Frederick Barthelme (BAHRT-uhl-mee) belongs in the forefront of the generation of such postmodern writers as John Barth, with whom he studied at one time, and Thomas Pynchon. Barthelme was the son of Donald Barthelme, an architect, and his wife, Helen, a teacher. After attending Tulane University and the University of Houston and taking a master’s degree at The Johns Hopkins University in 1977, Barthelme held jobs in several creative fields, including architecture and advertising, and at one time intended to pursue painting as a career. In 1976, he began teaching fiction writing at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where he also directed the Center for Writers.
Barthelme’s earliest work was unsuccessful commercially and critically. The stories collected in Rangoon were notable for their avant-garde subject matter and their lack of conventional structure. They drew their significance from the juxtaposition of ordinary and often radically diverse objects and situations. This effect of collage was heightened by the use of drawings and photographs. Many of the stories are characterized by a flatness of tone and imagery which is reflective of minimalist writings of the 1980’s. Barthelme’s first novel, War and War, is a freewheeling parody of the self-conscious narrative style of writers such as Laurence Sterne. Full of allusions to philosophers and linguists, War and War is a static, highly intellectual showcase for Barthelme’s considerable erudition.
After a period of silence, Barthelme began to publish stories that had more traditional structure but were still colored by the presence of what Margaret Atwood, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called “seedy, greasy, plastic-coated things or lush, expensive, meretricious things.” Seventeen of these stories, including thirteen that first appeared in The New Yorker, were collected in Moon Deluxe. Stories such as the title piece, “Safeway,” and “Monster Deal” reveal a significant thematic development in their blurring of the roles of men and women. On balance, Barthelme’s men are socially and sexually passive, if not impotent; his women are vigorous and...
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