Donald Barthelme Essay - Donald Barthelme Long Fiction Analysis

Donald Barthelme Long Fiction Analysis

For the reader new to Donald Barthelme, the most productive way to approach his works is in terms of what they are not: looking at 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-selling”) literature of the twentieth century, is principally structured according to the two elements of plot and character. These Barthelme studiously avoids, especially in his earlier works, offering instead a collage of fragments whose coherence is usually only cumulative, rather than progressive. Some readers may find the early works emotionally cold as a result, given that their unity is to be found in the realm of the intellect rather than in that of feeling.

This style has resulted in the frequent classification of Barthelme as a postmodernist author, one of a generation of American writers who came to international prominence in the late 1960’s and 1970’s and who include Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, John Hawkes, William H. Gass, Ishmael Reed, and Kurt Vonnegut. This label indicates, among other things, that Barthelme’s most immediate predecessors are the modernist authors of the early years of the century, such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka. Yet 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.

Barthelme clearly diverges from the modernists in that he seems to lack their belief in the power of art to change the world; his most characteristic stance is ironic, self-deprecating, and anarchistic. Since this ironic posture is productive more of silence than of talk, or at best produces parodic talk, it is not surprising that Barthelme began his career with shorter pieces rather than longer ones. Further, it does not seem coincidental that the novels Paradise and The King were produced in the last years of his life, by which point his short stories had become slightly less frenetic in pace.

Snow White

Barthelme’s longer works seem to divide naturally into two pairs. The earlier two are dense reworkings of (respectively) a fairy tale and a myth. The second pair are more leisurely, the one involving autobiographical elements, the other making a social point. Barthelme’s first longer work, Snow White, is reasonably easy to follow, largely by virtue of the clarity with which the author indicates to the reader at all points what it is that he is doing—or, rather, what he is avoiding, namely, the fairy tale evoked by the work’s title. Every reader knows the characters of this fairy tale; in fact, all of them have their equivalents in the characters of Barthelme’s version, along with several others unaccounted for in the original. In Barthelme’s version of the story, Snow White is twenty-two, lives with seven men with whom she regularly has unsatisfying sex in the shower, and seems to have confused herself with Rapunzel from another fairy story, as she continually sits at her window with her hair hanging out. Her dwarfs have modern names such as Bill (the leader), Clem, Edward, and Dan, and they suffer from a series of ailments, of which the most important seems to be that Bill no longer wishes to be touched. During the day the seven men work in a Chinese baby-food factory.

The closest thing this retelling of the myth has to a prince is a man named Paul, who does not seem to want to fulfill his role of prince. Avoiding Snow White, he spends time in a monastery in Nevada, goes to Spain, and joins the Thelemite order of monks. Ultimately he ends up near Snow White, but only as a Peeping Tom, armed with binoculars, in a bunker before her house. Barthelme’s version of the wicked queen is named Jane; she writes poison-pen letters and ultimately makes Snow White a poisoned drink. Paul drinks it instead, and he dies.

The underlying point of the contrast...

(The entire section is 1634 words.)