Donald Barthelme

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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"...

(This entire section contains 3777 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

him with a horse pistol …, but if it is true, as Philip Stevick notes in his introduction toAnti-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] refusal of life as a game and of games as an adequate representation of life she gestures toward a more conceptual mode of apprehending and defining her situation; and this generalizing, reflective response to the experiential, to the immediately perceived, works better in some ways for Barthelme also, whose most successful, if not always his most obviously and dramatically innovative, fictions are of this kind. Furthermore, if Amanda's gesture is, despite its vocabulary, essentially negative, the same can be said of the force behind much of Barthelme's conceptual work. So much then for Amanda. Barthelme's rejections are the more interesting, and they are very much of a piece. Except in some of the more feeble parodies, however, they are not, as one might expect, rejections of the daily (though they do in fact lead ultimately to a reassessment of attitudes toward it) but of those who seek to stabilize and rationalize that world. In other words, Barthelme is, at his best, an anticonceptual conceptualizer, working inductively toward an understanding of the necessity but also of the limits of acceptance.

In a general way, what Barthelme takes his stand against are pretensions to certainty and the insistence on perfection; large demands and great expectations; dogmatisms and theories of all kinds. (pp. 55-6)

[Barthelme is] less seriously attracted by an escape into the realm of total otherness than by the temptation to find within the ordinary possibilities of a more dynamic response. The distinction is important. Modernist irony, seeking in its opposite (in the anironic) some release from its own vision of fragmentation, characteristically imagines … an image of total order…. Postmodern ironists are less sanguine; and rightly so, for the anironic has come to suggest in recent times not resolution but annihilation. Through the looking-glass of contemporary chaos, one glimpses death or the death of consciousness—which may explain the concern with the apocalyptic in much recent fiction or with the self-abnegations of the minimalist and the aleatory in painting and music.

Still, if the present surrounds the ironist with a different and less hopeful context and offers him fewer possibilities of reconstruction or escape, his problems are, nevertheless, in some sense the same as his predecessors'. The change in irony over the past two hundred years from technique to vision, its development from the chief instrumentality of satire into an autonomous sensibility, has had as probably its most interesting result the transformation of distance (then and still one of the main aesthetic conditions for the successful functioning of irony) into a metaphor for a series of psychological and moral problems…. [It] is the figure of the outsider, the uncommitted spectator, longing to overcome his self-consciousness and make contact with the world outside his limited and limiting ego, that dominates the literary landscape of writers such as Eliot, Joyce, and Forster, to mention only the most obvious. If Barthelme differs from these authors, it is not because he perceives the tension between distance and involvement any less intensely. Indeed, he is in many ways far more conscious of the nature and implications of his irony. His originality lies, rather,… in his treatment of the problem and in his solution to it.

But first the problem itself, which undergoes its most extended and ingenious exploration in "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel." Against the background of a dialogue about the ineffectiveness of his political activities, "A," the transparently authorial respondent, gradually begins a defense of his own irony in terms of the power and control it confers on him. The introduction of Kierkegaard's The Concept of Irony, however, with its familiar but brilliantly summarized arguments about the ironist's subjective freedom, his alienation of existence, and his infinite absolute negativity, leads finally to A's admission that "mostly I am trying to annihilate Kierkegaard in order to deal with his disapproval."… The ultimate failure to do so becomes apparent…. If the story charts A's loss of his freedom and particularity, it confirms, in its construction (the abrupt and apparently illogical cuts from one section to another, the absurdist elements, the narrative and tonal shifts), the power that Barthelme as author and ironist retains. The fundamental tension of "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel" inheres, then, not in A's unwilling fall from ironic grace but in the disparity between that internal drama and the authorial techniques used to articulate it…. To a degree at least, structure becomes a window not a frame. I don't want to exaggerate this point: a good deal of modern literature, as [well as postmodern] uses technique as discovery …, not to mention the nouveau and the nouveau nouveau roman. A number of Barthelme's pieces too verge on the precious and the contrived, but what one senses in the best of his work is an effort to use art to overcome art (as the moderns characteristically employ consciousness to move beyond consciousness)—or, better still, an attempt, parallel to that in "The Glass Mountain," to disenchant the aesthetic, to make of it something not less special but less extraordinary.

The desire to tame the extraordinary relates back, in turn, to the question of irony and distance. Unlike the classic modernists attempting to annex the world to the self or to lose the self in the world … Barthelme has more modest aims. If, indeed, he is, as ironist, already part of the world around him and not its distant observer, if that world is, furthermore, perceived not as object but as field, and if, finally, the phenomenal presents itself not as the veil of appearance but as multiform, irreducible reality, then the notion of involving himself with, or of encompassing, all of life is in any case an impossibility. But the suspensive no less than the equivocal involves its psychological and moral distances, and Barthelme seems of late less willing or able to abide them. (pp. 59-61)

[How], exactly, does Barthelme go about narrowing the [distance between activity and awareness]? In two ways. First, by a further series of rejections, which come, interestingly, among his several portraits of the artist. (p. 61)

"The Temptation of St. Anthony," although it is by no means an encomium to conformity, asserts, in its sympathetically critical portrait, the need for the extraordinary to find its place amidst the quotidian. And the retreat back to the desert, marking a failure to do just that, indicates another stage in Barthelme's questioning of the distance, the suspensiveness that Anthony—parabolically the saint as artist or the artist as saint—represents.

But if escape is unacceptable and if acceptance, in the sense of … acquiescence, is not enough, what then? The fact is that increasingly in Barthelme's work, if not consistently, acceptance is modified by a more positive, more affirmative attitude of assent…. [The] objects of Barthelme's or his characters' assent are remarkable not by virtue of being outside or substantially different from common life. It is not a question of discovering Bell's "ultimate reality" but of agreeing with Wilde that "the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." The extraordinary exists as part of the phenomenal world or it doesn't, effectively, exist at all…. What is at issue is not an essentialist but an existential quest: a subjective, though not for that reason a random or arbitrary, conferring of value, based on a continuing sense of the nature of la vie quotidienne. (pp. 63-4)

Assent, then, is dynamic, exploratory, on-going, experiential…. In some sense, of course, Barthelme's fictions are themselves the best examples of his own particular form of assent—the prevalence of short stories itself, perhaps, the sign of a preference or an affinity for mixed and modest pleasures, as opposed to the larger and more final satisfactions sought by an earlier time…. Barthelme suggests the nature of assent in "Engineer-Private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916," one of the most amusing and successful of his works…. [If] Klee is inexplicably thrown into an absurd world, he manages nonetheless to enjoy thoroughly the openness and fecundity he also finds (or creates) in it, agreeing apparently with Heidegger that "the ordinary is basically not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary." Neither a rebel nor an accomplice, he accepts what he must and assents to what he can: a totally ingratiating model of Dasein, the contingency of being-in-the-world.

As one of the most attractive and attractively rendered figures in the stories, Klee offers himself as an obvious antithesis to Barthelme's Kierkegaard, the two suggesting in some ways the oppositional archetypes of their author's fictional universe. Humanistic, tolerant, non-directive, Klee intimates the possibility of irony as a graceful, even integrative gesture toward the world. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, religious and prescriptive, presents irony, disapprovingly,… as an infinite absolute negativity. However, as one traces Barthelme's movement (admittedly a serpentine and by no means consistent movement) from acceptance, through the rejection of dogmatisms and certainties, to assent, Kierkegaard gradually takes on a less monolithic typological significance. Leaving aside the religious question—and that is a large omission, of course—one can see that, in fact, Kierkegaard pronounces what Klee, less magisterially, to be sure, enacts: "What is wanted, Kierkegaard says, is not a victory over the world but a reconciliation with the world."… To put it another way, as the self-viewed antagonist of Barthelme's ironic distance, his defensiveness, his infinite absolute negativity, Kierkegaard (or, more accurately, I suppose, the tradition he in part initiates) supplies precisely that existential-phenomenological background out of which Barthelme operates, even as he, not infrequently, parodies it. (pp. 64-5)

[The] modification of Barthelme's suspensive irony is precipitated by exactly that current of thought which has supplied twentieth-century artists with their visions of dailiness, absurdity, and drift. And inevitably so. For the postmodern writer, at least for those who refuse the lure of a new, ultra-formalism, there is no consolation in the thought of other, more perfect worlds—those heterocosms that haunt the modernist imagination. There is only the open, temporal field of the phenomenal, with which, in Barthelme's case, "reconciliation" is achieved through the homeopathic agency of his critiques of la vie quotidienne and la vie extraordinaire. Not, it needs to be stressed again, that assent (still sporadic, in any case) replaces acceptance in Barthelme's more recent work…. [He denies] that what Forster calls "the smaller pleasures of life" constitute the whole of it. For Barthelme, assent is added to without cancelling the more generalized attitude of acceptance, as stories like "The Sandman" and, of course, "Engineer-Private Paul Klee" make clear. (pp. 65-6)

It is just possible that with figures such as Klee, Barthelme helps to define still another stage in the development of irony—one in which the gaps and discontinuities of twentieth-century literature, heretofore the mark of absence or negation, become instead the sign of a not yet constituted presence. Thus, no longer the familiar cause of horror or paralysis or suspensiveness, they are transformed rather … into the source of a continuing activity predicated on the need to choose, to confer meaning: to add to the humility of acceptance (even, or especially, of those gaps in which future meaning lies latent) the irreducibly human function of assent. (p. 66)

Barthelme's work [demonstrates] that a writer can, rejecting illusionist and psychological depth in fiction, nonetheless avoid the all too frequent banality of flatness, not by reimposing a metaphysical perspective or a theologically schematic worldview but by recognizing in what ways the dynamics of surface (of moral as well as aesthetic surface) are determined by an acknowledgment of the "horizons of the flesh." Surface, in other words, may generate a particular, complex dimensionality of its own—or a depth of a kind different from that of classical perspective…. [The] horizon of the phenomenal world is not an objective thing or place "out there"; it is the subjective, but no less real, result of being in the world: the shifting boundary of human depth, the pledge of man's necessary interaction with a world of which he is not only part but partner.

Barthelme's assumption of that partnership is manifest precisely in the movement from the relative passivity of acquiescence to the activity of decision and judgment (however tentative or qualified), which is implied in the transvalued irony of his assent…. (pp. 66-7)

Ramona, Amanda, and Klee, though in different degrees at different times, all populate the Barthelmean landscape, suggesting the varied, overlapping impulses to accept, to reject, and to affirm. The ludic strain in his work persists, not as a denial of meaning, of referentiality, but as an assertion of the artist's privilege to create meaning. And so too does the suspensiveness, at least in the sense that his work refuses the epistemological quest for ultimates and absolutes. Barthelme remains part of the world he perceives, approaching it through a process of interrogation to which he opens himself as well. Furthermore, life, as he sees it, not only refuses to offer up assurances and answers; it continues to be in large part, for human beings trying to make their way through it, frustrating, disjointed, and drab…. In the final analysis, the alternative presents itself, however malapropos or offensive the word sounds to many today, as a humanism of sorts—less anthropocentric, less hopeful, to be sure, than that of the modernists; based instead, like Sartre's or Merleau-Ponty's, on an ethic of subjectivity and risk. Thus, if the necessary incompleteness of Barthelme's world is in one sense the definition of its persisting sadness, it is, in another, the source of its pleasures. Still, no doubt, as the title of his latest collection suggests, guilty pleasures—but the signs too of a normative presence forging, tentatively, a morality and an irony for postmodern (or, possibly, post-postmodern?) man. (p. 68)

Alan Wilde, "Barthelme Unfair to Kierkegaard: Some Thoughts on Modern and Postmodern Irony," in boundary 2 (copyright © boundary 2, 1976), Fall, 1976, pp. 45-70.

Eric S. Rabkin

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 narrative or description, the dialogues vibrate at high intensity, achieving a strobe-lit effect that can be pleasurably nerve-wracking. Fortunately, the pieces stop short of a sensory overload.

In "The Crisis," the dialogue really consists of the juxtaposition of two monologues—one that comments on the progress of a rebellion, another that rambles on inanely, frequently mouthing platitudes…. Toward the end of "The Crisis," the monologues converge slightly. Meanwhile, their incongruities have reflected that quality of twitchy contemporaneity to which Barthelme is so perfectly attuned.

The most ambitious of the dialogues is "The New Music," in which riffs and flights of language create an extraordinary medley of sound effects that evoke nearly a century of ragtime, blues, and jazz. The two speakers shift voices frequently, but the voice that throbs most insistently is lowdown Southern, as in the exchange which summons the image of a powerful, pistol-packing Momma…. But Momma is also "lost in the Eleusinian mysteries and the art of love"; while in her rocking chair she is given to pondering "The goddess Demeter's anguish for all her children's mortality." There is a reference to "The chanting in the darkened telesterion," to the appearance of Persephone herself …, and to "Hallucinatory dancing. All the women drunk." Here—and in other places—Barthelme seems to be alluding to, as well as employing, the technique of startling cultural juxtapositions we associate with T. S. Eliot, the Eliot of the Sweeney poems and The Waste Land…. But whereas Eliot opposes the "meaningful" past to the trivialized present in a mood of despairing irony, I do not get the impression that Barthelme is concerned with shoring up fragments against his ruin; instead, he appears perfectly content to play with the fragments of past and present alike, to rattle them in a can, to make a little music. As one of the speakers says at the end of the piece, "The new music burns things together, like a welder. The new music says, life becomes more and more exciting as there is less and less time." To which the other replies, "Momma wouldn't have 'lowed it. But Momma's gone."

A quasi-musical organization is evident in almost all the pieces…. A phrase is typically introduced, repeated, varied, placed in surprising contexts, sounded for one last time. Sometimes the motif is a visual image, which also undergoes modifications. In the tiny, fragile, and often beautiful historical fantasy called "Cortés and Montezuma," the repeated phrase is "walking down by the docks."… The recurrent image, variously linked with the strollers, is of little green flies, sometimes brushed away by a fly whisk made of golden wires.

One other piece—"Concerning the Bodyguard"—is admirable. Constructed of short paragraphs which consist almost entirely of unanswered questions, it introduces a series of images which, though innocent enough in themselves, create an ominous atmosphere of political assassination when assembled….

Having for the most part denied himself the sustaining props of narrative fiction, Barthelme must make his impact immediately, and within a small compass. The longer works—the so-called novels—become quickly mired in tedium, a tedium that is not dispelled or transcended, as in the case of "difficult" great books, by an intelligent reader's perseverance. Even with his successful short pieces, Barthelme is surely the most ephemeral of the gifted writers of our time….

When all his talents are engaged—his wit, his stylistic precision, his powers of mimicry—in the pursuit of one of those bizarre possibilities that excite his imagination, Barthelme is indeed a verbal wondermaker, providing not only a succession of gaily wrapped surprises but moments of sharp sensory pleasure and sometimes the fleeting illusion of profundity; when they are not so engaged, the results are little more than a kind of clever doodling. I think Barthelme scores very well in five or six of the sixteen items that make up Great Days; the experience of reading the others seemed to me like the blowing of dandelion fluff: an inconsequential but not unpleasant way of passing the time. (p. 15)

Robert Towers, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), January 25, 1979.

Diane Johnson

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

["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, "Concerning the Bodyguard."

The bodyguard: new fact of modern life, therefore typical Barthelme subject. An ordinary writer of fiction, imagining a bodyguard, would give him a name, a past, would follow his life, report his conversations and thoughts, invent a little disturbing event or two to dramatize his spiritual condition, and end with a climax of triumph or failure, some moment of bodyguard truth. Barthelme instead writes six pages of questions…. (pp. 1, 36)

Readers will read for profit; they will also read for prophecy. So uncannily tuned is Barthelme's sense of what's happening in our times, in our world, he even picks up eerily on what will happen, as in one dialogue, "Morning," one of the seven dialogues that form the substance and principal distinction of this volume….

These dialogues reflect a solemn mood in Barthelme, and his eye on Great Subjects (fear, faith, hope, sexual contention). They are naturally different from the work of two other writers in this form that come to mind, Pinter and Beckett, but like them remind us of how curiously well adapted the dialogue is for displaying a writer's particularity. In Pinter, who comes from a society in which people still converse, the voices engage, contend. Here the voices are dreamy, parallel, each probing personal memory, and the contents of memory have not the fiercely egotistical humanity of Beckett but instead comprise the things of our society….

You wonder if these dialogues were spoken aloud would the dynamics of the conversations be easier to follow than they are on the plain page without "he saids" and names. (p. 36)

The voices, male and female, hopeful or reflective, are funny, sad, smart. They fit together. It's possible that all of Barthelme's stories fit together, like a wardrobe of well-chosen basics; but they provide in combination something more than a sum of the parts. By denying himself the full-dress trappings of the conventional novel, with its resources (plot, characters) for self-concealment, the author, bare, scuttles speedily across a stage empty except for these austere pillars, marked "The Leap," "Morning" and so on, hiding behind first one, then another, yet seen—funny, sad, smart. His sensibility is the game, and to mark him as a banner-carrier in some new legion has been rather to belittle his accomplishment. It's also unfair to construe a writer's phrase in another context as a comment on his own work, but in this volume he has one character say, "I'm some kind of an artist, but I'm conservative. Mine is the art of the possible, plus two." It seems apposite. (pp. 36-7)

Diane Johnson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 4, 1979.

Jerome Klinkowitz

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 these modes, is one of the new human activities, he seems to be saying, to save us from despair.

Despair has become one of his favorite subjects for jest. "At dusk medals are awarded those who have made it through the day," someone quips in his story, "The New Music." "The New Music" is a collage of fractured dialogues, where the characters are seen "sighing and leaning against each other, holding their silver plates"—as if to say, "If we're so rich, how come we ain't happy?" Another, more consoling voice chimes in: "Luckily we have the new music now. To give us aid and comfort." The implication is that "the new music" will save us from despair, or "sadness," as Barthelme called it in another of his books; and "The New Music" is, after all, not simply music but also the title of his own literary concoction.

Characteristically, there is always something else going on in a Barthelme story, something other than the apparent subject or content. Metaphorical traps and tricks proliferate in an apparent effort to describe emotional conditions and human situations too obvious, personal, ridiculous, difficult, embarrassing, or full of pain to confront directly. The astute reader is stimulated to speculate at length over these hidden mountain ranges of feeling-content, or else to supply his own filler. Snatches of eavesdropped conversations as matter-of-fact and believable as those overheard in the local bus station may alternate with subconscious voices answering implied questions the reader must seek on his own. Meanwhile, on the surface of the narrative, the laws of nature are suspended as are the laws of human probability. The improbable is commonplace, and ironies abound. (pp. F1, F4)

There are repeated complaints and bitter jokes throughout Great Days about betrayal and the impermanence and difficulty of human relationships. Barthelme's characters evidently need someone to love them forever, but they are of the opinion that such love is a romantic delusion.

More than ever before, Barthelme begins to seem, in some ways, a classic satirist, obsessed by the predominance and multiplicity of human vanities. Yet, the typical Barthelme protagonist whistles along good-naturedly in the teeth of the boredom, despair, absurdity, betrayal, moral decay, and deplorable behavior surrounding him. He has access to all the best technical information from a gamut of fields, but he is simply swamped by it. He has little sense of which bits of endless data should prove useful to him. The promise of science and technology—to make the world ultimately knowable—has backfired by overwhelming him with unclassifiable facts.

Great Days is challenging and funny—further proof, if we needed it, that Donald Barthelme deserves his repuation as a major literary phenomenon of these great days. Whatever his standing in the year 2000, I predict that other writers and anthropologists of the imagination, when searching for creative folklore, will continue to peruse his pages, like so many interior decorators combing through books of wallpaper samples. (p. F4)

Joe David Bellamy, "Barthelme and Delights of Mind-Travel," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), February 11, 1979, pp. F1, F4.

Marc Granetz

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, it, that) allow the topics to be linked together grammatically, a kind of layering of meanings. The stories are open to all suggestions, and can stop on a dime and head in any direction. Even in "On the Steps of the Conservatory" and "The Leap," which read more like ordinary dialogues, the voices make numerous allusions and go off on all sorts of tangents.

It seems natural for Barthelme to be experimenting increasingly with aural forms. His ear for speech is impeccable. Repartee is amenable to his obsessive frivolity with language. His characters are usually cut-outs; this form allows him virtually to dispense with characterization. But most important is the freedom it permits from the strictures of the traditional short story form. Although opening and closing sequences are not haphazard, in these stories beginnings, middles and endings don't really exist. And plot, since nothing happens, is more a proliferation and blossoming than a procession of events.

Barthelme's fiction … has always demanded patience. The trouble with Great Days is that it isn't as enjoyable to read as his earlier work. His fans may find in his technical innovations justification for the less rewarding, or at least less immediately rewarding, fiction; readers less smitten with him may have begun to give up on his work a while ago. "We feel only 25 percent of what we ought to feel, according to recent findings," a voice in the opening story claims. This might be a gloss on Great Days: it celebrates life less and less. One must hesitate to judge prematurely the progress of a writer as good as Barthelme, but one wonders about a growth that carries a writer away from the pains and elations of the heart toward fiction that is increasingly thin, enigmatic and obscure. (pp. 37-8)

Marc Granetz, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 17, 1979.

Richard Howard

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 effect (as of throwing a slippery object far away), but the way this operation is performed is so new to me that I cannot determine the elements, cannot detect the parts that make the cunning device function. The one thing I can tell so far—and this latest book of brief inventions confirms—is that the very brevity for which Barthelme is on the one hand so prized … and on the other hand so taxed …—this very brevity is a signal part of his form….

Great Days, then, is a further installment of Barthelme's characteristic serial. And a particularly rewarding one, because seven of its 16 pieces enact, I believe, a distinct awareness on the writer's part of the responsibilities of his own form….

The seven pieces are dialogues, or rather, intersecting monologues (Barthelme has always had a gift for the introspection of other people), with a great deal of what we usually expect of a "rendered" conversation cut away: We are not told where they speak,… or when the conversations were had, heard, overheard, transcribed. The speakers are never extrinsically identified as to class or circumstance, nor intrinsically located by quotation marks and the supposedly invisible convention of "she said," "he interrupted," the stage directions of literary manners. The conversations also begin very much in the middle of things, in situations we divine only in the most secular fashion, much as we suppose they end by divine fiat (the author's will), rather than by any internal dramatic necessity.

Of course, all these conventions are shown up quite fiercely by Barthelme's less-is-more-fun program; for example, by leaving out the dialogue attribution, he has made us listen much harder. We become a new kind of reader, shrewder in the perception of overtone and undercurrent, as well as of that middle voice which weaves any set of utterances together, the sense-making apparatus Sophocles calls, in one of his choruses, "the voice of the shuttle." By apparently taking so much away, Barthelme gives us back a great deal more; that is what I mean by the morality of his form, the ethics of his brevity.

Moreover, the seven dialogues, a stichomythia of astonishment, are balanced between the sexes so delicately … that I suspect Barthelme has a very recondite design upon our politics, sexual and otherwise. I believe he is telling us (dramatically) about the nearly incredible ignorance of each other the sexes live in—an ignorance that breeds mistrust and fantasy on the plains of id, and contempt and dismissal in the mountains of superego. That is why there is no dialogue here between a man and a woman.

Not that there is that much solidarity within the sexes. Rather, there is a muttering withdrawal when any two of a kind are together, to the prison of individual associations, of selfish memories and indeed mnemonics. And this is where Barthelme's earlier cuteness and hilarities—what Mr. [William] Gass, in the slyest of all Barthelme's many put-downs, called "the cutting edge of the trash phenomenon"—are now utilized in a new acceptation. All the old honing of our cultural detritus ("… not so dumb as a lady I once knew who thought the Mark of Zorro was an N …") becomes part of the lyrical self-love of identity; not conversation, not communication, but antiphonal reassurance by what one leaps to in recollecting that one is there at all. (p. 15)

I recall when I read the first of them to appear in the New Yorker—the one called "Morning," the one that begins "Say you're frightened. Admit it."—I was convinced that Barthelme had gone too far, that his puppets were too crazy for me to enjoy reading their extravagances, and that he had become merely—merely!—a virtuoso of hysteria. Now that I see the seven pieces together, with the many other pieces that afford the brilliantly faceted matrix from which these triumphs are argued out, I am happy to discover how mistaken I was.

Barthelme has ennobled his art and advanced his enterprise. His new fictions—the seven dialogues, I mean—provide a basis for us to understand ourselves in a new way. Part of the news is the acknowledgement of failure, is an aporia; but that is after all nothing so new. The better part is the basis on which we delight ourselves, the pleasure we (here, for once) are permitted to take in our own narcissisms. Firbank begins to seep through the bandages, no longer Beckett, certainly not Kafka, as the psychopomp of these beautiful inventions: One begins to discern the lineaments of a new artist, one who can teach us to throw a slippery object far away, all in the one word, the one pleasure, touching, coherent, profound. (p. 17)

Richard Howard, "Polysynthetic Barthelme," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), February 26, 1979, pp. 15, 17.

Denis Donaghue

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 stories do not emit appeals. They do not ask to be believed, or even to have disbelief suspended for the duration of the narrative.

It is a shock to come upon a sentence of truth here and there in Barthelme's fiction…. The truth doesn't damage Barthelme's story, I admit, but it encourages a recidivist nostalgia for the conjunction of sentence and event, an emotion generally and firmly held at bay in Barthelme's fiction. If we are to fall back into the habit of believing things and crediting what we're told, there will be no end to our debauchery: In the twinkling of an I we shall be found longing for the old fleshpots of conviction, form, continuity, the priority of beginning over middle and of middle, in turn, over end….

Barthelme could tell a truth if he wanted to: He could tell anything, even a story, given the same desire. If he does not tell truths or stories, it is not because the moon for such commitments is not in his sky. A more probable reason was given several years ago in Barthelme's Snow White, when in answer to someone who accused Henry of living in a world of his own, Henry retorted, "I can certainly improve on what was given." So can Barthelme. His work belongs to the history of rhetoric in one of the senses, as having to do with embellishing the given experience, decorating its margins, turning its capital letters into scrolls. With this difference: Normally the rhetorician tries to show the beauties of Creation by revealing them as inexhaustible, and emphasizes God's text by underlining it for the benefit of dim-witted readers. He would have nailed himself as a blasphemer if he had caught in his work the slightest implication that the text was discontinuous, separate from God's original and superior to it. Barthelme blasphemes from morn till dewy eve. He wants us to feel that the embellishments, his sentences, are so much more beautiful than God's version that we will repudiate the latter as a mere vulgate of experience, a first shot, at best a near-miss. Barthelme's sentences are shot with unerring nonchalance toward their mark: The arrow, having defined the circle by taking possession of the center, rustles its feathers to show that precision is not the whole story.

Barthelme's fiction, then, is written according to Henry's method, as an improvement on the original. There are signs in Great Days that Barthelme has a certain tenderness, recidivist again, for things "perfect and ordinary and perfect," but he makes his art by suppressing that emotion. Perfection resides in the sentence, since this is a literature appropriate of closing time in the gardens of the West. Barthelme's ideal reader would quietly disengage himself from objects, possessions, the Hippocrene of venereal life to turn to the comtemplation of one word's way with another. (p. 50)

Start with possessions and lusts if you like, Barthelme says, but be ready to convert them into syllables, an adjective followed by a noun, metrically perhaps a trochee followed by an iamb.

Without proposing to pluck out the heart of his mystery, I think I know what Barthelme is up to. He is trying to detach us from things, possessions, conventional urgencies. Trying to stuff our lives with equanimity, we stuff them with objects. We enforce our will upon the world and identify victory with our possessions. Barthelme wants to tease us out of rage and lust by offering us the superior accomplishment of appreciation; in this case, appreciation of art, word-play, the composition of sentences. Snow White was peevish one day. "Oh I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear!" God, Yes, wouldn't it be wonderful? But Barthelme doesn't waste much spirit on that mood. He knows that there are only the same old words in the world, but that an accomplished word-man can upset their complacency, set them free from their attachment to objects, convert them to a new music with runcible cadences. He uses English as a second language, hoping to release us from the preoccupations of the first. (pp. 50-1)

Barthelme's stories are related to the given world only in terms of rivalry. They rarely condescend to say anything about that world directly, their lines do not run to mockery or satire. Indeed, daily life plays about the same role in Barthelme's fiction as rapid transit systems play in the choreography of polkas. Barthelme balanchines his sentences with little regard for the merit of getting there fustest with the mostest; his decorum aspires rather to the condition of a perfectly adjudged minstrel show. Of the 16 stories in Great Days, four are fairly straightforward; they would be good stories in any class but they would not affront the criteria of theme and form deemed applicable to, say, John Cheever…. The remaining 12 had to be written by the Donald Barthelme whose work, whether he likes the fact or not, is continuous with the work of Samuel Beckett. If you're going to dispose your language in the form of two disembodied voices, rotten with experience transpiring as idioms, you can't help their recalling, with appropriately lyric ironies, Beckett's duet-makers. (p. 51)

I would hate Barthelme's fiction if he found relinquishment easy; if, like rich folk, he kept telling us that money isn't everything, isn't much, isn't anything, really, we're all brothers under the suntanned skin. Barthelme can destroy when he wants to. There must be thousands of Golden Treasury-lovers who will hold him forever unforgiven for reciting the first lines of a favorite poem as "I think that I shall never see slash a poem lovely as a tree." (pp. 51-2)

Barthelme's stories, lively and witty and, yes, yes, disturbing as they are, are practice shots at dispossession. For all I know, there may be objects he despises, and other objects dear to his venereal life, but internal evidence drawn from his fiction suggests that his main quarrel with objects is that they are too many…. Writers as diverse as Stanley Elkin, Susan Sontag, and Donald Barthelme are engaged with this matter: how to deal with a situation which has moved from plenitude, to proliferation, to plethora…. Wherefore Donald Barthelme and other writers of similar persuasion have given up the ambition of linking convictions to facts; instead, they transfer to sentences of their own scrupulous devising such talent for conviction as they retain. Love me, love my sentences, Barthelme demands. And I reply, I do, I do. (p. 52)

Denis Donaghue, "For Brevity's Sake," in Saturday Review (© 1979 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), March 3, 1979, pp. 50-2.

James Rawley

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 holding things together with an unfaltering sense of rhythm. This is the kind of fingering people expect from a regular writer for The New Yorker, and Barthelme's surrealist intensity never distorts his civilized charm. Indeed, this charm serves as a reminder that surrealists, unlike some other members of the avant-garde, continue to respect the popular myth, the varnished surface and the ordinary human face, with or without skull peeping through the skin….

The technique throughout gets away with calling attention to itself. The stories that are all in dialogue, like the ones in which almost every sentence ends with a question mark, succeed even when, as we are meant to do, we lose track of the characters and perceive nothing but verbal sparkles over a ground tone of lament…. "The Death of Edward Lear," a work of homage to an ancestor, ends with one of the most frightening and elaborately prepared puns in modern literature, and gives a history it seemed to lack to the theater of the absurd.

Yet even this, and the poignant title story, are mellower achievements than the author's previous works. Oedipal suffering, the anguish of divorce—themes he has handled in the past with startling power for so urbane a craftsman—have now given way to a sharply focused but distant look at age and loss. Horror and fun are both muted to melancholy….

The mood recalls other New Yorker writers of the past: Thurber's ineffectuals, Benchley's occasional sorrow over being no more than a feuilletonist. E. B. White's controlled evocation of neurosis in "The Door." The world of literary surrealists is a small one, curiously curved in on itself, so that Barthelme's kinship with Borges. Buzzati or Calvino seems at first stronger than any relation he may have to other American authors. But just as Borges has his librarian's bibliomania and love for metaphysics, just as Calvino echoes Ariosto, and Buzzati collected and believed in Venetian ghost stories, so Barthelme preserves the diffident, whimsical, cultured tone that defined The New Yorker through so many decades. In fact, some of his works are less surreal than some of Perelman's, which they thoroughly resemble.

But Barthelme has liberated himself, for good or for ill, from mere funniness. Though his stories are often revue turns, and as much in need of a wow finish, the wow finish may not get a laugh, may succeed by plunging the reader into world-weariness and pain, as the last lines of Great Days do.

Blake said, "He who mocks the infant's faith/Shall be mocked in age and death." Nowadays it is we who, from childhood, mock our superheroes and the watered-down cultural values given us on television. We approach middle age with our own laughter ringing unpleasantly in our ears. Donald Barthelme, who has always seen something sad in our skits and parodies, has composed a set of serious burlesques as a tribute to the tragedy of life. It is a quiet achievement, a deliberately qualified success, and the most haunting book anyone ever chuckled over.

James Rawley, "The New Music," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), April 7, 1979, p. 374.


Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 115)


Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 2)