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 fascination with the verbal detritus of modern society.
Barthelme’s works are not for those whose formal education is deficient, nor are they for those who have lived in ignorance of the philosophical currents of Western thought in the second half of the twentieth century. For example, the title of “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” plays on the names of two nineteenth century European thinkers; “A Shower of Gold” refers to the way in which, according to the classical poet Ovid, Zeus appeared to a woman named Danae. “The Abduction from the Seraglio” quotes the title of an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and “The Death of Edward Lear” introduces as a character the author of nonsense verse. Barthelme’s works, moreover, may not be for those from areas of the world untouched by New York’s peculiar brand of edgy energy. Commentators have pointed out that Barthelme’s works presuppose and celebrate a position of ironic distance from the demands of a competitive society. They will probably speak most directly to readers who have noted the debased status of words in Western industrial nations and noticed that the most widely disseminated utterances of the early twenty-first century seem to be the most trivial.
Barthelme is frequently classified as a postmodernist author, one of a generation of writers who came to international prominence in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. Among other things, this label means that his most immediate predecessors are the modernist authors of the early years of the twentieth century such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka. Critics have split regarding whether Barthelme is doing fundamentally the same things as the earlier modernist authors or whether his works represent a significant development of their method. A number of the modernist authors, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf among them, also rejected the nineteenth century’s linear plot, with its development of characters and a definable beginning, middle, and end. Stein, for example, joined fragments into seemingly random strings or structured them by the sounds of the words themselves or by the associations they created in her mind. Woolf emphasized the individual fragmentary moment of perception and the associations of the minds of her characters instead of the development through societally determined factors. Eliot wrote a poetry of fragments (especially in The Waste Land, 1922) structured, according to some commentators, by contrast with a mythical world that had been lost. Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is certainly structured on this principle.
In addition, it is usually asserted with respect to Barthelme that his works evoke the fragmentary nature of modern urban life or the alienation of consciousness that such nineteenth century thinkers as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels thought inevitable in industrial societies. This, too, was suggested by the modernists as a reason for the nature of their own works, most notably by Eliot. Yet, at the same time, Barthelme diverges from the modernists in that he seems to lack their belief in the power of art to change the world: His stance is ironic, self-deprecating, and anarchistic. The only reaction to the “disassociation of sensibility” of which Eliot spoke that is now possible, Barthelme seems to say, is the cackle of laughter. If there is a “message” in Barthelme’s fiction, it would surely have to be that the problems of the late twentieth century lie (in William Wordsworth’s phrase) too deep for tears and are, at any rate, beyond the capacities of the artist to affect them.
“A Shower of Gold”
First published: 1963 (collected in Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)
Type of work: Short story
A young artist appears on a television quiz show and suffers a series of strange intrusions into his life.
“A Shower of Gold,” one of the works from Barthelme’s first collection of short stories, is a meditation on themes developed most fully by the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whose influence on American thought was especially strong in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The story has more of a plot than do many of Barthelme’s works, and it has a somewhat recognizable situation; its departures from reality are in the twists of situation and in the episodic interruptions by seemingly unconnected characters and plot developments.
The protagonist, a struggling New York artist named Peterson, is trying to get on a television program called Who Am I? The only qualification necessary is that he have strong opinions about some subject—a criticism on Barthelme’s part of the premium that contemporary society placed on novelty over depth, and on the emphasis on the individual implied by making the fact of belief so important. Peterson gets on the show by citing surprising factual data as his opinion, and he is praised by the woman running the program, Miss Arbor, to the extent that he mouths the platitudes of Sartrean philosophy.
Miss Arbor eagerly asks Peterson if he is alienated, absurd, and extraneous: all the depressing things that Sartre held to define humankind’s position in the universe. Nothing is so negative or weighty, Barthelme is saying, that it cannot be turned into glossy ad hype. Peterson resists Miss Arbor’s attempt to pigeonhole him but agrees to go on the show. While waiting to do so, he has run-ins with a number of people: his exploitative manager, who wants him to compromise his artistic integrity by sawing his artworks in half so that they will sell better; his barber, who continues the flow of prepackaged Sartre; the president (whose secret-service agents invade Peterson’s loft and attack him); the player of a “cat-piano” (made by pulling the tails of cats held fast in a frame); and three young women from California who preach a philosophy of “no problem” but exploit his kindness, as do all the others.
Despite these flickering, clearly absurd, and dreamlike happenings, Peterson continues to look for meaning in life. However, he sees the error of his ways when finally he does appear on the show and listens to the monologues of the other contestants. He then begins to free-associate, trailing off in the middle of a fairy-tale version of the tale of Zeus and Danae from which the story’s title is derived and which...
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