Donald Barthelme 1931-1989
(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Lily McNeil) American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and children's author.
The following entry provides an overview of Barthelme's short fiction works. For additional information on his short fiction career, see SSC, Volume 2.
A preeminent writer of experimental fiction, Barthelme created stories that are both humorous and unsettling by juxtaposing incongruous elements of contemporary language and culture. He typically structured a piece of short fiction in the form of a verbal collage by assembling disparate fragments of information, conversation, narrative, and wordplay and by detailing contemporary settings in which objects and abstract ideas proliferate and threaten to overwhelm his characters. Barthelme's writing is characterized by the absence of plot and character development, disjointed syntax and dialogue, parodies of technical, mass media, and intellectual jargon and clichés. His work contains allusions to philosophy, psychology, and various forms of art and popular culture. Barthelme entertained such themes as the ability of language to accurately convey thought and emotion, the function of art and the role of the artist in society, the complications of sexuality, the frailty and transience of human relationships, and the fragmentary nature of reality.
Barthelme was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and raised in Houston, Texas, where his father became established as an innovative architect. While sharing his father's respect for visual art and architecture, Barthelme developed a strong interest in literature. After serving as editor for a literary journal published by the University of Texas and as a journalist and a museum director, Barthelme traveled to New York City in the early 1960s and edited Locations, a short-lived arts and literary journal. His first stories were published in literary periodicals during the early 1960s. A prolific writer, several of his stories appeared in the New Yorker. In his later years, he divided his time between New York City and a teaching position in the creative writing program at the University of Houston. He died of cancer in 1989.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Believing that traditional forms and structures of art and literature are inadequate for addressing the peculiar needs and concerns of the modern world, Barthelme endeavored to promote new and inventive approaches. Rather than creating traditional, linear fictional forms that provide commentary on life by conveying meaning and values that readers expect and are prepared to find, Barthelme viewed each of his stories as an individual object. In his early stories, many of which originally appeared in the New Yorker and were subsequently collected in the books Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964) and Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), Barthelme blended parodies of such media as advertising, comic books, and television shows with puns, non sequiturs, and disjointed dialogue and narrative. The publication of City Life (1970) solidified Barthelme's reputation as a major figure in contemporary literature. The stories in this collection exhibit such characteristic Barthelme devices as black humor, deadpan narrative tones, and experiments with syntax, punctuation, illustrations, and typography. In several stories Barthelme explored themes relating to art, including the positive and negative effects of irony, anxieties faced by artists who find traditional artistic approaches to life to be outmoded, and individuals whose search for meaning is complicated by a superabundance of objects, ideas, and random and incomprehensible events. Irony, anxiety, and sorrow are important motifs in the stories collected in Sadness (1972). The stories collected in Great Days (1979) and Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983) feature several new elements along with Barthelme's various characteristic techniques and concerns. For instance, Overnight to Many Distant Cities is composed of stories juxtaposed with brief, dreamlike monologues. While some critics have faulted this collection for Barthelme's idiosyncratic use of literary devices, others note the presence of hope in many of the pieces as well as an uncharacteristic willingness by Barthelme to confront and reflect emotions. Sixty Stories (1981) and Forty Stories (1987) collect pieces from all phases of Barthelme's career.
The unconventional nature of Barthelme's work has provoked extensive critical debate. His detractors perceive in his work a destructive impulse to subvert language and culture and an emphasis on despair and irrationalism. These critics claim that he offers no remedies for the ills of contemporary life that he documents and that he refuses to convey order, firm values, and meaning. On the other hand, Barthelme enjoys widespread critical acclaim and is particularly praised as a stylist who offers vital and regenerative qualities to literature. There have been several commentators who have noted parallels between Barthelme's stories and those of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. They assert that like Kafka, Barthelme presents a surreal, irrational world in which the anxieties of his characters are amplified, and that he experiments with form like Borges to create fantastic and ironic scenarios that blur distinctions between the real and the imaginary. Some critics regard Barthelme as an insightful satirist who exposes pretentious ideas that purport to answer life's mysteries.