Barthelme, Donald 1931–
Barthelme is an American experimental short story writer and novelist, author of Snow White and City Life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
Donald Barthelme is [a] comedian who seems to have turned thinker. His first book, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, is an engaging collection of casual comic experiments, strictly from college humor often, none of them coming off with a bang but each carrying at least a small jolt. There are a few absurdist exercises, aleatory fiction, analogous to John Cage's music for twelve radios and twelve operators, like reading in rapid succession paragraph one on page two of every third novel on a single shelf in the library….
Snow White promotes … self-indulgence into an almost seamless morbidity. Mr. Barthelme, having decided to exploit his megrims, has written a remarkably slick pseudo-avantgarde novel, maybe the most cunningly modish book of the decade. He begins with the fairytale situation (one beautiful girl, and seven men serving her); disassembles the structure into episodes just discontinuous enough to persuade the up-to-date reader that he's reading something up-to-date (the most brazen trick is the use of billboard-type interchapters printed in full caps, which thump out the author's notions of gnomic wisdom …; and sophisticates the fable with every anxiety of the dyspeptic American intellectual: the human condition ("this bag that we are in");… the quality of life in suburbia …; the unsatisfactoriness of politics …; the unrenewability of language …; the pervasiveness of sexual symbolism in language …; the inadequacy of men …; the inadequacy and multitudinousness of women …; the hatefulness of contact …; the inadequacy and troublesomeness of sex…. Mr. Barthelme is a fashionable name-dropper …, and his clever novel is just a piece of interior decorating.
Marvin Mudrick, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1967, pp. 482-84.
There are a few stories in both [Barthelme's] first volume, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, and in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, which brilliantly demonstrate the power of sheer creative imagination to make the vital connection between satire and the social world that is so very difficult to make at just this time. Barthelme's recurrent theme is precisely the trivialization of contemporary life and consciousness, and at his best in these few stories he is able to dramatize his sense of that trivialization, as well as his satirical comment upon it, within the context of living fact and event which created it. But there is a vast distance between the stories which succeed in this way and the many others, unfortunately the majority of both volumes, which are victimized by the fallacy of imitative form, in which dislocation is expressed through dislocation and trivialization through trivia, to the amusement and edification of nobody. These stories strike one as exercises in free association and automatic writing or as descriptions of bad dreams jotted down in the middle of the night for the benefit of one's analyst, and some of them sound as though they had been begun in the hope that of their own accord, through the sheer act of being written, they would eventually discover their subject and meaning.
Reading them is like finding oneself adrift in a sea of orbiting psychic garbage…. The stories are in fact quite literally verbal immersions in dreck, the evacuated crud and muck of contemporary life, and they very effectively dramatize the sensations of being suffocated and shat upon and generally soiled and despoiled in soul and mind which accompany our daily experience of contemporary life. But they do not dramatize the cultural, political, or historical circumstances which give rise to these sensations, nor do they end in a satirical, or even a specific thematic formulation. Everything is offered in deadpan and with the mechanical iterativeness of items recited from a grocery list. Everything is offered, but somehow finally nothing is given.
The effect is actually very much like that of some of the New Wave films which introduce the viewer to an experience through a process of such total saturation in trivial details that it is often impossible to tell which detail or episode is supposed to be more important than some other, hence, impossible to detect the thematic principle which finally binds the details together into meaning.
John W. Aldridge, "Dance of Death," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1968 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), July, 1968, p. 89.
Snow White's ambitions being what they are, it runs the risk [of being thematically rebellious] most nakedly, and suffers an immediate loss. If it weren't, for instance, for its refusal to be a "novel," a story proceeding, however wildly or wondrously, like any other, it might well become the Catcher in the Rye of this generation. For its "content" includes the substance of our age's newest awareness and pre-awarenesses, its behavior and bemusements, its vocabularies, costumes and stances, and especially those of the uncommitted, disaffiliated young, the disabused and not-again-to-be-taken-in….
On its most available level Snow White is a parodic contemporary retelling of the fairy tale. More accurately, the tale is here refracted through the prism of a contemporary sensibility so that it emerges broken up into fragments, shards of its original identity, of its historical career in our consciousness (Disney's cartoon film is almost as much in evidence as the Grimm story) and of its recorded or potential uses for sociology and psychology—all the Freudian undertones and implications, for example. Placed like widely separated tesserae in an abstract mosaic construction, the fragments serve to give a skeletal unity to the mostly verbal events that surround them, as well as a locus for the book's main imaginative thrust….
Reality no longer sustains the values necessary to the creation of Snow White …, or the witch or the dwarfs; it lacks the floor under the imagination, the ingredients of possible aspiration, the hunger for simulated fate, to create "stories" of any kind. There is therefore no happy ending to this Snow White, no denouement except one that mocks the original's, no satisfaction to be obtained from a clear, completed arc of fictional experience. Fiction, Barthelme is saying, has lost its power to transform and convince and substitute, just as reality has lost, perhaps only temporarily (but that is not the concern of the imagination), its need and capacity to sustain fictions of this kind…. [The] book makes its way by dealing steadily with the problems of language. One "retracts" what the written world has been composed of not by ignoring it, by writing new language, but by discrediting it as the answer to one's own contemporary needs. So Barthelme retracts the fairy story by discrediting its operation now….
Richard Gilman, "Donald Barthelme," in his The Confusion of Realms (© 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 42-52.
Barthelme's work is packed with the detritus of modern life; it seems like an unbroken stream of the accumulations and appurtenances which we see around us. But Barthelme turns it all to strangeness by omitting or deliberately fragmenting the habitual arrangings and separations by which we seek to retain a sense of control over the slowly filling environment. He fractures the syntax and the taxonomies which we hope will keep us sane. His prose seeks to simulate the strange confluence of words and things which is our actual experience, so that the commonest objects from kitchen, bathroom or street are mixed up with the commonest clichés of contemporary intellectual talk; reminders of TV, radio, film, science-fiction, are added to the mix, while sudden moments of intense sexuality or violence alternate with long periods of deprivation and boredom—the whole dreck consort dancing or sinking, together. Returning to Barthelme's own phrases we could say that his prose seems to want to be all 'filling' or 'sludge', rocking along with things as they are with a richer sense of fantasy than our habitual modes of attention allow us to enjoy….
[Yet a] note of yearning for an unknown somewhere else sounds throughout his work. There is a strong feeling of being distinctly not at home in the trash age; though, since all the usual modes of complaint, dissatisfaction, nostalgia, etc.; are registered as being part of the very trash continuum they seek to repudiate, themselves helping to top up the contemporary plenum, this feeling of not-at-homeness necessarily comes through in indirect ways…. Barthelme usually avoids all allegorical portentousness with his antic, and sometimes manic, humour which refuses to allow his material ever to settle in recognizable narrative patterns. The result is a curious kind of prose, sometimes feeling rather hard and shellacked, like plastic, at other times fluttering like gay ribbons over the contemporaryribbons over the contemporary landscape, like the bunting over used car lots. It can be by turns engaging and ominous.
Tony Tanner, in his City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Tony Tanner; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1971, pp. 403-04.
Barthelme's importance as a writer lies not only in the exciting, experimental form, but in the exploration of the full impact of mass media pop culture on the consciousness of the individual who is so bombarded by canned happenings, sensations, reactions, and general noise that he can no longer distinguish the self from the surroundings. Barthelme's metropolis is rapidly reaching the state where the media are the man. As refuge the individual finds only unquestioning acceptance of contradictory states on the one hand, or specialized and meaningless abstractions on the other. Though wisdom and insight may exist here, the mass media have reduced everything to the same level of slightly shrill importance, and thus, paradoxically, to the same level of trivia. In the constant barrage of equally accentuated "nownesses," the individual loses all sense of priorities, and thus, caught between undifferentiated fact and equally meaningless abstractions, his world is that horror envisioned by one of E. M. Forster's characters in A Passage to India where everything exists and nothing has value….
If Barthelme sees urban life as a modern inferno, it is because he understands that the tendency of our society is toward further separation, for technology to retreat more and more to abstraction, the media to offer escape and unrealizable images rather than reality, and the arts to retreat toward cynical irony, and to leave the ordinary individual marooned in a world of fact, haunted by his inability to find the "clues" with which to deal with it, frustrated by life's failure to fulfill the "promises" of the media, and increasingly uncertain of the boundaries between the madness in the world and the madness in himself.
Francis Gillen, "Donald Barthelme's City: A Guide," in Twentieth Century Literature, January, 1972, pp. 37-44.
Calling Donald Barthelme's work fiction doesn't do the job. They're writings (see also [in addition to Sadness] Snow White and Come Back, Dr. Caligari) in search of their own definition, fictive essays on themes that are secret or haven't been announced. They usually have no plots, no characters we can identify from life, no formal beginnings or endings. They're all event, condition, attitude expressed from the viewpoint of a bright and detached stonehead. Some sentences run on for 200 words in quest of a subject. Like poems, his tales seem to plead for reading aloud. They're for feeling and effect, not narration.
After days of déjà vu about Barthelme, it came to me in bed: Barthelme's writing verbalizes that semiconscious state we find ourselves in between sleep and wakefulness. The mind is in charge of itself. Thought races onward without destination. Associations are electric and bizarre, details as vivid as needles. Heavy jokes. But we're beyond awareness and reflection, and can't laugh.
While other writers struggle with identity problems and questions of reality, Barthelme has found the magic. Reality doesn't exist. Identity is a costume. He denies both, making splendid fairy tales for adults about a city of churches (church restaurants, filling stations, bars) or about plays with art objects as characters. The debris of black humor—catastrophic sex or death as a gag—isn't Barthelme amusement. He likes the Catholic Church, the ancient fine arts, psychiatry, alcohol, and conversations between people who aren't listening. Not that his fairy tales carry overt messages rooted in things or ideas. They're mostly classy fantasies with lots of intellectual references. They should be viewed as you would modern painting. Enjoy the color. Feast on the textures, shapes, patterns. Muse over the combinations….
[For] all his marvelous entertainment, Barthelme does weigh heavy on the spirit. He is one of the half-dozen truly interesting American writers working fiction these days. He is also tedious, inflated, repetitious, and a bit depressing. But he is original. A genuine artist in the shadow of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.
Webster Schott, "Dreams of the Body Neurotic," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 5, 1972, p. 3.
Donald Barthelme makes toys. By which I mean serious toys, not the stuff of Christmas time and F. A. O. Schwarz. The artistic tradition in which Barthelme works originated in the legendary company of magicians, jugglers, tightrope walkers, necromancers, wizards of all sorts….
To further clarify the issue, let us recall that "toy" comes originally from the Middle English "toy," meaning "dalliance," with a distinctly erotic connotation. Peasants, of course, did not dally. Dallying was the province of the nobility. Toys, likewise, began as the playthings of the privileged. So did art, modern art, which we may date from the Renaissance. The toys of Klee, Calder, and Barthelme are a very high form of dalliance, of play, not at all divorced from the original, sexual connotation. Though abstract, their works are not removed from human considerations. They acknowledge the sensual factor, at times isolating, emphasizing, even celebrating it. Thus, Klee celebrates the primal values of primitive art. Calder has succeeded in isolating the secret of delight. And Barthelme, too, belongs to this class of cerebral celebrants, fashioning strange devices to express our inexpressible moments, often enough erotically allied. Post coitum, ergo propter hoc.
Sadness is a collection of Barthelme's recent stories, his dreams, his toys. Perhaps because he has illustrated one of them with literal montage, it is the art of collage that Barthelme's technique evokes for me—the scissoring and pasting of borrowed images, bringing them into new contexts and thus forming a new reality, but a reality taking half its meaning from the old contexts….
Behind the bright colors of the toyshop we see the grimmer shadows of inquisition. What kind of toys are these? Barthelme's is a world of disjunctiveness, of discontinuities, of paranoias. He Dalis. He drives his own devils into us. There is a tragic dimension here, but without big speeches or drama. Certain moments in Shakespeare are drawn out for maximum effect. (Vide Twelfth Night for examples in kind.)
We are talking, you see, about serious toys, transcendental toys. Ultimately, I suppose, about of the Apocalypse. Not everyone's cup of tea. Every now and then I thank God for The New Yorker, which, among the gilded toys it purveys to the wealthy, carries darker merchandise.
John Seelye, "Serious Toys," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, November 25, 1972; used with permission), November 25, 1972, p. 66 ff.
Barthelme's people are strangely literary folk who nevertheless can be very precise about their surroundings. Too precise, so precise that their precision can't be true….
Barthelme is the Buster Keaton of the examined life, consciousness' clown.
People in Barthelme's stories have no means of knowing where they are, what their history is, how to put things together….
Barthelme likes to evoke the dispersion and insanity of the world by mildly dropping odd things in places that seem fairly familiar otherwise ("I remember him taking his blowpipe from the umbrella stand and leaving for the office"), or by talking calmly about radical breaks in logic ("In the desert, Harold's Land-Rover had a flat tire. Harold got out of the Land-Rover and looked at his map. Could this be the wrong map?").
It is not actually said that Harold thinks the map ought to help with the flat tire—he may simply have taken advantage of this forced stop to check his location. But it is the absence of logical or psychological connections, here and in most of Barthelme's stories, a determined suppression of expected links, which creates the ambiguities and the jokes, and which allows him to put together a picture of what things look like when they have fallen apart.
There are moments of sheer cuteness [in Sadness], gags, that don't come off. But each book of Barthelme's seems firmer than the previous one, less caught up in whimsey. "Fragments are the only forms I trust," Barthelme wrote some time ago, although publishers' blurbs usually describe him as working on a novel. Perhaps he will write the great American fragment. The difficulty, Wittgenstein once wrote, is to say no more than we know. I'm not sure we always realize, as Barthelme clearly does, just how difficult that is.
Michael Wood, "Great American Fragments," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), December 14, 1972, p. 12ff.
The unforgivable flaw in Donald Barthelme's work is that he is right. He has located the square on which we are cowering, and he has assembled the comedy of our activities on that square, our lives, into an instrument of discomfort. He is the most monstrous writer alive, meaner than Hawkes, nastier than Pynchon, more unfair than Beckett, less forgiving than Ionesco, as cruel as life. He shrieks when he laughs. He hates dogs and children. Saints cannot convince him. Neither thick beers nor rich whiskeys satisfy him. He knows too much. If we were not dismembered, unable to control or even to find our parts, we would be able to defend ourselves. We would bind him with cash, gag him with celebrity, and be safe.
They say he merely writes his dreams. And of course, they are wrong; it is his plan to embarrass, he would not have it any other way. The man is vicious; the mosaic of mirrors he is making must be a cruel joke. Let us call it distortion, dislocation, sickness; how does he dare to say this trash is of our own making? Let's get together and accuse him of … of what? Well, any man who thinks Snow White is a bored and promiscuous woman must be hallucinating. Why should we be made to squirm?
Perhaps he loves us? It will take a complex argument to answer in the affirmative, but there are intimations, particularly in Sadness, the new collection of his stories. Some of the people in those stories are so thoroughly invented that we perceive them as failing to endure ordinary lives, like us. Our location in these stories is different. We are no longer awash in lists of waste, foolishness, and evil; the characters guide us into the world. Sadness is truly the motif, our own lives are foreshadowed, such little tragedies; is there a lower limit to significance?
The answer is the achievement in Barthelme's stories; it allows us to read the next story and the next. He presents everything as human work (ersatz buffalo humps, a lady trumpet player named for a typeface, a surrogate self, King Kong), and by inspecting these bizarre and absurd works he gives them a certain validity—they exist, something has happened, which is better than nothing. "There are always openings," he concludes, "if you can find them. There is always something to do."…
Barthelme, working with human stuff, can turn the most ordinary events into beautiful language; he is often a poet, he makes sculptures of words; art is alchemy. At other times, he is Barthelme the pasticheur, which is not to say that the work fails, but to identify it as another form, a form originated by Donald Barthelme and not borrowed from either the surrealist poets or Kafka. His pastiches are environmental, related to that form in the plastic arts more than to previous writing. They are made of the sour notes of life, as is the music of Varese, Cage, and the new composers who find their voices in electric machines. To read his pastiche stories or his novel Snow White is to be suddenly defenseless in the world, disarmed of the deafness, blindness, and insensitivity that insulate and preserve us….
He is truly the writer of this time…. He presses a button and calls up words and ideas from his time machine or form machine or machine machine. Then he welds it all together into an iron maiden and closes that terrible door on us. The spikes pierce our skin at the height of our laughter….
In the new collection, Sadness, the stories are structured in most cases to give us a better defined point of entrance than Barthelme had offered before. The writing is more affecting, the pose of the enfant terrible that undermined some of the earlier stories is gone, Sadness is the work of a writer in the bloom of maturity—the flower is dark and made of cutting angles, streaked with laughter, a strangely natural collage of unforgettable surfaces.
Earl Shorris, "Donald Barthelme's Illustrated Wordy-Gurdy," in Harper's (copyright © 1972, by Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co., Inc.; reprinted from the January, 1973 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), January, 1973, pp. 92-6.