Barthelme, Donald 1931–
Barthelme, an American novelist and short story writer, is a brilliant and innovative prose stylist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
Barthelme has managed to place himself in the center of modern consciousness. Nothing surrealist about him, his dislocations are real, his material quite actual. Radio, television, movies, newspapers, books, magazines, social talk: these supply us with our experience….
Putting end to end and next to next is Barthelme's method, and in Barthelme, blessed method is everything….
Dreck, trash, and stuffing: these are his principal materials. But not altogether. There is war and suffering, love and hope and cruelty. He hopes, he says …, "these souvenirs will merge into something meaningful." But first he renders everything as meaningless as it appears to be in ordinary modern life by abolishing distinctions and putting everything in the present. He constructs a single plane of truth, of relevance, of style, of value—a flatland junkyard—since anything dropped in the dreck is dreck, at once, as an uneaten porkchop mislaid in the garbage.
William H. Gass, "The Leading Edge of the Trash Phenomenon," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1968 by NYREV, Inc.), April 25, 1968, p. 5.
A highly self-conscious writer, Donald Barthelme indicated in the first story of his first collection both his main artistic strategy and the crucial question it raises. In "Florence Green Is 81" (in "Come Back, Dr. Caligari") the narrator muses, "I am free associating, brilliantly, brilliantly, to put you into the problem. Or for fear of boring you: which?"
Barthelme's stories are normally made up of fragments seemingly associated at random; the closer they come to narrative development, character portrayal or any other conventional purpose, the more overtly they signal their fragmentation. Barthelme may separate the parts of a story with numbers or blank space, or interpose graphic divisions. Earlier writers have drawn similar attention to the formal arbitrariness of fiction—one thinks of Sterne, who also favored graphic intrusions and blank space, or Thackeray, who said in "Vanity Fair" that his characters were puppets—but not even contemporary meta-fictionists like Borges go so far in insisting that the reader take the story as a made object, not a window on life.
Although Barthelme's strategies vary in significance from story to story, they all spring from a common impulse. He is very conscious that formulas achieve familiarity and that familiarity breeds inattention. Though he wishes that literature could still provide insight and inspiration as it did in the great, mercifully unselfconscious days of a writer like Tolstoy (see "At the Tolstoy Museum" in "City Life"), he is also aware that modern readers have experienced too much literature to respond freshly to the old modes, so he free associates to "make it new." While less theoretical contemporaries resort to marginal subject matter, idiosyncratic viewpoints or shocking language, Barthelme uses formal dislocation to achieve this goal.
But making it new can become an end in itself. Barthelme's question in "Florence Green" highlights the most meaningful distinction between what is valuable in his work and what is merely catchy. He almost always exhibits not only fragmentation but brilliance—wit, terse elegance, zany inventiveness. Thus, if one wants to approach some ultimate judgment of his work, one mustn't get lost in the dazzlements of Barthelme's style or lose Barthelme (as has so often happened) in general questions of avant-garde writing and the strangeness of the age; one must separate those works that "put you into the problem" from those that seem only to fear boredom. Before "Sadness," his fifth book, most of Barthelme's best stories put you into the problem of art in a world hostile to the continued vitality of imagination. Examples occur in each of his books, but "City Life" contains most of them. As a group, these stories constitute brilliant literary criticism written in fictive form. Anxious parables, they assert that literature, which was once a means of revitalizing the imagination and opposing banality, has itself become exhausted and banal.
The best stories in "Sadness" put us into a different, though related problem. Not parables so much as monologues spoken by neurasthenics, they throb with distress at what one of them calls "the present era's emphasis on emotional cost control" and "its insistent, almost annoying lucidity." Like the parables about art, they yearn for an openness whose best sign is seeing beyond life into mystery. But, like the parables about art, they show the dreadful diffusion of "knowingness."
Charles Thomas Samuels, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1972, p. 27.
Barthelme's Sadness, although arranged as a collection of stories, has the consistency and effect of a novel, drawing its substance from the title of its first piece, "Critique de la Vie Quotidienne." From the start of his career Barthelme has shown the ability to seize our mundane moments and make them lucid, usually by an apt metaphor or deft refocusing of language and idea. Nobody ever faulted Barthelme for his perceptions, but by themselves they could be called subjective, lyrical, poetic, or any of the other terms used to disqualify fiction as fiction. Sadness, however, gives his visions a clarifying run through our very familiar and objective lives….
Throughout the fictions of Sadness are various palliatives, including sensory deprivation, religion, and finally art.
Jerome Klinkowitz, "Insatiable Art and the Great American Quotidian," in Chicago Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1973, pp. 172-74.
For all that Sadness is the title of Donald Barthelme's collection of stories, and that loneliness, hopelessness, foolishness and misery certainly preoccupy him, the net effect is a curious sort of buoyancy. Perhaps it's the exuberant resourcefulness and variety of his invention that undermine the losses, intransigences and longueurs of ordinary life that are his staple…. Sometimes Barthelme's flashy inventiveness seems to be offensively in love with itself, at other times his resistance to taking seriously the horrors he invokes seems perversely wilful, a tipsy cheerfulness (and alcohol is one of his people's recurring problems) for rebutting daily cares. But at their best—and they often are—his wit and ingenuity do encounter life and art to considerable and serious purpose. Life has a way of turning out to be programmed by art: the genius of 'The Genius' reads The Genius by Theodore Dreiser; the woman who ditches boring diurnality in Critique de La Vie Quotidienne goes off to Nanterre to study with the Marxist author of Critique de La Vie Quotidienne. And dishonesties in life and art are constantly challenged. A filmmaker manages to include fear, rippling buttocks, moon rocks, breasts, in his movie, but truth is forgotten in 'the series of triumphs that is my private life'. In 'Engineer-Private Paul Klee misplaces an aircraft between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916', Paul Klee 'diddles the manifest' to cope with the loss. The observing secret police applaud his devices, and ironically underscore the story's stringent reflections on manifestness and deception in painting.
Valentine Cunningham, in The Listener, December 6, 1973, pp. 793-94.
[Barthelme's] work, while dealing (in this collection [Sadness]) with such strangenesses as St. Anthony resisting the temptations of suburban life, and a stage-show incorporating 'Theological Novelties', grave-robbers and 'dum-dums and beefheads', is really about the satisfactions of playing with language—enlightened play, founded on great verbal tact and liveliness. Each story is balanced with precision on its linguistic manner, and each ends with a carefully phrased downbeat or burst of ironic lyricism. I suspect that Barthelme's true affiliations are with 'New York School' poets like John Ashbery or Kenneth Koch, who similarly focus attention on their jumps and cuts of language. In fact, 'The Genius', one of the stories in this new collection, is very like an early Koch poem titled 'The Artist'. And in the crisp, idiosyncratic way of Ashbery or Koch, Barthelme can be very funny indeed.
Peter Straub, in New Statesman, December 7, 1973, p. 875.
Barthelme is the P. G. Wodehouse of surrealism: one is supposed to laugh, one thinks one will eventually but, in the end, one doesn't quite. I put the matter so impersonally because it is very difficult to imagine Barthelme actually writing to an audience; he is one of the soidisant school who came from Cape Cod and all points west.
The tone of these stories [in Sadness] is slightly coy, sometimes restless, occasionally abrupt and always deadpan. It is the flat but frayed tone….
Barthelme is … almost a seismograph of New York taste. It is a city immensely pleased with itself, and its particular culture tends to be self-regarding. And, like all good journalists, Barthelme has sunk into his ambiance. He has adapted, or appropriated the tone and the manner of certain New York poets, he has borrowed the deliberate naivety of certain New York journalists and he has copied the 'cookiness' of life from a whole generation. Not a bad achievement, you might think, especially when he adds in a few technical innovations—rather like a character with a drinking problem, who changes glasses.
Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 8, 1973, pp. 746-47.