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 verbal brilliance that Barthelme turns the agony of his characters into something ridiculous or comic, and forces the reader to respond to the suffering with laughter and esthetic joy. (Barthelme is worth reading for his humor alone). But the richness and complexity of his fiction does not derive solely from his verbal talent. In most of his stories he is writing about a number of things at once, often unrelated, and it is the mesh-ing of these disparate subjects into an artistic whole, reinforced by a vision layered in ambiguity and a voice always compelling, which makes Barthelme an original and important writer.
With a careful reading of the four volumes of short stories and Snow White, it becomes clear that Barthelme's main subjects have been love and language or women and words. For the most part the tragedy in his fictional universe results from the fact that men cannot live without women or without words and that with few exceptions they are constantly betrayed by both. This, then, has been the "message," the steady muffled sound throbbing at the center of Barthelme's work.
In order to understand the brilliant eight-page short story, "The Indian Uprising," one must be aware of what Barthelme heroes say about women and about words. Men, they tell us, because of their biological need, are in women's power, and this sexual hunger is never-ending…. This desperate and insatiable sexual need stimulates fantasies of real and imagined young girls. And these nymphs are always around, crossing streets, getting into buses, moving through rooms, taking off blouses in train compartments, hanging their hair out of windows. They are always there, tormenting men with some part of their anatomy. Even eleven-year-olds skip in and out of Barthelme's stories with their seductive knees. But except for the unthinking brute, no man can ever have a satisfactory relationship with a woman; her nature prevents it. Women are hard, mean, inscrutable, and bundles of contradictions. They are incurable romantics, always waiting for the perfect lover. Either they hold back sexually, or they are fickle and unfaithful. (Only two or three of Barthelme's heroines escape these unhappy traits.)
But undoubtedly the greatest problem for the Barthelme hero is the scorn he faces as sexual partner. The fear of female disdain, and the devastating effects of this humiliation, are dealt with again and again in Barthelme's fiction. Many of his male characters lack "boldness," and it is this lack which sends females flying to seek "gorilla lovers." (pp. 134-35)
As for words, Barthelme characters say obvious things about them, but in an original way. They find words inadequate for expressing thoughts and feelings, especially emotional suffering. Barthelme's artists long to make statements, to say something significant...
(The entire section is 1757 words.)
[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 entire section is 256 words.)
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….
(The entire section is 1267 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 600 words.)
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,...
(The entire section is 380 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 2756 words.)