Barthelme, Donald 1931–
American novelist and short story writer, Barthelme has been dubbed by Peter Ackroyd "the P. G. Wodehouse of surrealism" for his experimental fiction. Most critics agree that the lack of organization in his prose reflects his doubt of any fundamental structure in society. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
Barthelme is a shrewd writer if ultimately a trivial one, and it is clever of him to choose a relatively peripheral historical conflict [in Snow White] in order to show how all sides are interchangeable, each having its own spurious myths … and its own clichés…. Equally characteristic of the new American writing is the way this total disillusionment with the supposed "complexities" of history turns directly into verbal clowning: two opposed alternatives of participation in a Mexican revolution suddenly switch into a farcical tangent, expressed in mock-serious language, about the lack of "personally-owned horses" and how it has afflicted "U.S. youth." The technique ostentatiously destroys distinctions between what is central and what is peripheral in human experience. The course of history itself is seen not as a weighty, momentous development in experienced time, but as an abstract scheme of contentless dates, perhaps a diagram in a notebook, "the bottom half of the 20th century" from which the speaker peers up at the mechanically interchangeable figures of Pershing and Pancho Villa somewhere near the top. Such a sense of history as symmetrically indifferent pointlessness is shared by others of the new American novelists, but Barthelme may well infer the most consistent artistic consequence of this sense by openly withdrawing from the serious representation of men and women caught in the web of history to a mimicry of verbal and cultural gestures, the fiction devised chiefly as a collage of linguistic waste products, a study of what the author himself calls "the trash phenomenon" in language.
Robert Alter, "The New American Novel" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, November, 1975, p. 47.
[The Dead Father] is full of delights, even if not all of them attach themselves to one another.
There is a way of talking about Barthelme that allies him with a distinguished modernist movement—disciple of Borges, exemplar of the ideas of Roland Barthes, and so on—but this overlooks the distinctive pleasures of his work, his gift for parody and social satire. He has an ear as deadly as a black belt's hand. He speaks dozens of the specialized dialects that make up our language, and he mocks their pretension and the pretentious surety of those who use them. If he addresses himself mainly to sufferers of contemporary spiritual malaise, he is particularly merciless on the language that is used to describe that illness. He sometimes indulges in low college humor. He cuts up, is cute. But at his best, he achieves a lunatic poise; he provides a way of listening to the cacophony around us; he gives comfort….
The Dead Father becomes a symbol of some plasticity. He is God first of all. God as a father. And father as God. After that he's what you will: The Novel, Western Culture, Truth, Duty, Honor, Country. He is the order that we seek, and the control we seek to escape. A symbol with multiple possibilities—but still a heavy symbol, and it isn't at all clear at the start that Barthelme can bear up under the load. But he inventively does. (pp. 112-13)
Sentiment earns a larger place for itself in this novel than in anything Barthelme has written before. It resides, mostly, in The Dead Father himself…. The Dead Father has died only "in a sense." He is "dead but still with us, still with us, but dead." He has lost his clout. He knows he's bound for the grave. But he speaks. He occasionally breaks away from his cable and accomplishes some mayhem. (pp. 113-14)
We are sorry to see The Dead Father go, when the bulldozers appear and begin to fill his grave. He reminds us of whatever it is that we imagine to have existed in a more coherent world. Not to put too fine a point on this, but if Barthelme continues in this direction, he might become a disturbing novelist. (p. 114)
Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), December, 1975.
Donald Barthelme's first book [was] Come Back, Dr. Caligari, and in 1964 it was surprising and delightful to find serious literary intentions being pursued with indifference to the distinction between "high" and "popular" culture.
But the radical quality of Barthelme's early stories was often blunted by the nature of his materials and his audience. If he was writing studies in a dying culture, they were also—like The New Yorker, where most of his work appeared—meant to seem amusing and unthreatening to the creatures of that culture, living or at least imagining cosmopolitan lives while keeping up with the charming vulgarity outside…. [His] Last-Days-of-Pompeii implications are covered over with Perelman-like whimsy,… [and] the governing mood remains unshakably chic.
That mood was shaken in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968). These stories consider with surprising directness the pressure of political and social turmoil upon the static, ahistorical world that the culture of affluence represents as life. Barthelme's collages begin to include strong images of ethnic vengeance ("The Indian Uprising"), crisis politics ("Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning," "The President"), the law-and-order mentality ("The Police Band"), the purposeless technology of modern war ("Report," "Game"). But this overtly political mood moves into more generalized forms of anxiety in City Life (1970), as if Barthelme had answered no to the question he posed in "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel": "Do you think your irony could be useful in changing the government?"…
[In Sadness (1972) an] occasional image of Vietnam, busing, or racial violence intrudes, but these now seem scarcely more menacing than the appearance of King Kong at a party—he turns out to be an adjunct professor of art history at Rutgers who's as easily subdued by pleasure as anyone else…. (p. 54)
No condemnation is intended here. For all its alertness to realities beyond the media, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts seems to me (except for Snow White, a tedious countercultural soap opera) Barthelme's thinnest book, just as Come Back, Dr. Caligari and Sadness, which in their different ways are the least concerned with social and political matters, are probably his best. The terms of Barthelme's art don't easily accommodate the most difficult terms of life, and a distant and grave sense of absurdity, not feeling close-up, is what he has to give us.
But even in the subdued moods of his recent work something recalcitrant remains alive…. The Dead Father is stripped down … and its economy of means seems to suit our recent discovery that material possibilities which used to seem limitless are terribly small after all.
The Dead Father is described by its publishers as "a novel," and although that's not quite right, still it is a more connected work of fiction than anything Barthelme has yet written. The connections are admittedly rudimentary: a recurring set of characters with ordinary names like Thomas, Julie, and Emma, who embark on a quest, broad comedy alternating with pathos, intimations of "larger" significances that are decently obscured by some attention to what's human and social. There is even, in the best eighteenth-century practice, a digressive book-within-a-book as well as continuing exchanges of anecdotes and personal histories. The methods, that is, are ones that Fielding or Dickens would be easy with.
They would have been less easy with the substance of Barthelme's book. The Dead Father ("dead only in a sense"), in one of his aspects a colossal Gulliverian figure, has always been the reality of his children…. He is God, machine technology, civil and economic law, an idea of the world as ordered, equitable, and perhaps benign, an embodiment of collective selfhood and its history like Joyce's Finn or Blake's Albion.
He is also, dead or not, the Father, the terrible possessor of the power that was here before we were, the continual reminder of how little power and freedom we can negotiate for ourselves. (pp. 54-5)
The idea of "fatherhood as a substructure of the war of all against all" happily doesn't completely overwhelm the novelist's playful interest in his characters—the Dead Father can sometimes seem a lovable old rascal or a pathetic figure beset by rather priggish young enemies, and the book is unexpectedly sad, as if much of the fun had gone out of watching centers fail to hold. But they do fail, they are failing all around us, and in reading this new book I was struck by this sophisticated writer's attaching to conventions of fictional order disintegrative devices that are more suggestive of Beckett than of Perelman. There are long passages of intricately contrapuntal dialogue in which "character" almost, but not quite, disappears into the random retrieval of cultural data…. [Such] passages, in a book built out of the wreckage of a great literary form, seem to me to convey more affectingly than Barthelme's earlier, more glossy work the mysterious power of language to perpetuate itself, if nothing else, even with the bleakest material. The Dead Father does not always succeed, but it suggests a hopeful future for a writer whose talent may not yet have found its most hospitable form of expression. (p. 55)
Thomas R. Edwards, "Barthelme the Scrivener," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), December 11, 1975. pp. 54-5.
The Dead Father [is a] cold short narrative … written at an extreme distance from life, out of literary models and the author's idea of a defunct avant-garde. The Dead Father is God, we are told at one point, but the tyrannic authority of the past will do. It seems clear only that Barthelme finds clarity simplistic and is enchanted with the attenuated jokes of modernity. Here may be found his Lucky speech, his Watt palaver, his Joycean flourishes, his Kafkaesque dream, etc. It's all very cynical and chic, like Woody Allen's posture of the twirp taking on the big guys once again…. Real freedom, if that is what Barthelme is seeking in laying the image of the father to rest, will come in a release of his comic talent from the merely fashionable. He is ingenious in dealing with the madness of sophisticated urban life but he is not yet angry enough to dig out from under the clods of pastiche that muffle his own voice. (pp. 408-09)
Maureen Howard, in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1976.
One of the reasons—I think it is the principal reason—for the basic antagonism that obtains between aestheticism and fatherhood is the relation in which aestheticism stands to nature. Simply stated, aestheticism sets itself against nature, toward which it adopts an attitude of irony and condescension. Aestheticism opposes the authority of all biological imperatives. By extension, moreover, it casts doubt on all principles of continuity and necessity based on or implied by the laws of nature, for which it is eager to substitute the disjunctions and self-inventions of cultural artifice. Toward language, as toward life, it holds an essentially "plastic" view. Finding the données of nature an intolerable imposition on the freedom of the mind to impose its will on experience, aestheticism seeks a radical redress of its grievances in the realm of culture. Oscar Wilde's famous quip about life imitating art was always, perhaps, more amusing than true, but there is this to be said for it: it does, without question, apply to the life of culture even if it does not apply to the life of nature, and it is usually culture that the aesthete has in mind when he speaks of "life."…
One way of understanding Freud's whole psychological edifice is to see it as a challenge to and criticism of the aesthetic dissembling that characterized the European culture of his day, which, though bourgeois and eminently respectable, was completely in thrall to the conventions of decorative euphemism on which aestheticism depends. Between Beardsley, say, and Freud there is a curious symmetry of vision, with Beardsley choosing to celebrate all those dislocations of the psyche that Freud set out to repair. (p. 56)
[In The Dead Father] the ghosts of the aesthetic movement meet the phantom fears of the Freudian family romance. Fatherhood is caustically enthroned as ogrehood, and all familial relations reduced to offenses of taste—the only offenses that can any longer be taken seriously from the aesthetic point of view. Yet something has happened to the feigned detachment and hauteur that once characterized the aesthetic attitude. No longer secure in its distance from the world, it has adopted the tactics of a more militant and polemical irony—the tactics of Dada. In The Dead Father, the assault on fatherhood and the aggrandizement of art—twin aspects of a single struggle—are accomplished by means of a style in which all emotions but the aesthetic are shown to be ridiculous and destructive. At the same time, since the assault on fatherhood is inevitably an assault on childhood, the virtues of aestheticism are identified with the freedom and fetishism of childhood. Which is, indeed, to return to the aesthetic assumptions of Dada—a name which, in this context, acquires yet another irony.
Taking his cue from the triumphant revival of Dada in the visual arts, from which he has borrowed actual visual devices in some of his earlier works, Mr. Barthelme has fashioned a fictional style, at once deadpan and disjunctive, mocking and digressive, that is the literary equivalent of the Dada collage. The aim is, apparently, to write a kind of "children's book" for adults—a genre that permits the author to address knowing readers with a wink as he distends his narrative with vivid and amusing irrelevancies that, like the details of a crowded collage, can be counted on to lend a sense of mystery and complexity and a certain decorative appeal to what, in the case of The Dead Father, is actually a rather simple fantasy of filial revenge.
The story itself, such as it is, has the quality of a fairy tale or folk tale that has been scissored, Dada-style, into shreds, and then reassembled with derisory and disproportionate embellishments. The fun is in the embellishments, and the moral is in the tale—there, and in the ["Manual for Sons"] of moral instruction that Mr. Barthelme inserts into the narrative lest we mistake his already obvious purpose. For Mr. Barthelme is, with all his waggishness, a very didactic writer, and The Dead Father is, despite its facetious tone, a very moralistic book—but moralistic, to be sure, in the new fashion, which yearns for life to be free of all condition and contingency and which, as a consequence, despises all evidence of growth, attachment, and maturation as an obstacle to its cherished ontological freedom. Or, as Julie, the foolish "heroine" of The Dead Father, explains to its eponymous victim: "They are [fifty-year-old] boys because they don't want to be old farts…. The old fart is not cherished in this society."
The Dead Father—he is given no other name in the book—is the dreaded and archetypal "old fart" incarnate, and The Dead Father itself is a mock-epic account of the journey to his own burial he endures at the hands of his son, Thomas, who is aided by a retinue of disreputable revelers. The Dead Father is, in this surrealist odyssey, an immense and horrific figure, at once a corpse being dragged by gigantic cables overland to his monumental grave in a distant place and a talkative, demanding, imperious, terrible-tempered tyrant, very much alive in asserting his terrifying and irrational appetites and prerogatives—a figure straight out of Ubu Roi, only magnified in size and fury and silliness, and redrawn to the lineaments of Freudian fatherhood. But this Father is also the state, if not indeed society itself—symbol of all authority and order, which, in Mr. Barthelme's social cosmos, is always and inevitably an insane authority and a malevolent order. (pp. 56-7)
[Every chapter] offers a variation or illumination of the themes sounded in the prologue—the dreaded omnipotence of the Dead Father, and Thomas's wish to see him really dead and buried. The progress of the narrative is the fulfillment of that wish as the Dead Father, despite all his railing and resistance, is slowly, painfully stripped of his authority and placed in his grave.
There is almost no action to speak of in this narrative, but a lot of talk in which there are references to action…. [Mainly], they all talk to or about the Dead Father himself, or watch his progressively enfeebled antics. Even in his decline—and this, I take it, is Mr. Barthelme's point—it is still the Dead Father who is in control, who cannot be exorcised even in death.
It is for the Dead Father that all vitality is reserved, which, given the terms of Mr. Barthelme's style, means that he gets the best lines and the most vivid images. (pp. 57-8)
What momentum The Dead Father attains, however, is to be found in the campaign against fatherhood itself. There are two sides to this campaign—one devoted to delivering the Dead Father to his grave, the other (the source of greater anguish for Thomas) devoted to resisting the terrible fate of replacing him, of relinquishing boyhood for fatherhood itself. Early on in the novel, the conflict between fatherhood and aestheticism is made quite explicit. (p. 58)
Compounded of nonsense and primitive fear, the ["Manual for Sons"] spells out the case against fatherhood in all its aspects, from the aesthetic to the social to the sexual, and concludes by denying the son any hope of recompense for what he has suffered at the hands of fatherhood, even the hope of patricide…. "We have seen that the key idea, in fatherhood, is 'responsibility.'" Mr. Barthelme tells us in this "Manual for Sons," and it is responsibility, above all, that must be abjured.
The Dead Father … is Mr. Barthelme's most explicit statement of the view that has governed all of his work—a view that holds life itself in contempt, and seeks a redress of its grievances in the kind of literary artifice that shuts out all reference to the normal course of human feeling. Art, in the scenario of this style, is a weapon in the war against nature, and nature, paradoxically, the enemy of innocence. His, I think, is the most sophisticated, because the most calculated and refined, expression of that hatred of the family that was a hallmark of the ideology of the counterculture of the 60's, and distinguished from other such expressions by allying itself with art, rather than with nature, in its search for innocence and escape. Perhaps it is that alliance—so distant from the vulgarities of the counterculture itself—that has won Mr. Barthelme his great following among critics and professors and literary editors, if not among the readers of fiction. For what he offers that specialized public is the illusion that salvation lies in the inner sanctum of their own profession. (pp. 58-9)
Hilton Kramer, "Barthelme's Comedy of Patricide" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1976 by Hilton Kramer), in Commentary, August, 1976, pp. 56-9.
There are many Barthelmes…. There is, of course, Barthelme the stylist, who has raised the deadpan style to heights barely dreamed of by the florid. And there is Barthelme the surrealist, a mind more puissant in this mode than any this side of Jorge Luis Borges. There are also Barthelme the wit, the storyteller, the psychologist. [But Amateurs presents] an opportunity to examine yet another avatar: Barthelme the social critic.
There are 20 stories in Amateurs, and all of them might be construed as social criticism in one way or another: critiques of the family (with subthemes of isolation and escape), of class structures, of peer-group pressures and collective decision-making; studies in the modes of leadership: charismatic, permissive, bumbling, scared; biopsies of social symbol and ritual, of role-playing and hierarchies; critiques of the small societies that are formed everywhere by two people. In perhaps 75 per cent of the stories, the intent of social criticism seems deliberate, even predominant; in a few, it is obvious, though it can be obvious in slightly devious ways.
It is obvious in "The Sergeant," a nightmare about a middle-aged man inducted into the army by mistake and strangled in red tape. It is obvious in the story of social manipulation that begins, "So I bought a little city (it was Galveston, Texas) and told everybody that nobody had to move, we were going to do it just gradually, very relaxed, no big changes overnight." But you may have to look twice to notice the ways in which this story is an analogue of the Vietnam experience. It is less obvious in "The Great Hug," which can be read simply as a tale of yin and yang but also contains buried observations on the relation of the artist to society….
[In] most of Barthelme's stories, the main action is something that (we tell ourselves) could never actually happen as described; the stories go beyond mere accuracy of detail to present a basic concept, a metaphor of social relations which is truer and more sharply focused in its overtones, its implications, precisely because it cannot be read satisfactorily on the level of mere "what happened next" narrative. The special power of these images is based on the fact that they are mixed metaphors; we are able to see a particular aspect of our society more clearly because it is seen through a distorting lens. Barthelme, like the modern composers who have found strange new beauties in dissonance, has taken a technique that the manuals solemnly warn against and made it, with incredible brilliance, the basis of a whole system for writing fiction.
Joseph McLellan, "How Real is Real," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 28, 1976, p. H3.
Barthelme's greatest debts are not to the art world or to camp but to Gogol and Kafka and especially Borges. His true American ancestor is S. J. Perelman, his predecessor at "The New Yorker," where most of Barthelme's stories first appear. But Perelman would never write such fiction…. Perelman's antic haymakers spring from the irrepressible green id, the old Adam (Groucho Marx) who screams "hands off!" to mass culture. Barthelme, forty years and three wars later, has no such angry all-American optimism. For Barthelme we're all trapped in culture, top to bottom, inside and out, highbrow and low, mired in the Oedipus complex, chattering clichés, isolated, alienated prattling consciousnesses—no green leaf of freedom within, no exit in sight. "Oh there's brain damage in the east, and brain damage in the west … and in my lady's parlor—brain damage," he writes.
In this he seems a New York cousin to Samuel Beckett. But Beckett is always the bleak modernist, the "stoic comedian," full of serious stuff, high art, even the jokes in earnest, absurd always spelled with a capital A. Barthelme is funnier, even silly, a veritable squirrel of wit, collecting bits of verbal trash and customized consumer culture junk from the blather and bump of New York city life. It's as if Beckett's ashcans had been rounded up to serve as ornamental vases or cocktail party favors.
Barthelme's stories are assemblages: fragments of conversations, monologues, historical and literary snapshots, glimpses of domestic strife, the burdens and groans of urban child-raising and sexual activity. Many have little nervous bursts of violent action—slaps, cuts, gashes, a quick flash—that interrupt the deadpan descriptions and lists of artifacts and urban totems, the samples of technical jargon and intellectual nattering. At his best—in the two story collections "Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts" and "City Life" and in the section "A Manual for Sons" in his novel "The Dead Father"—Barthelme's collages have a poignant, ruminative undertone that gives the flickering juxtapositions a kind of nihilistic sheen that is beautiful and moving. He can be extraordinarily intelligent and poised—a Pierrot on skates. And yet he sometimes seems content to coast along, relying on his perfect pitch and fine collector's eye. He can sound a lot like such on again, off again New York poets of the 60's as Frank O'Hara or Kenneth Koch, as in his story "You Are as Brave as Vincent van Gogh" in this new book, "Amateurs"…. (p. 17)
[His] surprises can turn nasty or go flat. The famous style then becomes a mannerism, self-duplicating, an automatic reflex not an act of local intelligence. The collage becomes a pastiche. The absurdities become as routine as the clichés that convey them: the japes become jokes, the satire a lampoon.
"The idea is to use dreck, not write about it," said William H. Gass. "Barthelme is often guilty of opportunism of subject (the war, street riots, launching pads, etc.) and to be opportune is to succumb to dreck…. cleverness is also dreck. The cheap joke is dreck. The topical, too, is dreck. Who knows this better than Barthelme, who has the art to make a treasure out of trash, to see out from inside it…. A seriousness about his subject is sometimes wanting. When this obtains, the result is grim, and grimly overwhelming."
Unhappily, ["Amateurs"] is, for Barthelme, relatively weak. It would delight, astonish and perplex if it had come from any other writer. (pp. 17-18)
Some of these [stories] are funny, some amusing, some flat, some nasty. Almost every one contains a flawless sentence or two. But there's much less variety and kaleidoscopic color in these stories, fewer voices, fewer threads combining, than in Barthelme's best work. And there are times when Barthelme resorts to violent fantasy to keep things lively, as if the language weren't enough. After the elegance of the passage ending "little specks of white had started to appear in the crisp, carefully justified black prose," he abruptly goes to "I picked up the hammer and said into the telephone, 'Well, if he comes around here he's going to get a face full of hammer. A four-pound hammer can mess up a boy's face pretty bad. A four-pound hammer can make a bloody rubbish of a boy's face.'" It's not just the content but the need for such an easy shock that is crass here.
Which raises the question of all pop art, of all cool avoidance of narrative, all pure, ironic, amoral literary construction. If the modern urban world is dreck, garbage, sound and fury signifying nothing, how moving, instructive, important can pop art be? If such stories operate on less than full esthetic power—if the language goes slack, the invention mechanical, the jokes too much like college humor, the contrasts too crude and hostile—then they're in danger of becoming not a foil or a transcendence of their material but a contributor to the mess, an accomplice after the fact, part of the problem.
Narrow peepholes show partial truths; a single tone is not a melody, no matter how pure it may be. A style is not a body of work. Nabokov and Pynchon are so much larger, so various, so historical. In several of his earlier books Barthelme commanded a great range of voices and allusions; he seemed to blend history, personal life, the comedy of manners and verbal detritus into a comic 60's wasteland. It's disheartening to see him here often coasting on his style, for a style can become a habit, a nervous tic, no longer responsive to experience, but self-generating, self-fulfilling, self-reflexive, a closed circuit. White noise. (p. 18)
Richard Locke, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 19, 1976.
Donald Barthelme's fiction now stands as the central exhibit of what we have come to call, for lack of anything more resonant or memorable, the "post-modernist" imagination. Widely imitated yet inimitable, he invests his fables, collages and word games with such style that they stand as touchstones for narrative art of the last two decades…. Still, privately if not in print, more than a few of the admirers of his first three collections, especially the brilliant City Life, have felt a measure of disappointment in his latest work. The perils in his method have surely been as obvious to him as to his readers from the start, the fey preciosity that threatens to turn the fictions into stand-up monologues done by a collector of middle-high camp, and the extraordinary facility which threatens to make some of his pieces seem astonishing, and yet forgettable, exercises. Happily, all questions of the direction of Barthelme's recent work are irrelevant to his latest collection, Amateurs. It is a gathering of previously uncollected stories, many from the early 1970s. There are no visual tricks, no old engravings, only words. (p. 119)
It is … a rich, diverse collection, an index not of where Barthelme wishes to move next but of where he has been, when his talent has been most virtuoso and sure of itself.
The collection, by placing itself as it does over the past six years of Barthelme's career, rather than at its leading edge, invites some kind of assessment. I suggest two ways into the question of what Barthelme, in his richest and most inventive period, has amounted to. "'The world is everything that was formerly the case,' the group leader said, 'and now it is time to get back on the bus.'" So begins the last paragraph of "The Educational Experience." What that sentence does—never mind the context—is to bring together Wittgenstein known, digested, exhausted, and inverted and to couple the Wittgenstein echo with a kind of wit that is quintessentially American, flip, tough, and facile, the kind of wit that we all recognize in its purest form in S. J. Perelman or Woody Allen. The absurdist or nihilist vision in its official European forms has never been particularly congenial to American readers, not that we cannot share its assumptions—most of us in some sense do. It's that other cultures' absurd visions either are funny in ways we cannot respond to or are not funny at all. Even the comedy of Beckett strikes most American readers as being rather strained, forced, stylized out of all human recognition, and not very funny, which is why Beckett is much admired in this country but little read. The special power that Heller, Pynchon and Barth, for example, have brought to the nihilist vision is an American comedy, full of bad taste, wisecracks, ethnic jibes, allusions to Pop culture, pratfalls, stand-up routines, and the kind of inspired ingenuity that takes us, in a sentence, from an inverted Wittgenstein quote, processed through the mind of a tour guide, to the loading of the bus itself. Nobody else does this like Barthelme, who has read everything, whose inventiveness is inexhaustible, and whose wit is both intricate and very funny.
Secondly, Barthelme has made a set of social and emotional responses for the people in his fictions that refract, in some uncanny way, the contours of our sensibility. People in Barthelme cope with technology, the myths of technology, the interruption of technological flow, useless inventions. People in Barthelme cope with media barrages, ideas, spokesmen, official announcements, encyclopedias, short courses, messages. They cope with social names, famous names, improbable names, historical names, product names, codes. They try to eat well—beer and sauerkraut, Colonel Sanders's Kentucky Fried Chicken, herb tea with sour cream, steak and eggs, chicken livers flambé. They try to remember, pay attention, start over, figure what to do next. Somehow that rhythm which Barthelme handles so well, of crisis and coping, carries, partly because it is stylized into myth, a potent sense of the callousness and courage, the knowingness and the poor mute innocence with which we meet our own strange world of experience. (p. 120)
Philip Stevick, in The Nation (copyright 1977 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 29, 1977.
[Come Back, Dr. Caligari], and the books which followed in the next few years, caused several critics to speak of [Barthelme] as a writer of great promise, who would carry American fiction forward in avant-garde, experimental directions. But increasingly the promise failed of fulfilment as each new Barthelme volume appeared. There seemed to be no gain in design, but a perceptible gain in glossiness and whimsicality….
[In] Barthelme there is a true uncertainty about the narrative subject. Usually the narrative-like sequence is urged forward by its own means of expression rather than by what it expresses.
Barthelme's dissipated promise, his situation of having a great future behind him, had more to do with the genre, that of experimental fiction, in which the critics located his writing. His career raises the question: does experimental fiction work as a literary category? More precisely, does it have a principle of growth, a developmental biology, so to speak, such as orthodox naturalistic fiction has so conspicuously possessed?…
The Dead Father has more of an air of fulfilling literary destiny than any other of Barthelme's recent books. The scale matches the content; this is a single, continuous work (Barthelme's first since 1967) and not a miscellany of bagatelles from The New Yorker. The presiding image of the Dead Father … is complicated but coherent. The Dead Father represents pater familias, deity, ancien régime aristocrat, the law, moral rectitude, and even our picture of reality.
The disparate "aspects" of this figure make the discontinuities and contradictions of the narrative appropriate. There is also a level of our experience at which these aspects fit together. Blake and Freud, for instance, were interested in this level; indeed Barthelme's Dead Father must be the twin brother of Blake's Nobodaddy. Barthelme's interest in classical mythology is also reminiscent of Freud: the book is, roughly, a retelling of the myth of the Golden Fleece, and he mentions certain other clasical legends (though it would be too much to say that any of these are interpreted in Freud's sense).
To think in a Freudian way, and to bring myth and magic into fiction, can sound like good tactics for an authentically modern writer to adopt as long as we forget what the old, orthodox novel was really like. But the developmental biology of the old novel was always keyed as much to the utterance of fantasies as to the depiction of the world. Thus Dickens's Mr Dombey, an unreal figure and a comprehensive expression of authority, is not so far removed from Barthelme's Dead Father. More particularly, there has long been a tradition of unorthodox fiction in which paternity is a central interest. Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, and Molloy are its major texts. Indeed to set the last of these—while thinking also of Beckett's Pozzo—beside The Dead Father is to see that Barthelme is not advancing experimental fiction one jot (and to remind oneself what the sense of inevitability and sureness of purpose in an innovative literary text is like).
Stylistically, also, Barthelme is indebted to Sterne, Joyce, and Beckett. He likes pastiche, lists, ribaldry, inserted visual elements, puns, and many kinds of incongruity of tone.
Michael Mason, "Paternity Pursuit," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 17, 1977, p. 721.