Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Barthelme is frequently called a minimalist (an identification that he does not relish); his writing has also been classified as neorealism or pop realism. Rather than attempting to depict reality, he creates a fictive world that is at once an oblique reflection and a reinterpretation of reality. Essential to the creation of this world is extreme specificity regarding visual details (gestures and objects) and, usually, extreme vagueness regarding a larger sense of place and time. In the dialogue of “Chroma,” Barthelme creates skewed phrases and expressions that do not quite belong to the world outside the story. Heather, with her hilariously offbeat slang, threatens the narrator by saying, “You touch the doughnut girl, I’ll do your teeth in piano wire.” Alicia refers to herself doing “the rope-a-dope all over the place.”

One element of Barthelme’s style that has attracted considerable comment is his tendency to describe scenes and actions through an accretion of brand names and proper nouns. Another is his detailed, almost hyper-real, descriptions of everyday objects. In “Chroma,” the brand names are relatively unobtrusive; on the other hand, the reader learns that Heather and Juliet do not have a “Weber barbecue” but never learn the narrator’s name. A beautifully described scene that is almost a still life encapsulates Barthelme’s ability to combine brand names and description to create a unique and somehow mysterious world. The narrator is home alone. In silence, he looks at a shadow cast on the wall by the “mercury vapor street lamp” shining through the Levolors; it is “broken by a gladiola on the pedestal where we always put outgoing mail.” He is captivated; he sits there, watching the shadow (“it’s gorgeous”) and feeling like someone in an Obsession ad. Clearly Barthelme (who studied both art and architecture), as well as his characters, appreciates such sudden moments of beauty. Indeed, they are perhaps to be preferred to the uneasy, even vaguely threatening, human interactions that he describes. Barthelme criticizes but can also take delight in modern life, as when flowers, window blinds, and streetlights can produce a momentary respite from its uncertainties.