Donald Barthelme Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Barthelme, Donald 1931–

Barthelme is an American short story writer, novelist, and writer of children's fiction. His fictional world is surreal and often despairing. Barthelme explores and satirizes the possibilities of narrative form in his fiction, offering on one occasion a questionnaire to his readers with ideas for alternative endings to a story; on another presenting a "story" consisting of a series of numbered sentences. These are perhaps presented in concurrence with Barthelme's philosophy that "the only forms I trust are fragments." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Alfred Kazin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Barthelme] is one of the few authentic examples of the "antinovelist"—that is, he operates by countermeasures only, and the system that is his own joy to attack permits him what an authoritarian system always permits its lonely dissenters: the sense of their own weakness. The almighty state is always in view. So Barthelme sentences us to the complicity with the system that he suffers from more than anyone. He is wearingly attentive to every detail of the sophistication, the lingo, the massively stultifying second-handedness of everything "we" say. Barthelme is outside everything he writes about in a way that a humorist like Perelman could never be. He is under the terrible discipline that the System inflicts on those who are most fascinated with its relentlessness. He is so smart, so biting, himself so unrelenting in finding far-flung material for his ridicule that his finished product comes out a joke about Hell. We go up sentence, down sentence, up and down. What severity we are sentenced to by this necessary satire! That is because Barthelme the antinovelist is based on the perfect inversion of all current practice, and keeps too many records. This is the way Salinger's characters would write if they were writers, for it is all based on books.

Barthelme is funniest and even touching in Snow White, where the multifaceted plenty of sex (as opposed to the old economy of scarcity) does not bring happiness to our raven-haired heroine and her seven boyfriends. Parodying fairy tales, anti-fairy tales, the captions in Godard movies, market research questionnaires, Barthelme makes it clear that everyone is now so mired in cultured explanations of his and her plight that it is hard to get to bed…. We have been cut off by the words hanging over our heads; our poor little word-riddled souls are distributed all over the landscape. (pp. 273-74)

Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown, and Co. in association with The Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973.

Alan Wilde

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] obstinate triviality of life increasingly impinges on the literary consciousness…. The modernist sensibility, haunted by a vision of pervasive grayness and (as in Howards End) of a creeping red rust, finds ultimate expression in one of Forster's comments in A Passage to India: "Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it … and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent." But for all its flat and bitter finality, the remark heralds not silence but a dramatic exploration of metaphysical extremes …; and if Forster fails in his quest for a redeeming order, it is not because of complacence or a willingness to accede to the dailiness of life. Barthelme's ["Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,"] on the other hand …, accommodates itself more easily to the banal horrors of la vie quotidienne. Not that the story is without incident (there is, notably, the moment when the narrator's former wife tries to "ventilate" him with a horse pistol …, but if it is true, as Philip Stevick notes in his introduction to Anti-Story, that "to allow the middle range of experience to co-exist, in a single work, with the extremities of contemporary experience is to do strange things to that ordinariness, to deny it its solidity," it is equally the case that that coexistence may, as it does in Barthelme's fiction, serve to render extremity more ordinary—to deny it, and not the middle range of experience, a solidity of specification and response.

In any case, the "Critique," though it manages, characteristically, to combine the hilarious and the dismal, provides a rather too facile treatment of its subject, and its value is more representative than particular, supplying as it does a pattern for more successful examples (the Edward and Pia stories of Unspeakable Practices, among others) of Barthelme's relentless investigation of the humdrum. Of these, the best is probably the title story of City Life. More eccentric in incident and development, it expresses in a number of ways Barthelme's relation to la vie quotidienne. Speculating in the final section of the tale on "the most exquisite mysterious muck," which is the city she lives in and "which is itself the creation of that muck of mucks, human consciousness" …, Ramona goes on to contemplate the possible explanation of the virgin birth of her child: "Upon me, their glance has fallen," she thinks, reflecting on various of the men in her life. "The engendering force was, perhaps, the fused glance of all of them. From the millions of units crawling about on the surface of the city, their wavering desirous eye selected me…. I accepted. What was the alternative?" (… my italics). Ramona's last words sum up, mutatis mutandis, that is, allowing for a different level of awareness and for the artist's privileged sense of control, Barthelme's attitude as well. Implicated in the world he describes, Barthelme accepts—at least in this group of stories—not only the material that world offers him but the ironically suspensive mood resignation entails. How else to react to "brain damage," when, as the narrator of the story by that name admits: "I could describe it better if I weren't afflicted with it …" …? Or, as Dan announces, in a much quoted passage from Snow White, apropos of the linguistic "trash phenomenon": "I hazard that we may very well soon reach a point where it's 100 percent. Now at such a point, you will agree, the question turns from a question of disposing of this 'trash' to a question of appreciating its qualities, because, after all, it's 100 percent, right?" (pp. 48-9)

There is a danger, however, of equating appreciation or even acceptance with the presence in these stories of a significative void—especially if one attempts to bring to bear on them the same analytic techniques regularly applied to the classics of modern literature. But [despite various critical arguments] the lack of an easily paraphrasable theme or an extractable moral or, on the other hand, of a pattern of search and, if not resolution, then closure doesn't necessarily imply the absence of human reference of one kind or another. (pp. 49-50)

[The] stories of daily life do "refer,"… they refer most directly to the kind of inner life Barthelme (or his narrators) frequently deny their "characters." In other words,… the knowledge they provide is of the forms of feeling. Not to recognize this fact is to miss what may be most distinctive about Barthelme's work—the articulation not of the larger, more dramatic emotions to which modernist fiction is keyed but of an extraordinary range of minor, banal dissatisfactions. "Yours is not a modern problem," one character tells another in "City Life." "The problem today is not angst but lack of angst."… Barthelme's stories express not anomie or accidie or dread but a muted series of irritations, frustrations, and bafflements. The title of his fifth volume is exactly right. Even at its most funny or absurd, Barthelme's is a world of Sadness, sadness occasionally moderated by snatches after sexual satisfaction, by a persistent intellectual curiosity, and by the inventive pleasures of art—but never, especially in the stories of acceptance, cancelled by any of them. (p. 51)

"The Balloon" can be seen as a parable of reactions to reality as an irreducibly mysterious, varied, and changing surface; and as such, the story serves as prototype for those of Barthelme's fictions in which he and his narrators perceive the world as a kind of haphazard, endlessly organizable and reorganizable playground. Thus, whereas the presentational stories [concerning feelings] take as their recurrent starting point the inevitable flaws of human relations, the ludic ones (to borrow a word from Barthelme out of Huizinga) deal with the odd relationship between the individual mind and the humanized world of things and objects on which that mind has, collectively and precariously, left its imprint.

Predictably, the ludic fictions most obviously inspire Barthelme's technical innovations. The use of collage, of fragments, of pictures and black spaces; the sudden irruption of large, capitalized remarks, which may or may not comment on the surrounding text; the reliance on what one critic (referring to his own "rhythms") calls "interval (with abrupt interface) & repeat/repeat of cliché (with slight variation)"; the constant experimentation with styles, ranging from the severely paratactic to the most involutedly subordinative: all function, of course, to call attention to the fact of writing (or écriture, as we are learning to say), to the medium in which Barthelme and his perceptual field intersect…. The emphasis on surface has, of course, spatial, moral, and psychological implications, but the force … of Barthelme's practice suggests that the question is, in the first instance, an aesthetic one…. (p. 52)

Like the Pop artists, Barthelme puts aside the central modernist preoccupation with epistemology, and it may well be the absence of questions about how we know that has operated most strongly to "defamiliarize" his (and their) work. Barthelme's concerns are, rather, ontological in their acceptance of a world that is, willy-nilly, a given of experience. Here, one can speak legitimately of surface in that there is not for Barthelme, as there is for Clive Bell, a potential awareness of … "that which lies behind the appearance of all things—that which gives to all things their individual significance, the thing in itself, the ultimate reality." But the absence of depth implies the lack not of meaning but of certainties. Life has become, for better or for worse, less mysterious but more puzzling, and beside Bell's cadenced, assured phrases one needs to juxtapose Ramona's laconic "I accepted. What was the alternative?" Not for Ramona—and not for Barthelme—"the ultimate reality." Over the past several decades the quest has become a futile, indeed an unreal, one. "We must not … wonder," Merleau-Ponty writes, "whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive."… The question, then, is how exactly to live in that world (a largely humanized world in Barthelme's fiction), and Ramona's answer—a kind of grim-lipped hilarity in the face of the provisional—is emblematic of her author's in many ways as well. "The world in the evening seems fraught with the absence of promise,"… the narrator of "Critique de la Vie Quotidienne" remarks; and so too do the days…. Wisdom, so it seems, lies in a stoicism of sorts…. To be conscious and even to value, as he obviously does, that "muck of mucks" called consciousness and at the same time to acquiesce completely in an attitude of suspensiveness toward things as they are, exacts a difficult balance. So it is hardly surprising that from time to time and increasingly, Barthelme's acceptance moves beyond Ramona's resignation to explore alternatives both more affirmative and more complex, creating in the process a more comprehensive and flexible irony as well. (pp. 54-5)

The point [of "Games Are the Enemies of Beauty, Truth, and Sleep, Amanda Said"] is simply that in [Amanda's]...

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Eric S. Rabkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Donald Barthelme shows us, again and again, that he has a way with words: the way of a stone-cutter. With a deft and dangerous whack at the raw language he suddenly reveals a new facet of the inner mineral. When he has done with his chopping, a gem lies before us—hard and immutable and with the appearance of warmth that light gives, but brilliant for all that. Surely of Barthelme it is true that "Le style est l'homme même" [the style is the man himself]. And what is that style? A despairing playfulness whereby the reading punishes us into understanding. The quote, of course, is from Le Comte de Buffon. In Barthelme's style, that pun itself would fit. The gem may be rhinestone, his detractors would say, but, his admirers respond, in that case the clown is Pagliacci. (p. 232)

Snow White and The Dead Father are both "novels" by virtue of structure, structures that, like Ulysses, recall other structures: the standard fairy tale in the first case, the myth of the Fisher King in the second. But they aren't tight novels at all: their intellectually clear structures organize and justify the placement of parts but do not lend the movement from part to part a dramatic or emotional unity. The burial of the Dead Father, for instance, corroborates the notion that "Repetition is reality" but does not make it feel true. The feelings, in reading Barthelme, accompany the discrete flashes of language. But for me this is quite enough. Although the "novels" may not be novels as we usually understand them, they are certainly more than the pieces of worthwhile wit within them. And those pieces themselves, in Barthelme's fashion, are assaults on language that rape it and reveal through it new insights for his readers. (pp. 234-35)

Eric S. Rabkin, "What Was That, Again?" in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1977), Spring, 1977, pp. 232-35.

Betty Catherine Dobson Farmer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The human-god-mechanical Dead Father character of Barthelme's Dead Father] offers a multi-faceted study in ambiguity. The Dead Father is "dead but still with us, still with us, but dead…. a sleeper in troubled sleep, the whole great expanse of him running from the Avenue Pommard to the Boulevard Grist. Overall length, 3,200 cubits." The Dead Father is a part of the landscape "from the Avenue Pommard to the Boulevard Grist," just as the Irish giant Finn MacCool is a part of Joyce's Irish landscape in Finnegans Wake….

The close relationship of The Dead Father to Finnegans Wake is obvious from an overt parody of Barthelme's main source for this novel, Finnegans Wake….

Just as Joyce's abbreviation for his mythical Earwicker hero, HCE, is an acronym for Here Comes Everybody or Everyman, Barthelme makes the Dead Father the all-inclusive embodiment of Everybody's idols. (p. 40)

Barthelme achieves an effective "cosmopolitanization" or world application of the Dead Father figure by taking him from the narrow confines of the Avenue Pommard and the Boulevard Grist and making him the embodiment of world idols through the use of a wealth of [mythological, biblical, and literary allusions]…. (p. 41)

In addition to the worldwide mythological, Biblical, and literary allusions that Barthelme used, he "globalized" the Dead Father by using, inconspicuously throughout the novel, words that have foreign (other than English) origin: pemmican, North American Cree Indian; ukase, Russian; piroque, French, especially Cajun French. (p. 47)

[Mythological], Biblical, and literary allusions have the effect of making the Dead Father character a world symbol. At the conclusion of the novel when Barthelme calls for "Bulldozers" to fill in the Dead Father's crater-sized grave, he is (in the mythological-Biblical-literary framework that he has established) calling for the interment of all world idols, huddled together at the bottom of the grave, awaiting the final clodthunder, a true "Ragnarok" of total darkness for the gods rather than just a "Twilight of the Gods." (p. 48)

Betty Catherine Dobson Farmer, "Mythological, Biblical, and Literary Allusions in Donald Barthelme's 'The Dead Father,'," in The International Fiction Review (© copyright International Fiction Association), Winter, 1979, pp. 40-8.

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I doubt that Donald Barthelme's new collection [Great Days] will alter significantly anyone's perception of this accomplished miniaturist. His admirers can again enjoy the delicacy with which he picks his way through the detritus of our civilization, marvel at the many voices he commands, and renew their appetites for the surreal morsels he serves up. Those who have been less impressed in the past will find yet another occasion to shrug. The one really innovative feature of Great Days is Barthelme's use, in seven of the pieces, of a staccato dialogue form in which two speakers bounce phrases off one another at high speed; sometimes the phrases answer each other, often they do not. Uninterrupted by...

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Diane Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Great Days"] is bare Barthelme at his best, quite inimitable, with a new kind of calm confidence, a new depth of subject, and no pictures. And, one hopes, his imitators in disarray; for it should now be clear to everybody that nobody can write a Barthelme story as well as he can.

What are the present stories about and what are they like?… Two pieces—the one about Cortés and "The Death of Edward Lear,"—have historical referents. One piece, the author says, is an objet trouvé from "Godey's Lady's Book," 1850, slightly altered by him. One, "Tales of the Swedish Army," seems like an earlier, wackier Barthelme. A number of stories impressively challenge formal problems—for example,...

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Jerome Klinkowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Barthelme's new collection of short fiction, aptly titled "Great Days," is built on [the] notion of routines and how to play them….

In all cases, the emphasis is on doing a routine, playing out situations as if they were vaudeville acts. In their least pretentious form, bits like these need only the two voices of straight man and comic, and in "Great Days" Barthelme tries his hand at keeping everything else out of the way.

When the technique works, Barthelme's sentences bounce off each other like overpacked dodgem cars, but only because they are strong enough to run on their own, unhampered even by quotation marks (he uses the European style of dashes instead). Seven of the 16 stories in "Great Days" are written this way, and their effect is to underline the purely verbal comedy of Barthelme's art, which now reads like the swiftly bantered exchange in a high-toned knock-knock joke.

Three of these new dash-dialog stories lead off the volume. From there, Barthelme moves through nine pieces written in the various styles of his six previous collections: dramatized cliches, comic exaggerations, wacky anachronisms, and even traditional storytelling with just a few elements deliberately askew.

But from these nine more familiar fictions, neatly framed in the book's center, it's easy to see that their most important element is voice, whether in expressed or implied dialog…. [The volume's construction makes it] carefully expand and contract in its method. Reading "Great Days" is like breathing in and breathing out. Challenging, innovative fiction can be that natural.

As he has done again and again, since his first collection was published in 1964, Donald Barthelme is teaching readers how to read his stories. When voiced by humans, Barthelme's clever plays with language seem to mean much more, and "Great Days" will speak in the reader's hands. By keeping himself out of the story—even by his apparent silence—the writer has found a new way to talk with us.

Jerome Klinkowitz, "Barthelme at Play in Comic Routines," in Book Week (copyright © 1979 by The Chicago Sun-Times; reprinted by permission from The Chicago Sun-Times), February 4, 1979, p. 12.

Joe David Bellamy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When we look back on this period, will the work of Donald Barthelme seem the forerunner of a whole new variety of consciousness or merely a particularly skilled and elegant example of decadence? Great Days … is another emotional and linguistic demolition derby in the characteristic manner: whimsical, elusive, and miraculously inventive.

Barthelme's aesthetic elevates the liberation of pure imagination above all other notions. Bringing novelties into being is his primary objective, and he faces the task with the surefootedness of a tightrope walker and the precision of a clock-maker. He believes utterly in the delights of mind-travel and in the healing powers of dreams. Art, as it embodies...

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Marc Granetz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Barthelme's art is not static. He is an explorer of prose forms. He stays abreast of literary developments in America and elsewhere and his fiction constantly changes to reflect slight changes in the way we experience our lives. Great Days continues where Amateurs, the previous collection, left off; the stories are increasingly clipped, less visual, more difficult. The range of pleasure available upon a first reading has grown even narrower.

As usual, about half of these new stories are baubles, one-notion entertainments…. [They] are crankier, less funny than earlier jeux d'esprit…. The voices in these stories discourse on a variety of topics; non-specific references (her,...

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Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the polysynthetic languages, linguists tell us, a certain world will mean "to throw a slippery object far away," though no part of the word means "throw" or "slippery" or "far." This is how we feel about those literary works of our moment which we distance, if we do not domesticate, by calling them "original": We feel that they are something new and something entire, though we fail to perceive how that new entity is arrived at.

In fact, a better name for original writing might just be "polysynthetic language"—certainly that is how Donald Barthelme's six books of fictions (stories? texts? apostrophes? aporias? no one knows yet what to label them) strike me. I know they have a certain general...

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Denis Donaghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Donald Barthelme is more attracted to the indisputable charm of brevity than to the disputable charm of narration. If he has a design upon us, it is that we will be rendered unable to resist the temptation of fondling his sentences. We are to read his 16 stories, collected in Great Days, as we read Shakespeare's sonnets, attending to what they do while they pretend to do nothing more than say: "You, my beloved, have killed me." The stories are brief for the same reason that the sonnets have 14 lines—because that is enough. The discrepancy between the brevity of the event and the amount of verbal business negotiated is part of the appeal in both cases. But "appeal" is the wrong word. I take it back. These...

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James Rawley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Donald Barthelme's] Great Days, is about success. "Yes, success is everything," says one of his characters, or rather one of his half embodied, half-unrealized voices. The voice goes on:

Failure is more common. Most achieve a sort of middling thing, but fortunately one's situation is always blurred, you never know absolutely quite where you are. This allows, if not peace of mind, ongoing attention to other aspects of existence.

The paragraph illustrates Barthelme's much-praised ability to switch from style to style, from the professorial "absolutely quite" to the bureaucratic "ongoing attention," all within fifteen words, and all while...

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