vacantly, wistfully, her face crusted with custard and pastry flakes’ (p. 98). Suddenly Charlie realizes that he is back to the library, dabbing at the eyes of the old man. Tears run down the old man’s cheeks, and he gazes at Charlie imploringly. The man now wears a black armband. The library is in debris, books spilled from their shelves, vases smashed, mirrors shattered, glasses strewn. Charlie is unable to stop dabbing at the man’s eyes. One of his eyes oozes out of its socket, and Charlie pushes it back. The other eye begins to ooze out, and Charlie claps his hand against the extruding eye. It is not the eye that Charlie is holding now, but the maid’s bared bottom. She is still making the bed, her bloomers around her ankles. Charlie recoils, trips over his cane and runs away in blind panic while the maid blows him a kiss.
Through the Keyhole: Charlie arrives to the kitchen. The fat man is standing at the table and pissing sullenly into his soup. When he is finished, he kneels at a door, scowling darkly, and starts peering intently through the keyhole. He is immobile, as if spellbound, and Charlie cannot force him to make some space for him, too. When Charlie manages to catch a glimpse through the keyhole, he is greatly alarmed by what he sees and frantically tries to drag the door open. He fails to push the man away, even smashing a chair over is head is of no use. Finally he takes a large safety pin holding up his pants and rams the point deep into the man’s behind. He dashes past the man out the door and reaches the landing. The lady at the landing has fashioned herself a noose out of the pullcord from the drapes and is tying the loose end around the railing of the balustrade. She is intent on hanging herself: ‘Charlie reaches toward her, but something in her dark clotted earnestness holds him back’ (p. 100).
To Save the Lady Suicide: Charlie pleads with the lady, cajoles, blusters, all to no avail. He tries to draw her attention by prancing around her in a frenzied imitation of glee, taking pratfalls and bumping his head. He seems to be successful at last: ‘The woman wipes a blob of custard pie from her cheek as though brushing away a tear, seems to have forgotten the rope around her neck’ (p. 101). He discovers an old cigarette butt on him and pretends to light it and smoke, strutting up and down the landing. He acts out comic situations and eventually manages to win the lady’s interest. Then during one trick, Charlie knocks the lady accidentally over the balustrade. She is twisting and jerking at the end of the cord to free herself. He can reach her neither from the landing nor from below and he lacks the strength to pull her back up. He spies the suit of armour and tries to take its halberd to cut the knot. The halberd is permanently locked into the gauntlet. Charlie drags the whole apparatus up to the landing and tries to cut the knot. The blade of the halberd flies off and disappears through an open doorway.
To Find a Helping Hand: Charlie runs after the blade. He enters a bedroom where the maid, wearing nothing but her apron, is writhing provocatively. She draws out the blade dripping with blood. Charlie dashes out another door. Back to the hallway, he pushes a chair under the mounted deer’s head, hauls himself up on the head and tries to reach the hanging lady. The head rips away from the wall, and Charlie crashes to the floor. Charlie walks through a door and finds himself in the bathroom. He begs the policeman present to go with him. The policeman makes himself to go but he steps on a bar of soap and falls on the floor. Charlie tries to help him up, but the man strikes him with his billy-club. The situation is repeated about seven times. Charlie stumbles despairingly out of the bathroom. Back to the landing, he tries to bite through the cord with his teeth: ‘Her body, still twitching faintly in its long white gown, turns slowly round and round below him at the end of the rope, her eyes staring up at him in black anguish, her long flowing hair tangled and pasty with custard pie’ (p. 104). The light starts to dim. Charlie is dismayed: ‘Her mouth opens slowly as if to speak, her swollen tongue emerging like a final stiff rebuke’ (p. 104).
Confronting the Lusty Maid: Charlie runs through another door in search of something to cut the knot with. He finds himself in the boudoir where he spots a pair of silver scissors. The lights go out and when they go on again, the scissors are in the hands of the maid. She is wearing her bloomers and apron and is snipping the buttons off the front of her vest with the scissors. She whips her bodice open and flashes her breasts at him. Charlie tries to make his escape but he accidentally crashes into the maid, and they fall together onto the unmade bed. The room falls into haze, only the maid is brighter then ever. The maid shakes her apron at Charlie, holding the scissors between her teeth like a rose. She backs Charlie up against a wall and rips his shorts away. Charlie opens his mouth to scream, but she stuffs it with one of her plump breasts. She starts to trim away his small moustache with the scissors. Her breast gets caught in Charlie’s throat, and now they both struggle to free themselves. When they are separated, the maid tosses him the scissors and crawls under a table: ‘She is curled up under the dressing table, her thumb in her mouth, like a small tearful child, like the child perhaps of the faded photograph on the table above her, abandoned, some promise broken, in a studio boudoir festooned with rumpled clothing and jagged mirror fragments like sequins, its flowered wallpaper already starting to peel’ (p. 106).
Confronting the Aggressive Men: Charlie finds himself in the bathroom. He is not holding the scissors now but a limp douche bag. The policeman is sitting in the bathtub, fully uniformed, and gazes worriedly at a small flock of rubber ducks floating between his legs. He keeps on hitting the ducks with his billy-club, and the ducks keep on bobbing back to the surface again. The policeman stares at Charlie blankly but smiles when he sees the douche bag. He snatches it away, peers inside and squeezes it. The bag was filled with ink. The policeman bops Charlie with his club. Then he bobs himself on the helmet. He returns Charlie the douche bag and points to the door. Charlie is in the kitchen. The fat man is there. He tears away the bag from Charlie, and it turns out to be a rabbit with its head cut off. The man starts beating Charlie with the bloody end of the corpse. The fire in the stove has died down, the kitchen is now filled with shadows. The man keeps on swinging the rabbit menacingly and beating Charlie. Charlie jerks spasmodically from one side to the other under his blows, blood mixing with tears on his face. The fight sets the kitchen in ruin. Charlie finally manages to crawl away when he realizes that the man follows a steady pattern in his blows. The man continues swinging the rabbit even when Charlie flees.
Back to the Beginning: Charlie finds himself in the library where all has been restored to its former condition, with the exception of the beaten Charlie. It is dark, only a few candles surround a closed coffin. Its lid begins to open and reveals the shrunken head of the old man. The lid comes crashing down and severs the dead man’s head from its neck. The lid reopens and the body rises rigidly out of the coffin. It slips on its own head and falls on the carpet. Charlie is now back where he began, in the hallway. The place has changed, the furnishings are dulled with dust, there are spider-webs, all is covered with unearthly pallor. The lady is hanging from the balustrade, apparently dead, her gown is now half-eaten by moths: ‘Has so much time passed? Charlie shudders’ (p. 110). With sluggish and ungainly movements, Charlie drags a table under the woman, sets a chair on it and adds a plant stand to hold the chair. He climbs up the apparatus. The light is fading, the outlines of the room are getting invisible for the dust and spider-webs. The table under Charlie is disappearing, ‘the darkness is rising on him like the onset of blindness’ (p. 111). The chair falls apart, and Charlie instinctively grabs the woman to avoid the fall. Her dress gives way, he slips to her waist and locks his knees around her: ‘He clings to her, pants adroop, tears in his eyes, shadows creeping over his face like bruises, gazing out into the encircling gloom with a look of anguish and bewilderment, as though to ask: What kind of place is this? Who took the light away? And why is everybody laughing’ (p. 111)?
The Protagonist: Charlie is clearly an incorporation of the Little Tramp, the most famous character played by Charlie Chaplin in numerous features during the silent film era in the 1920s. The Tramp is usually represented as a vagrant who seeks to behave with the manners of a gentleman. He wears a pair of slap-shoes, baggy trousers bunched up around his waist, a tattered jacket and a small black derby hat. His other attributes are a small black moustache, uncombed curly hair and a bamboo cane. In the story he is slightly mischievous, but good-natured and well-meaning on the whole. At the beginning he is childishly inquisitive and playful, he busily examines each of the settings and seeks to engage in interactions with the other characters with a child-like eagerness.
Other Characters: The inhabitants of the House of Rue are certainly very doleful characters. At first the house looks as though enchanted, the characters are like dummies, or exhibits in a museum (the immobile man staring at his soup, the lady standing motionless on the landing), some of them resemble broken automatons (the old man pouring the liquor, the fat man swinging the rabbit). The characters are types rather than individuals (a beautiful young lady, a policeman). At the same time the characters are caricatures of themselves: the manly-looking policeman caricatures manhood when he is seen striking the rubber ducks with his club, the plump maid caricatures womanhood when she keeps on pursuing Charlie and aggressively displays her sexuality. The characters initially refuse to enter in any kind of interaction with Charlie, then they communicate through aggression only, as if they were giving way to their frustrations by abusing Charlie.
Formal Features: The story begins as though a script for a silent grotesque. There is a myriad of brief comic scenes which follow quickly one after another. The narrative consistently employs the present tense. There are no dialogues, the story is based solely on detailed descriptions of the action. The vocabulary used is rich and varied, the language is rather difficult, there is a number of strikingly original similes (‘nipples like pupils of frightened cartoon eyes’, p. 105). Throughout the story there is a fluidity of temporal and spatial perspectives. The story uses changes of light, shadows and darkness to achieve particular effects. From the beginning the mood of the story is not quite easy-going, there are ominous undertones which foreshadow the disastrous conclusion. As the story proceeds, the pace is getting faster and faster and does not slow down until the apocalyptic conclusion. Initially the story gives the impression of a strange but amusing dream, then the dream becomes a nightmare and the concluding paragraphs are almost surreal, bizarre and certainly not very comic.
AuthorCoover, Robert. (b. 1932).
Full Title"Charlie in the House of Rue".
First PublishedLincoln: Penmaen Press, 1980.
Coover, Robert. ‘Charlie in the House of Rue’. 1980. A Night at the Movies, or, You Must Remember This. 1987. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1992. 87–111.