David Montrose

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

Bette Pesetsky assembles short declarative sentences into very short stories, the kind that are now usually called fictions, their traditional "story" elements having been minimalized…. [Pesetsky] reflects the influence of Donald Barthelme, revered in creative writing classes for his apparent imitability. All fifteen stories in this first collection incorporate Barthelme's early "see-Jane-run" manner and his "fragmentary" method of construction. Typically, Pesetsky's narrator (always a woman) presents a mosaic of autobiographical episodes linked thematically or by association (the title story, an exception, comprises six récits in no particular order). If the resulting arrangement appears to skip inconsequentially between two points, this is because it is designed only, in Barthelme's words, to "supply a kind of 'sense' of what is going on".

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Pesetsky has borrowed Barthelme's method, but not his madness, eschewing the surreal for a firm attachment to the quotidian…. Her world, though, is the familiar made strange: second-hand echoes of Kafka—as distilled, that is, through Barthelme—permeate these stories. Their heroines are anonymous inhabitants of anonymous places; when familiar locations are named, they have no more substantiality than that of words on the page; other people exist only as one-dimensional shadows. Neurotic, lonely, sad, Pesetsky's women endure lives of quiet desperation and write anxious, jerky prose. But they occupy no world apart; theirs is the one we inhabit, with the same phone-in shows, Wedgwood china, muggers, Danish pastries, spastic children…. The point, presumably, is that life is in the angle of vision of the beholder: every individual creates a subjective reality. For Pesetsky's casualties, it will be as it appears in her stories: a bleak, directionless trial.

A number of stories are catalogues of misfortune that lack distinctiveness almost to the point of interchangeability. The standard heroine is cursed with broken relationships…. The most successful stories are those farthest removed from the formula—and these are also the most "story"-like. The heroine of "Dyslexia" departs from the norm by having too many, rather than too few, personal involvements….

"Dyslexia" is the story nearest to Barthelme's unique comedy Elsewhere, Pesetsky's attempts at fashionably grim humour achieve only grimness relieved by odd amusing passages. Throughout, one suspects that Pesetsky has chosen the wrong master, and this feeling hardens into conviction whenever she utilizes family history. As far as one can divine from recurrent motifs, Pesetsky's ancestors were Polish Jews; her grandparents brought the family to America. Unsurprisingly, quiet resonances of Isaac Bashevis Singer can be detected wherever she draws on this background. Then one realizes how much better a more traditional master, such as Singer, would have served her. The vicissitudes of Pesetsky's wounded are strikingly similar to those endured by comparable characters in Singer's "American" stories, but there is a wide gap between their portrayals. Barthelme's kind of minimalism is simply too detached and impressionistic to suggest a full spectrum of human predicaments; in his own work, of course, it is not meant to. Pesetsky may write as she does precisely in order to avoid comparisons with Singer, or perhaps in order to be modish. Whatever the reason, she will have to resolve this incompatibility between form and content.

David Montrose, "Life in a Bottle-Full of Dust," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4145, September 10, 1982, p. 965.

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