Donald Barthelme American Literature Analysis
For the reader new to Barthelme, the most productive way to approach his works is in terms of what they are not: what they avoid doing, what they refuse to do, and what they suggest is not worth doing. Nineteenth century literature, and indeed most popular (“best-seller”) literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is structured according to the two elements of plot and character. These two Barthelme studiously avoids, offering instead a collage of frequently amusing fragments whose coherence is usually only cumulative, rather than progressive.
The typical Barthelme story is brief and is based on an intellectual idea rather than an emotional one. Its plot is inevitably interrupted by seemingly unrelated subplots (or fragments of them) and contains elements whose presence is not immediately explicable—and indeed, whose only justification is precisely that they are without explanation. Its characters are usually little more than names attached to strings of talk, and the talk usually changes character many times during the course of the piece so that these hollow personages express themselves in a bewildering array of contents and tones of voice. Many times they are quoting, implicitly or explicitly, well-known philosophers who were much discussed in the 1960’s and 1970’s or mouthing the empty phrases of the advertising media. Several commentators have pointed to Barthelme’s training in journalism and speechwriting to explain his...
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