Frederick Barthelme’s short stories are frequently offered as examples of “minimalism.” Focusing on the surface of events, minimalism generally refuses to delve into a character’s psychological motivations and avoids overt narratorial commentary. Because this style is often attacked for its supposed moral defeatism and lack of historical sensibility, it is especially useful to consider Barthelme’s essay “On Being Wrong: Convicted Minimalist Spills Bean” (1988) when examining his writing. In this playful manifesto, Barthelme maintains that minimalist stories deliberately react against the postmodernist obsession with language, while simultaneously rejecting conventional realism. Human experience, according to Barthelme, “is so enigmatic that only the barest suspicion of it can be got on the page with any assurance.”
Barthelme usually sets his stories in malls, restaurants, and apartment complexes, rendering a vision of contemporary America that fastens upon the subdued sublimities of day-to-day existence. Suggesting that most people overlook or repress the weird peculiarity of the objects and situations they face in their daily lives, Barthelme augments the uncanny dimensions of suburban experience through stylistic experimentation. Narrators startle the reader by using the second-person form of address (“you”); everyday objects take on qualities independent from their common uses, creating an atmosphere that is both disturbing and...
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