Donald Barthelme Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Donald Barthelme 1931–

American short story writer and novelist.

Barthelme explores the possibilities and restrictions of language and its uses. His surrealistic work lacks plot, characterization, and point of view as each has traditionally been used in fiction. By using familiar language in unfamiliar ways, Barthelme forces his readers to concentrate on his words as words and ultimately, to question their meaning.

Although often amusing, his satiric portraits of information-crazed individuals blurting words at each other are also unsettling. Barthelme shows us that as words lose their meaning, all forms of communication are subverted and knowledge of self, others, and the universe becomes impossible. His bleak prognosis for the future of language is subverted, however, by the distinction of his stories (many of them published in the New Yorker), his novels Snow White and The Dead Father, and his recent collection Sixty Stories. The quality of his own writing reaffirms the power of language.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; Something about the Author, Vol. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)

Maclin Bocock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[What some] critics fail to notice is that Barthelme does not confine himself to the recording of public insanities. He has, in fact, been more concerned with private tragedy, specifically the tragedy which results from "emotional defeats," and in Barthelme's fiction that means only one thing: the failure of a man to achieve a satisfactory and lasting relationship with a woman. In his four collections of short stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari; Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts; City Life; Sadness, and in the novel Snow White, he charts over and over again the agony caused by this failure. Though often concealed by a cover of complicated language, as in "The Indian Uprising,"… and though not always the main subject, this kind of defeat is touched on in most of Barthelme's collected "fragments."

Barthelme is first and foremost an intellectual writer, a cool observer, who transforms and distances emotional suffering through wit and irony and, above all, through verbal play. He continually surprises with revitalized clichés and invented words. He recognizes the appropriate moment for literary allusions, for juxtaposing the concrete with the abstract, and … for infusing life into inanimate objects. He uses with great originality Joycean tricks: questions and answers, lists, double and triple entendres, plays on words. And he has a special gift for fantasy, sometimes whimsical, sometimes grotesque. It is, then, by means of verbal brilliance that Barthelme turns the agony of his characters into something ridiculous or comic, and forces the reader to respond to the suffering with laughter and esthetic joy. (Barthelme is worth reading for his humor alone). But the richness and complexity of his fiction does not derive solely from his verbal talent. In most of his stories he is writing about a number of things at once, often unrelated, and it is the mesh-ing of these disparate subjects into an artistic whole, reinforced by a vision layered in ambiguity and a voice always compelling, which makes Barthelme an original and important writer.

With a careful reading of the four volumes of short stories and Snow White, it becomes clear that Barthelme's main subjects have been love and language or women and words. For the most part the tragedy in his fictional universe results from the fact that men cannot live without women or without words and that with few exceptions they are constantly betrayed by both. This, then, has been the "message," the steady muffled sound throbbing at the center of Barthelme's work.

In order to understand the brilliant eight-page short story, "The Indian Uprising," one must be aware of what Barthelme heroes say about women and about words. Men, they tell us, because of their biological need, are in women's power, and this sexual hunger is never-ending…. This desperate and insatiable sexual need stimulates fantasies of real and imagined young girls. And these nymphs are always around, crossing streets, getting into buses, moving through rooms, taking off blouses in train compartments, hanging their hair out of windows. They are always there, tormenting men with some part of their anatomy. Even eleven-year-olds skip in and out of Barthelme's stories with their seductive knees. But except for the unthinking brute, no man can ever have a satisfactory relationship with a woman; her nature prevents it. Women are hard, mean, inscrutable, and bundles of contradictions. They are incurable romantics, always waiting for the perfect lover. Either they hold back sexually, or they are fickle and unfaithful. (Only two or three of Barthelme's heroines escape these unhappy traits.)

But undoubtedly the greatest problem for the Barthelme hero is the scorn he faces as sexual partner. The fear of female disdain, and the devastating effects of this humiliation, are dealt with again and again in Barthelme's fiction. Many of his male characters lack "boldness," and it is this lack which sends females flying to seek "gorilla lovers." (pp. 134-35)

As for words, Barthelme characters say obvious things about them, but in an original way. They find words inadequate for expressing thoughts and feelings, especially emotional suffering. Barthelme's artists long to make statements, to say something significant...

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Jerome Klinkowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Barthelme presents, within the outward shapes of familiar words, bold, strange, and terrifying ones, which shock us into a new awareness of his fictional world. In "The President," when the chief executive speaks, "One hears only cadences." Saying in fact nothing, he simply makes the accepted gestures and repeats empty phrases, so that "Newspaper accounts of his speeches always say only that he 'touched on a number of matters in the realm of….'" Barthelme's genius is not only in noticing the empty phrases, as George Orwell did twenty-five years ago in "Politics and the English Language," but also in infusing those empty forms with the work of vivid imagination—a process beneficial to both form and content. (p. 66)

Language, with and without the revivifying force of imagination, is the chief concern of Snow White, as it is in most of Barthelme's fiction. It includes discussions of "'the "blanketing" effect of ordinary language,'" the part of language which "fills in" between the other parts. "'That part,'" we are told, "'The "filling" you might say, of which the expression "you might say" is a good example, is to me the most interesting part'" … It is particularly interesting because "'the per-capita production of trash in this country is up from 2.75 pounds per day in 1920 to 4.5 pounds per day in 1965 … and is increasing at the rate of about four percent a year. Now that rate will probably go up, because it's been going up, and I hazard that we may very well soon reach a point where it's 100 percent.'" At that point, "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? And there can no longer be any question of 'disposing' of it, because it's all there is, and we will simply have to learn how to 'dig' it—that's slang, but peculiarly appropriate here."… Hence Barthelme's characters strive "to be on the leading edge of this phenomenon," and "that's why we pay particular attention, too, to those aspects of language that may be seen as a model of the trash phenomenon."… That is why Barthelme pays particular attention to language; it would be hard to find a statement more central to the method of his fiction.

In a world of 100 percent trash, its imagination dead and its language simply "blanketing," being bored (as was Snow White) is only an index to larger problems. How does one effectively "know" this world?… To break through the dreck, trash, and blanketing into a true knowledge of person and event leads Barthelme to experiments in epistemology. His two best-known stories, "Views of My Father Weeping" and "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning," are written in this mode. (pp. 68-9)

Although Barthelme has assembled all varieties of reports, including considerations of the dreck he claims is so revealing, the point of "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" is that the conventional epistemology fails. Unlike "Karsh of Ottawa," we are unable to get the "one shot in each sitting that was, you know, the key shot, the right one…. And the spirit of Kennedy, unlike Churchill or Hemingway, is never captured—unless that spirit be the enigma itself. (pp. 70-1)

Like "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning," "Views of My Father Weeping" is constructed of several disjunctive, aphoristic paragraphs...

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Carey Horwitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Sixty Stories] begins with five from Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964) and continues through nine recent, uncollected pieces. It's a good time for this collection, for the time of this collection—from Kennedy through Carter, to put convenient correlatives upon it—is a discrete period, begun and ended, a period whose social, moral, and emotional landscape has been represented by Barthelme better than by most.

If the period is of a piece, so too are these stories. Not much has changed over the years: There are the philosophical excursions, the blurred dialogues, the cinematic descriptions, the nasty/chic relationships. And there is the language, still transforming the banal into the surreal and vice versa, still constructing syllogisms that challenge us to accept the shifting internal logic of a story as no less valid than the shifting logic of our lives.

What has changed, perhaps, is orientation. The journey from "Views of My Father Weeping" (1970) to "A Manual for Sons" (1975) to "Aria" (1981) is a journey from childhood to parenthood. And in "Bishop," the best of the recent stories, a relationship gone sour speaks not of the unfulfilled opportunities delineated in Barthelme's earlier works, but of lost opportunities, of reflection, and of dream-wishes of childhood.

It is a time for reflection, the beginning of this new period. It will be interesting to see what Barthelme, an important chronicler of our lives, eventually makes of it all.

Carey Horwitz, "Fiction Briefs: 'Sixty Stories'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 9, September, 1981, p. 59.

John Romano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's pleasant to recall the groundswell of excitement caused among readers by the publication of Donald Barthelme's first short stories in the 60's. There just weren't then, as there aren't now, very many stories published that you wanted to call your friends up and read aloud from; and Barthelme gave us more than a few. His openings in particular came off with a special brilliance…. The style sparkled with intelligence; it was dry and clear. All in all, Barthelme's stories were a sort of literary prediction of the rise of Perrier-and-lime in the decade to come.

But the dryness was not a fetish; he could be, and he certainly is, on rereading, not just witty but extremely funny….


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Charles Newman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Donald Barthelme is our most imitated writer today, fully as much as J. D. Salinger was twenty years ago—which is only to say that one index of genius is the extent to which it prompts redundancy in lesser talents. And this retrospective collection [Sixty Stories], which covers Barthelme's entire career, is the most satisfying way of reading him, removed from his usual literary context of fey cartoons, self-parodying ads, poems longer but less poetic than his stories, and his imitators' fictions, which might be defined as the absence of plot, character and consequence—only situations.

Barthelme is certainly no realist; we can have no more dissimilar reactions to contemporary...

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Samuel Coale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a recent interview in The New York Times, Donald Barthelme said of his art: "I grew up with disjunction … the world was turning upside down … Most of our reality is imposed on us." The stories [in Sixty Stories] reflect all of this: the disconnection between conversations and sentences, the sense of helplessness of many of his flat-voiced characters, the spare cool quality of abstract art….

Here are tales of good zombies…. And a balloon that covered New York City. People slid and rode on the surfaces of that balloon as one can do on the surfaces of these bizarre stories. "Fragments are the only forms I trust," Barthelme has said, and we believe him. The stories appear as scraps,...

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Lois Gordon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Any discussion of Donald Barthelme's comedy necessitates the backdrop of contemporary thought, because Barthelme's characters, and their world, are among the most sophisticated in literary history. Freud, Fellini, Einstein, Roland Barthes—as well as Norman Lear, Pepsi Cola, John Wayne, and Cosmo magazine—such is the milieu of Barthelme's people. Their everyday vocabulary includes Heidegger's angst, Bachelard's poetic space, Sartre's "other," let alone the vast legacy of literary, anthropological, psychological, historical, and scientific thought—and the prodigious jargon of T.V., ads, current events, pop art, and culture. Barthelme's people are hypereducated, wild consumers of information, and devotees of...

(The entire section is 2756 words.)