Review Of Donald
Barthelme’s 60 Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/18/05
To start this essay and review I need to tell you what Donald Barthelme was- a fantasist; and a really bad one, at that. I will explain this in the bulk of this piece.
But first, I need to briefly tell you the many things he was not, despite the many claims to the contrary by disciples, sycophants, and bad critics.
1) He was not an absurdist. To be an absurdist writer one must actually be contrasting the language and situations presented within your work with norms presented outside the work. In short, there must be reference points within the work, as well as the work actually having a meaning outside its own presented cosmos.
2) He was not a metafictionist. To be a metafictionist the writer must be using the artifice of art within the work itself for the purpose of exploring the boundaries of art, not merely as a self-reflexive piece of vanity.
3) He was not a post-structuralist. To be post-structural a writer must deny objectivity and embrace an ambigual fog. Self-reflexivity posits the self as objectively real. Vanity negates ambiguity.
4) He was not a postmodernist. To be a postmodernist one or all three of the above conditions must be met. Since Barthelme’s work was hermetic, self-reflexive, and therefore non-subjective- albeit not empirically objective, he was not postmodern.
To top off those four things that Donald Barthelme, as a writer, was not I can also state that he was not a minimalist- for his work often tosses loads of pop cultural and other references at the reader, expecting said reader to decode them; he was not an existentialist- for his work was simply gimmick-ridden; he was not a nihilist- for he put too much effort into promoting his work and theories to be called such.
No, as stated, Donald Barthelme was a fantasist- and by that I mean just that, not the oft-termed surrealist, which has almost been shorn of any real meaning, due to its overuse and misuse. In a sense his stories are late 20th Century fairy tales. Except that that area has already been covered by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and better. He is not a humorist, nor a magical realist, for his work simply isn’t funny the way a Kurt Vonnegut’s is, nor does he even have the ‘magical’ touch of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And while technically not a PoMo writer one can see in his rather pallid works the wellspring from which the dreck of a Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, and David Foster Wallace flows.
No, he is a fantasist, in the same sense that a Franz Kafka or Jorge Luis Borges were. Except, this is where difference of degree becomes as important as difference of kind. Kafka was a great writer, Borges a mildly interesting, often dull and repetitive, but occasionally original writer. Donald Barthelme was a flat out bad writer. Hey, that wasn’t so difficult after all. It only took a few paragraphs to get to the essence of the work. What else can one really call a writer who in 60 stories and 457 pages of text cannot cobble together a single memorable, nor convincing, image, metaphor, nor sentence?
Yes, weird things occur in the weft of Barthelme’s tales, but they are wholly unillumined, and clichés riddle virtually every paragraph; as if nakedly showing off a cliché is fundamentally different than indulging in it. Barthelme, instead, pretends that he is using clichés in new ways, but one would only presume this from the writings of Barthelme and his acolytes about his writing, not from the text and context of the works themselves, therefore it is meaningless, and certainly not new nor allegorical as his apologists claim. Merely referencing a work or thing does not show depth nor understanding of the thing, simply a desire to show it off. An artist uses literary techniques, not bullet points, to make a deeper point. In a sense, Barthelme often attempted to do fictive essays, but lacked the depth of knowledge and the style of masters of that form like Loren Eiseley or Richard Ford.
So, he merely tossed some wacky ideas around, loosely strung them- if at all, and hoped for the best. In Indian Uprising, often cited as Barthelme’s masterpiece, Comanches attack a modern city. This is somehow to be taken as a metaphor for a character’s ending of a romance with a young lover, who sympathizes with the Comanches. Eventually, the fight ends, after torture, and the killing of children and innocents in a My Lai-like way. A woman who is looked up to gives the lead character enigmatic information which is meant to be symbolic, yet is just nonsense designed to make a poor reader think it is symbolic- as is a mention of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, and when the Comanches seemingly win the lead character is brought to a ‘Clemency Committee’ presumably to be tortured, in order to show the irony of a Clemency Committee sanctioning torture.
Yet, Barthelme’s story takes up over six pages, and is not nearly as cogent nor lucid as my less than one paragraph summation. Imagine were I to write a tale today that tossed around a few pop cultural references, and depicted a group of bullied little girls who knocked down an expensive doll house in the house of the richest girl on the block. I did nothing to depict backstory nor character development, but then propounded it was my critique of the Iraq War’s follies. Well, this is exactly what Barthelme apologists have done for this dull and intellectually disingenuous tale, linking it to the Vietnam War, and repeatedly stressing it must be understood within contexts that have nothing to do with the work itself. By suggesting that a reading of criticism of a work is as needed as a reading of the work itself one is thereby manifesting the work’s weakness, and obviating its artistic import.
Yet, in tale after tale this is exactly what Barthelme does- manifest his utterly barren imagination. To say that Barthelme’s character’s are soulless is to be kind. they are simply automata for his preening pseudo-intellectualism, cloaked in fantasism. In Me and Miss Mandible, a thirty-five-year-old man is sent to elementary school by a clerical error, and through a series of diary entries, we find that he must fend off the sexual advances of his female teacher and the vindictiveness of a little girl who is jealous of this fact. Is there even a point to this? If this is meant to be funny, or risqué, or a commentary on anything but the limits of Barthelme’s imagination then, I guess, Ronald Reagan really did win the Cold War! Here we learn Bartleme knew gossip:
Sue Ann has observed Frankie Randolph's overture, and catching my eye,
she pulls from her satchel no less than seventeen of these magazines, thrusting
them at me as if to prove that anything any of her rivals has to offer, she can
top. I shuffle through them quickly, noting the broad editorial perspective:
"Debbie's Kids Are Crying"
"Eddie Asks Debbie: Will You . . . ?"
"The Nightmares Liz Has About Eddie!"
"The Things Debbie Can Tell About Eddie"
"The Private Life of Eddie and Liz"
"Debbie Gets Her Man Back?"
"A New Life for Liz"
"Love Is a Tricky Affair"
"Eddie's Taylor-Made Love Nest"
"How Liz Made a Man of Eddie"
"Are They Planning to Live Together?"
"Isn't It Time to Stop Kicking Debbie Around?"
"Eddie Becomes a Father Again"
"Is Debbie Planning to Re-wed?"
"Can Liz Fulfill Herself?"
"Why Debbie Is Sick of Hollywood"
Who are these people, Debbie, Eddie, Liz, and how did they get themselves in such a terrible predicament? Sue Ann knows, I am sure; it is obvious that she has been studying their history as a guide to what she may expect when she is suddenly freed from this drab, flat classroom.
In The Balloon Barthelme appears to be working out his own persona’s loneliness by didactically explaining everything that is symbolically meant by a huge balloon’s float over Manhattan. After several pages of wan symbolism the narrator tells the reader all before was meaningless (as if any reader not bored enough to have read so far had not figured that out already), yet by declaring it so is really trying to have the reader dig for the non-existent meaning, just as by telling one not to think of a pink elephant frames the beast within your mind. Ah, the puerile inanities of the talentless hack! Knowing these two setups I doubt many readers would want to read the pieces, but for those that would I can only say that whatever allure the silly narratives might hold are manifold in power more vis-à-vis the execution of them. Here, he tries to be ‘deep’:
As a single balloon must stand for a lifetime of thinking about balloons, so each citizen expressed, in the attitude he chose, a complex of attitudes. One man might consider that the balloon had to do with the notion sullied, as in the sentence, The big balloon sullied the otherwise clear and radiant Manhattan sky. That is, the balloon was, in each man's view, an imposture, something inferior to the sky that had formerly been there, something interposed between the people and their "sky." But in fact it was January, the sky was dark and ugly; it was not a sky you could look up into, lying on your back in the street, with pleasure, unless pleasure, for you, proceeded from having been threatened, from having been misused. And to the underside of the balloon was a pleasure to look up into, we had seen to that, muted grays and browns for the most part, contrasted with walnut and soft, forgotten yellows. And so, while this man was thinking sullied, still there was an admixture of pleasurable cognition in his thinking, struggling with the original perception.
Don’t you just love it when bad writers engage polysyllabism without any understanding of the effects of their usage? Will You Tell Me? is written in a Dick And Jane type style for no real reason, and has something to do with betrayal and birth. In The School a first grade teacher suffers through his job and, well, he suffers….until the tale abruptly ends with a cheerio and snippet of fantasy out of nowhere. Barthelme is thus attempting to tackle cultural relativism only to end by showing, surprise!, it’s all relative! He is nothing if not drearily predictable- which torpedoes his many apologists’ claims that the reason his bad writing is often seen as bad is because it’s ‘difficult’, another of the things he is most certainly not. This predictability is the case for almost all self-consciously ‘experimental writers across genres, for, you see, if you state that you’re ‘experimental’ then all your bad writing and indulgence in the banal can be ascribed to being a surface misreading by your reader. Alice is an attempt at a proem on modern sexuality that makes you appreciate the wit and wisdom of William Bennett. On Angels proves that while Barthelme can tell, and not show, he learned nothing from Wallace Stevens, and the supposedly cute and/or hilarious end that many critics revel in is neither. The Phantom Of The Opera’s Friend lets us know that Barthelme is familiar with Gaston Leroux’s play- wonderful. There is no other point, in case you were wondering. Kierkegaard Unfair To Schlegel similarly lets the reader know that Barthelme has heard of the philosophers, but hasn’t a clue beyond that. The Glass Mountain proves that Rick Moody wasn’t the first charlatan to pass off a list as a work of fiction. Witness:
44. To climb the glass mountain, one first requires a good reason.
45. No one has ever climbed the mountain on behalf of science, or in search of celebrity, or because the mountain was a challenge.
46. Those are not good reasons.
47. But good reasons exist.
48. At the top of the mountain there is a castle of pure gold, and in a room in the castle tower sits...
49. My acquaintances were shouting at me.
50. "Ten bucks you bust your ass in the next four minutes!"
51. ...a beautiful enchanted symbol.
52. I unstuck the righthand plumber's friend leaving the lefthand one in place.
53. And reached out.
54. It was cold there at 206 feet and when I looked down I was not encouraged.
55. A heap of corpses both of horses and riders ringed the bottom of the mountain, many dying men groaning there.
56. "A weakening of the libidinous interest in reality has recently come to a close." (Anton Ehrenzweig)1
Ah, genius! The Rise of Capitalism- see Kierkegaard Unfair To Schlegel. Oh, hell, see:
Capitalism arose and took off its pajamas. Another day, another dollar. Each man is valued at what he will bring in the marketplace. Meaning has been drained from work and assigned instead to remuneration. Unemployment obliterates the world of the unemployed individual. Cultural underdevelopment of the worker, as a technique of domination, is found everywhere under late capitalism. Authentic self-domination by individuals is thwarted. The false consciousness created and catered to by mass culture perpetuates ignorance and powerlessness. Strands of raven hair floating on the surface of the Ganges…Why can't they clean up the Ganges? If the wealthy capitalists who operate the Ganges wig factories could be forced to install sieves, at the mouths of their plants… And now the sacred Ganges is choked with hair, and the river no longer knows where to put its flow, and the moonlight on the Ganges is swallowed by the hair, and the water darkens. By Vishnu! This is an intolerable situation! Shouldn't something be done about it?
Does a single cliché work against another? Is there a single metaphor that enlightens? I toss you my underwear- I damn Fidel Castro, nihilism, and the Mormon Tabernacle choir. Bah? Philsistine! Margins is a self-conscious exercise in conversational dilettante preening that would make Alan watts proud. In The Death Of Edward Lear the noted nonsense poet invites friends to witness his death, only to have the ceremony become a revivalist play that sees the Lear character- or the real Lear, what does it really matter?- somehow rage against it all. Decide for yourself- here’s the end:
People who attended the death of Edward Lear agreed that, all in all, it had been a somewhat tedious performance. Why had he seen fit to read the same old verses, sing again the familiar songs, show the well-known pictures, run through his repertoire once more? Why invitations? Then something was understood: that Mr. Lear had been doing what he had always done and therefore, not doing anything extraordinary. Mr. Lear had transformed the extraordinary into its opposite. He had, in point of fact, created a gentle, genial misunderstanding.
Thus the guests began, as time passed, to regard the affair in an historical light. They told their friends about it, reenacted parts of it for their children and grandchildren. They would reproduce the way the old man had piped "I've no money!" in a comical voice, and quote his odd remarks about marrying. The death of Edward Lear became so popular, as the time passed, that revivals were staged in every part of the country, with considerable success. The death of Edward Lear can still be seen, in the smaller cities, in versions enriched by learned interpretation, textual emendation, and changing fashion. One modification is curious; no one knows how it came about. The supporting company plays in the traditional way, but Lear himself appears shouting, shaking, vibrant with rage.
Real insight, no? A Shower Of Gold tries to pretend it’s a critique on self-consciousness, whereas it’s really an indulgence of it, laced with psychobabble. Eugénie Grandet- see The Phantom Of The Opera’s Friend; substitute Honoré de Balzac for Gaston Leroux, with asides for pointless visual imagery. Note to readers: if you like this sort of crap read Kenneth Patchen’s prose- he did it first and did it much better. Ditto for Rebecca:
"Are you a homosexual lesbian? Is that why you never married?"
Christ, yes, she's a homosexual lesbian, as you put it. Would you please shut your face?
Rebecca went to the damned dermatologist (a new damned dermatologist), but he said the same thing the others had said. "Greenish," he said, "slight greenishness, genetic anomaly, nothing to be done, I'm afraid, Mrs. Lizard."
"Nothing to be done, Miss Lizard."
"Thank you, Doctor. Can I give you a little something for your trouble?"
When Rebecca got home the retroactive rent increase was waiting for her, coiled in her mailbox like a pupil about to strike.
Must get some more Kleenex. Or a Ph.D. No other way.
She thought about sticking her head in the oven. But it was an electric oven.
In Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning a series of vignettes shows a fictive RFK cast as a Kafkan figure (even referred to as merely K) adrift in personal anomie. The portrait is rather generic and dull, and as it could as easily apply to a shoe salesman it holds no weight. Except, claim the apologists, that its being published merely a month or so before he was assassinated lends the piece a poignancy that its words lack. Grab a Kleenex before reading on (note- I said Kleenex instead of tissue!):
"The dandelion salad with bacon, I think."
"The poached duck."
"The black bean puree."
"The cod fritters."
Praise Jesus! He orders food! Aria- see Will You Tell Me?; substitute any noted Beatnik poetaster for Dick And Jane. How I Write My Songs- note, stop Lorenz Hart’s coffin from spinning. Bishop- Barthelme watched tv.
In short, most Barthelmeans realize that the only way for the pieces to work at all is to precondition readers’ expectations. This is why virtually every defense of his works tells you what it is about, rather than how he went about it. Because, failing that pink elephant’s implantation, most good readers will be scratching their heads. But, if one’s only expectations of a writer are a good read, well, you’re sunk. Ah, for the days when a fantasist would have a really good idea and execute it from beginning to end, and actually show that he could craft a compelling sentence. Let’s see, I’ve told you much of what he’s not- did I mention he’s not particularly philosophical, emotional, nor inventive?
How about fraud? Well, that’s too harsh, right? Maybe he is to serious literature what Weird Al Yankovic is to pop music. No, even that’s too praising, for Weird Al was occasionally clever. Reading a Barthelme collection only heightens how absolutely bereft of cleverness he was. Did I say repetitive? Derivative? I think I covered that with the Kenneth Patchen mention. Influential? Well, David Foster Wallace has made some beaucoup bucks- but is that anything to be proud of?
In closing, let me close with a quote from the man himself, from his 1989 New York Times obituary: ‘Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, rather because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, straightforward, nothing much happens.’ Now, really read the Freudian implications of that statement and you will understand that this was actually Barthelme’s closeted mea culpa for not having a clue as to how to write well and wanting his readers to ignore that fact. Like I said, he was a fantasist; and a really bad one, at that.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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