Barthelme, Donald 1931–
Barthelme, a persistent experimenter, especially in the short story form, is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
It's hard to dislike [Snow White's] urbane craziness, its oblique, understated but diversified reservations about human possibility, its arch dryness, its blasé verbal horseplay. That kind of ambition it fulfills, and it may be beside the point to demand more clarity and a more substantial, less dilettantish, critique. Not all of it is good, but what is (the hilarious Hogo, for one) is very good. There are departures we simply have to grant, like the use of headlinish capitals. Nothing wrong or remarkable about such an emphasis. Not Henry James, you might say. The very opposite of subtle. But it is done boldly and confidently, and the visual variety is effective and engaging. Nothing to freak out over, or especially praise, but OK. And to use them by isolation as invitations to decipher meaning (they are no more helpful than anything else) is a form of wit….
[It's] mostly very good, and one should relax and enjoy it and not worry about being baffled. Enjoy its accuracy, its host of little puncturing details, its commitment to entertaining incongruities. As that kind of low-key achievement it is successful. I don't think this advice underestimates the book's oddity or relevance, but rather provides what I suggest is a sane perspective. It's a queer little book to grill in the sun with.
Jack Shadoian, "Notes on Donald Barthelme's Snow White," in Western Humanities Review, Winter, 1970, pp. 73-5.
Donald Barthelme is already an Old Master, and amazingly uncontroversial—there are those who read him and those who don't. For those who do, [City Life], his fourth book, is probably the most satisfying, for each story exists in its own right, and the variety over all fourteen stories is astounding. Anyone who has not read him yet might well begin with three stories here: the title story, "Views of My Father Weeping," and "The Glass Mountain." Addiction should be assured. When Barthelme offers us language, it seems as though we had never noticed it before, that our prior perceptions have been little more than bad habits.
James Aronson, "Reservations" (© 1970 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXX, No. 1; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Antioch Review, Spring, 1970, p. 129.
Apparently devoid of ideas himself, Barthelme begins with the clichés of our time—racial distress, the horror of war, and somewhat paradoxically, the absurdity of everything—and puts down, one supposes, whatever ridiculous things occur to him. He mounts an assault against the ordinary concepts of order and the result is literary disorder which is fruitless. But the effort elicits from some critics at least a complementary capitulation to a kind of chaos…. [The] danger here is twofold: first, that literary judgment in general might be corrupted; and what would be equally disastrous, that our reaction against Barthelme and his admirers might blind us to the possibilities of valid innovation.
Walter Sullivan, "'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?': The Short Story in Search of Itself' (© 1970 by The University of The South), in Sewanee Review, Summer, 1970, pp. 531-42.
[The] structural principle of Barthelme's fiction is collage. History (as it is forming) pours into this fiction. Barthelme does not arrest and decipher the flow of words and things by straining them through the serial development of traditional narration, forcing them into categories and linear progression, the structure of deliberating thought. They have, as it were, their own specific gravities. They are found, not created, and in their contrast and/or cohesion yield manifold meaning. The narrator in Barthelme's fiction is typically attentive to the thisness of the world. If he lapses into revery or meditation, his attention is invariably brought back to the whirl of phenomena about him, by the pull of the object, whether a girl's thigh or an issue of Newsweek….
In short, Barthelme plunges us into a Bachelardian sphere of experience, a luminous phenomenological world in which the objects of everyday life (and those disposable units of speech) are all charged with significance, and yet it is a world that does not glow with Bachelard's humanism. The characters in Barthelme's fiction inhabit this minefield of meaning with little sense of its potent nature.
Neil Schmitz, "Donald Barthelme and the Emergence of Modern Satire," in Minnesota Review, Fall, 1971, pp. 109-18.