Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 23)
Donald Barthelme 1931–
American short story writer and novelist.
Barthelme explores the possibilities and restrictions of language and its uses. His surrealistic work lacks plot, characterization, and point of view as each has traditionally been used in fiction. By using familiar language in unfamiliar ways, Barthelme forces his readers to concentrate on his words as words and ultimately, to question their meaning.
Although often amusing, his satiric portraits of information-crazed individuals blurting words at each other are also unsettling. Barthelme shows us that as words lose their meaning, all forms of communication are subverted and knowledge of self, others, and the universe becomes impossible. His bleak prognosis for the future of language is subverted, however, by the distinction of his stories (many of them published in the New Yorker), his novels Snow White and The Dead Father, and his recent collection Sixty Stories. The quality of his own writing reaffirms the power of language.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; Something about the Author, Vol. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)
[What some] critics fail to notice is that Barthelme does not confine himself to the recording of public insanities. He has, in fact, been more concerned with private tragedy, specifically the tragedy which results from "emotional defeats," and in Barthelme's fiction that means only one thing: the failure of a man to achieve a satisfactory and lasting relationship with a woman. In his four collections of short stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari; Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts; City Life; Sadness, and in the novel Snow White, he charts over and over again the agony caused by this failure. Though often concealed by a cover of complicated language, as in "The Indian Uprising,"… and though not always the main subject, this kind of defeat is touched on in most of Barthelme's collected "fragments."Barthelme is first and foremost an intellectual writer, a cool observer, who transforms and distances emotional suffering through wit and irony and, above all, through verbal play. He continually surprises with revitalized clichés and invented words. He recognizes the appropriate moment for literary allusions, for juxtaposing the concrete with the abstract, and … for infusing life into inanimate objects. He uses with great originality Joycean tricks: questions and answers, lists, double and triple entendres, plays on words. And he has a special gift for fantasy, sometimes whimsical, sometimes grotesque. It is, then, by means of...
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Barthelme presents, within the outward shapes of familiar words, bold, strange, and terrifying ones, which shock us into a new awareness of his fictional world. In "The President," when the chief executive speaks, "One hears only cadences." Saying in fact nothing, he simply makes the accepted gestures and repeats empty phrases, so that "Newspaper accounts of his speeches always say only that he 'touched on a number of matters in the realm of….'" Barthelme's genius is not only in noticing the empty phrases, as George Orwell did twenty-five years ago in "Politics and the English Language," but also in infusing those empty forms with the work of vivid imagination—a process beneficial to both form and content. (p. 66)
Language, with and without the revivifying force of imagination, is the chief concern of Snow White, as it is in most of Barthelme's fiction. It includes discussions of "'the "blanketing" effect of ordinary language,'" the part of language which "fills in" between the other parts. "'That part,'" we are told, "'The "filling" you might say, of which the expression "you might say" is a good example, is to me the most interesting part'" … It is particularly interesting because "'the per-capita production of trash in this country is up from 2.75 pounds per day in 1920 to 4.5 pounds per day in 1965 … and is increasing at the rate of about four percent a year. Now that rate will probably go up, because it's...
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[Sixty Stories] begins with five from Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964) and continues through nine recent, uncollected pieces. It's a good time for this collection, for the time of this collection—from Kennedy through Carter, to put convenient correlatives upon it—is a discrete period, begun and ended, a period whose social, moral, and emotional landscape has been represented by Barthelme better than by most.
If the period is of a piece, so too are these stories. Not much has changed over the years: There are the philosophical excursions, the blurred dialogues, the cinematic descriptions, the nasty/chic relationships. And there is the language, still transforming the banal into the surreal and vice versa, still constructing syllogisms that challenge us to accept the shifting internal logic of a story as no less valid than the shifting logic of our lives.
What has changed, perhaps, is orientation. The journey from "Views of My Father Weeping" (1970) to "A Manual for Sons" (1975) to "Aria" (1981) is a journey from childhood to parenthood. And in "Bishop," the best of the recent stories, a relationship gone sour speaks not of the unfulfilled opportunities delineated in Barthelme's earlier works, but of lost opportunities, of reflection, and of dream-wishes of childhood.
It is a time for reflection, the beginning of this new period. It will be interesting to see what...
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It's pleasant to recall the groundswell of excitement caused among readers by the publication of Donald Barthelme's first short stories in the 60's. There just weren't then, as there aren't now, very many stories published that you wanted to call your friends up and read aloud from; and Barthelme gave us more than a few. His openings in particular came off with a special brilliance…. The style sparkled with intelligence; it was dry and clear. All in all, Barthelme's stories were a sort of literary prediction of the rise of Perrier-and-lime in the decade to come.
But the dryness was not a fetish; he could be, and he certainly is, on rereading, not just witty but extremely funny….
T. S. Eliot once remarked on the nearness of the modern poet's craft to that of the stand-up comic. Barthelme acts on the nearness. His prose has the little hidden pricks, the allusiveness (albeit the range of allusion is trashier, in places), and the almost constant self-parody of "Prufrock." But the will to please us, to make us sit up and laugh with surprise, is greater, of course. Indeed, it is greater than the will to disconcert. The chief thing to say about Barthelme, beyond praise for his skill, which seems to me supererogatory, is that he is fiercely committed to showing us a good time, at least in the vast proportion of his work. This accounts for a sense that grows upon us as we consider large quantities of Barthelme...
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Donald Barthelme is our most imitated writer today, fully as much as J. D. Salinger was twenty years ago—which is only to say that one index of genius is the extent to which it prompts redundancy in lesser talents. And this retrospective collection [Sixty Stories], which covers Barthelme's entire career, is the most satisfying way of reading him, removed from his usual literary context of fey cartoons, self-parodying ads, poems longer but less poetic than his stories, and his imitators' fictions, which might be defined as the absence of plot, character and consequence—only situations.
Barthelme is certainly no realist; we can have no more dissimilar reactions to contemporary experience and its literary embodient than to compare the solemnity of Saul Bellow, say the conclusion of Mr. Sammler's Planet …, with the coruscating irony of Barthelme in Snow White, parodying Henry James….
But it would be wrong to delimit Barthelme's worth by consigning him to the highly cerebral and balefully ironic strain of currently fashionable humor. Nothing is quite so tired as a tired novelty, and Barthelme's most vicious parodies are aimed precisely at those fashionable conventions of self-conscious cultural and linguistic relativism that are the residue of a long-exhausted avant-garde. In this sense, he is a truly regional writer, with an unerring ear for the elliptical discourse of the urban...
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In a recent interview in The New York Times, Donald Barthelme said of his art: "I grew up with disjunction … the world was turning upside down … Most of our reality is imposed on us." The stories [in Sixty Stories] reflect all of this: the disconnection between conversations and sentences, the sense of helplessness of many of his flat-voiced characters, the spare cool quality of abstract art….
Here are tales of good zombies…. And a balloon that covered New York City. People slid and rode on the surfaces of that balloon as one can do on the surfaces of these bizarre stories. "Fragments are the only forms I trust," Barthelme has said, and we believe him. The stories appear as scraps, doodles, snatches, bits and pieces of conversations, intimations of rituals and apocalyptic situations. "It is wrong so speak of 'situations,' implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension." A void inhabits the surrounding territory….
It is very difficult to be rescued from the "sickliness of same" when reading 60 stories in a row by a single author. The tricks, the ironies, the thumbprints show up all too clearly. And yet Barthelme does consistently surprise. His characters spring to life; odd situations—a vast balloon encompassing all of New York City—grow and thrive; we catch glimpses of ourselves delighting in slides of language, in fanciful swirls of a quiet subdued erotic play....
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Any discussion of Donald Barthelme's comedy necessitates the backdrop of contemporary thought, because Barthelme's characters, and their world, are among the most sophisticated in literary history. Freud, Fellini, Einstein, Roland Barthes—as well as Norman Lear, Pepsi Cola, John Wayne, and Cosmo magazine—such is the milieu of Barthelme's people. Their everyday vocabulary includes Heidegger's angst, Bachelard's poetic space, Sartre's "other," let alone the vast legacy of literary, anthropological, psychological, historical, and scientific thought—and the prodigious jargon of T.V., ads, current events, pop art, and culture. Barthelme's people are hypereducated, wild consumers of information, and devotees of every possible "how-to" formula.
If literature at one time presumably reflected life, Barthelme reverses the formula. His figures have in great part become the media, the art and slogans—the words—about them. They mouth technology, although they are utterly ignorant as to what it means; they explain everything and approach every experience with strategy and skill, with the statistics of management and survival, or the rationalizations of historical precedent. They accept roles—is it not one's greatest goal to be Mick Jagger or Blondie, the Brut man or Breck girl?—and they admire expertise, as though it had divine authority. Indeed, they give credence and praise to authorized texts and media personalities, as they...
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