Donald Barthelme

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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

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[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...

(This entire section contains 1757 words.)

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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 and definitive, but when they try, something other than they intended comes out. The word has been used "incorrectly," "misprounced," "misspelled," and "It was the wrong word." Most words are so overused they no longer have any meaning, and, in addition, many have become "dreck," "sludge," "stuffing." One heroine says things "just to fill the air." A narrator strings words together, for the most part unconnected, and then tells the reader, "you can do it too it's as easy as it looks." It is with words that the "steamy" and "sordid" deeds of men are recorded. The esthetician in Snow White, standing in the shower, can be destroyed, but there is always a possibility someone will remember his corrupting words and repeat them. Paul, in the same novel, would "retract the whole written word." The impossibility of retracting what has been written and spoken makes for tragedy because words can betray. And that they can destroy as effectively as real weapons is admirably illustrated in "Game." In "Sentence," however, the narrator does admit that words are all men have to work with, the only means for recording their fantasies, of preserving their "souvenirs," which might "someday merge, blur—cohere is the word, maybe into something meaningful."

In approaching "The Indian Uprising," one must not only be aware of Barthelme's preoccupation with love and language but also his practice of often describing relationships between men and woman in terms of war. (pp. 135-36)

"The Indian Uprising" is neither a dream nor the description of an hallucinatory journey. Nor is it "the disintegration of fiction into its raw materials." It is an intricately constructed short story (because of its compactness, its intensity, perhaps better described as a prose poem) in which each word, each sentence fits together to render rich psychic reality. It does radiate "anxieties" but these are explainable. And it does on initial reading generate unease because of its ambiguity. The seeming disconnectedness, the rapid shift in locale, the sudden appearance of unexplained characters confuse the reader. (p. 136)

Although "The Indian Uprising" is from beginning to end an extended metaphor of war, it is not for the most part about an outward apocalyptic landscape. It concerns the hidden territory of the narrator's own private world, a world filled with bewilderment and anxiety and suffering at his failure to connect, to experience a lasting love relationship, more specifically the failure to find satisfactory sexual fulfillment because of what he is meant to feel as his own sexual inadequacy. But Barthelme's hero, unlike Ford's in The Good Soldier, is aware of what is going on, even if he does not always understand why. "The Indian Uprising" exposes, then, the devastating effect of the break-up of a relationship between the narrator and the girl he presently loves, Sylvia. Barthelme is doing what many writers have done before in describing the disintegration of an individual in terms of the collapse of society around him. What makes this twentieth-century version of war between a man and woman original is the brilliant manipulating of words and the artistic atomizing of chronology, as well as the perfect marriage between public and private tragedy.

In "The Indian Uprising" Barthelme weaves a mobile tapestry on which three-dimensional figures change constantly, appear and reappear like characters in a speeded-up film, and where like a refrain every so often the hero's private heart is exposed. The frenzied, but calculated manner in which Barthelme uses words creates an exciting tension, giving the illusion that the words themselves are alive. And the words, as Indians, are. At the end, the narrator is finally cornered, beaten down, and defeated by the "savage, black eyes, paint, feathers, beads." But from the very beginning of the story the reader is captured, drawn into the swirling battle, assaulted by words into which Barthelme has breathed a pulsating and savage life. Barthelme is, then, telling his hero's sad story, reinforcing it from time to time by alluding to some of the horrors of contemporary history.

There are two key sentences in "The Indian Uprising," one near the end, "The sickness of the quarrel lay thick in the bed," and the other, not quite half way through the story, "There was a sort of muck running in the gutters, a yellowish, filthy stream suggesting excrement, or nervousness, a city that does not know what it has done to deserve baldness, errors, infidelity." By changing the opening sentence, "We defended the city as best we could," to "I defended myself as best I could," one understands that the narrator himself is the city under siege and that the Indians are the words with which Sylvia is attacking him. (pp. 136-37)

The story, the charting of the narrator's emotional history with Sylvia, has a see-saw motion. After each upward swing the hero descends a little lower until finally he touches bottom, defeated, no longer able to summon either memory or fantasy to sustain him. (p. 137)

[By the end of "The Indian Uprising" the] emasculation of the hero, like a prisoner without belt or shoelaces, is complete; but the indians, Sylvia's words, will continue, in his mind at least, to fall on his head like heavy rain shattering all interior silence. Even more tragic is the death of hope, hope for some kind of ordinary life with Sylvia. The vision of identical houses in subdivisions, the kind of thing Barthelme ordinarily satirizes as the vulgar and hideous result of our civilization, here appears like a dream of paradise, a place where there might be some possibility of connection, some chance of a normal existence. So ends this modern tale of love, this tale of sexual slaughter.

Paul in Snow White, expounding on the purpose of the artist, says, "I don't care what, I insist only that it be relevant, in a strange way, to the scene that has chosen to spread itself out before us, the theatre of our lives." Barthelme follows Paul's advice. But he does not take seriously all of what another of his characters, Baskerville, says "grandly" about the aim of literature, "the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks the heart." For Barthelme is not concerned with the reader's heart; rather, his destiny is to crack the mind and set it free to spin in his created wonder. (p. 145)

Maclin Bocock, "'The Indian Uprising' or Donald Barthelme's Strange Object Covered with Fur," in fiction international (copyright © 1975 by Joe David Bellamy), No. 4/5, 1975, pp. 134-45.

Jerome Klinkowitz

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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 which suggest the meaning of the father and his death. Some carry the simply narrative plot, tracking down the culprit, and others are vignettes from the past: pictures of the father frozen in memory…. At the heart of the story, however, are the several ratiocinative passages where the narrator, in the process of unpuzzling the crime, becomes a detective of the knowing process itself…. Although the murderer is never discovered, and the narrator, in the act of learning, often fails, the process of knowledge has been made very clear [in "Views of My Father Weeping"]. Process is the story itself, and by means of it the image of the father has been sustained and studied more effectively than the conventional epistemology of "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" would allow. The father is not understood rationally, nor is his memory presented in linear fashion. Instead, we know him as a suprarational, emotional complex: the process by which he is known to his son.

Knowing the world is, for Barthelme, ultimately an achievement of the imagination…. Barthelme appreciates form, but he never allows it to define the content. Or if it does, that very definition is made to appear ludicrous. His story "Porcupines at the University" is written in a very conventional form; but the contents run amok, at once mocking the form and drawing their own imaginative life from it. (pp. 71-3)

Barthelme will not bore us. He dismisses old and irrelevant forms which no longer conform to the reality we experience. Part of his technique is contrariness: if the predictable form is fast-moving excitement, as in a Batman story, he excites us with absurd delays and digressions. He approves of the litany as "the only form of discourse" because it can be so ludicrously violated by substitutions in content. And he admires "a long sentence moving at a certain pace down the page aiming for the bottom" precisely because it is "still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones." (p. 75)

Barthelme's vignettes are … not conventional arguments in the dialectics of form, but imaginative volcanoes, radical stopgap measures to save experiences which might otherwise be eroded with our loss of traditional standards. In this sense he is a counterrevolutionary, opposing the new language of technology and manipulation with pleas for old-fashioned interest and imagination. In a new world, old values must be expressed in new form. For irrational, inconsecutive times, Barthelme's forms revive the values of imagination; the rescue is performed with the finest attentions to art. Not just a juggler of fragments, Barthelme is an assembler and constructor of objects … Barthelme has said that "The point of collage is that unlike things are stuck together to make, in the best case, a new reality. This new reality, in the best case, may be or imply a comment on the other reality from which it came, and may also be much else. It's an itself, if it's successful." The resulting art can be figurative without yielding to a one-to-one reference. (p. 76)

Because fiction conventionally tends to the opposite extreme, Barthelme often compensates with his close attention to writing as object. "I enjoy editing and enjoy doing layout—problems of design," he has remarked. "I could very cheerfully be a typographer," and his story "Our Work and Why We Do It" details the joys of a shop of printers. Because of this infatuation Barthelme has berated himself, and been berated by critics, for not writing more novels; feeling that he is unable to sustain works, his critics cite him as a craftsman of fragments. But although his books are arranged as collections of short stories, they have with increasing strength boasted the consistency of novels. (pp. 77-8)

The key to Barthelme's new aesthetic for fiction is that the work may stand for itself, that it need not yield to complete explication of something else in the world but may exist as an individual object, something beautiful and surprising and deep. His innovation is peculiarly American…. Barthelme dares, like Vonnegut, to say the unspeakable, the vile and imaginative things which lie beneath the surface of our mundane, anesthetizing forms. More abstract writers such as William S. Burroughs make "cut-ups" of these forms, taking words and rearranging them so that new images form from the old constituents. But Barthelme is more the contextualist, closer to our actual society and its dreck; "To steal is to proclaim the value of what is stolen," he has written, and what he steals from contemporary America—its junk, its blanketing—is recycled and given immense value in his artistic act. Burroughs works with words alone; Barthelme takes the forms in which we kill them and brings them back to life…. (p. 80)

Jerome Klinkowitz, "Donald Barthelme," in his Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction (© 1975 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1975, pp. 62-81.

Carey Horwitz

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[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

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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….

T. S. Eliot once remarked on the nearness of the modern poet's craft to that of the stand-up comic. Barthelme acts on the nearness. His prose has the little hidden pricks, the allusiveness (albeit the range of allusion is trashier, in places), and the almost constant self-parody of "Prufrock." But the will to please us, to make us sit up and laugh with surprise, is greater, of course. Indeed, it is greater than the will to disconcert. The chief thing to say about Barthelme, beyond praise for his skill, which seems to me supererogatory, is that he is fiercely committed to showing us a good time, at least in the vast proportion of his work. This accounts for a sense that grows upon us as we consider large quantities of Barthelme stories spread over time: the sense that, although there is avant-gardist flair, and broken lines and paragraphs, and an air of experiment everywhere in his prose, nothing much is finally challenged, no walls are even so much as asked politely to fall down. The spirit is: Many things are silly, especially about modern language, and there is much sadness everywhere, but all is roughly well. So let's try and enjoy ourselves, as intelligently as possible….

Barthelme arrived with a quirkily right sense of which disparate things, words, images could be made to lie down together; and this gift for collage, for verbal bricolage played nicely into the felt need for a literary equivalent of the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg, and the combinations of idea and image in Jasper Johns. Despite Barthelme's stated discomfort with comparisons of his work to pop art, the high-gloss surface of one of his three-pagers in The New Yorker circa 1970 does indeed keep company with the work of Roy Lichtenstein in particular. (p. 9)

Barthelme's whole way with the short story is to use it to give us lessons in dancing to sadness—just as Lichtenstein's paintings worked best when the comic-book instant was a painful one, thwarted love or a moment of doom. When Barthelme titled his fourth collection "Sadness," it was in eagerness to tip his hand. The sparkling surface bespoke a certain melancholy located elsewhere (one does not say "beneath the surface," because so much in the literary ideology of such writing militates against the idea that there is anything behind or beneath the linguistic surface).

But repeated suggestions of the greatly looming sadness off the edge of the page must finally frustrate us, and we come to want to know just where it hurts. The indirection in this big volume is mostly unrelieved; it lacks straight lines; and that is wearying. Weariness of pleasure was surely the risk inherent in publishing "Sixty Stories" by Barthelme at one blow. Because I had never read a Barthelme story that did not give me much, I welcomed the present volume with the attendant fear that the reading experience would be rather like trying to make a meal of after-dinner mints. But in fact it was like making a meal of appetizers (which, after all, is possible), because Barthelme invariably packs a suggestion, a tease of significance and substantiality into even his slenderest work. If nothing else, there is the note of sadness, but often there is more—hints of political seriousness, erotic actuality, blood, death, money; but all consistenly offstage, or at least having their center offstage, so that they impinge on the story, case a shadow on it, ruffle its surface just so much and no more. They do not exactly intrude; they are not exactly present. And if there is a Barthelme "problem," it is here, in the relation of his handsome little things to the big things they touch on.

My answer here must be evaluative rather than analytic. Donald Barthelme's best stories, by yards, are those in which the larger, weightier subject is treated with respect, not trifled with, not merely fleeced for the vestige of importance it can give to the essentially slight story. (pp. 9, 23)

In "Views of My Father Weeping" two stories are interwoven. In one a modestly realistic scene is replayed with variations in which the narrator observes his father sitting on the bed crying, for a reason the narrator does not know, and then performing a variety of equally mysterious acts. In the other, a somehow more fictive narrator, echoing 18th-century fiction in his style and range of reference, tracks down the "aristocrat" who ran over and killed his father in the streets. The more fictive story is more rational, less mysterious, but nonetheless more remote than the realistic. By virtue of the contrast, Barthelme succeeds in saying a number of things about some ancient art-life quarrels. But more than this, he authentically evokes the mystery haunting the father-son relationship, evokes it precisely because he does not summarize or seek to capture some banal truth about such relationships. In the same way, the woman Constanze in "The Abduction From the Seraglio" emerges through the cracks in the obtuse, jumpy, gorgeously stupid narration of her ex-lover. This story is in some ways a perfect consummation of Barthelme's work in that it has the same distinctly comic genius as some of the slicker, slighter pieces, but remains faithful to its subject, indeed to its sense of having a subject. It offers us, in other words, something besides Barthelme's own virtuosity to look at. Something similar might be said of the figure of Robert Kennedy in ["Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning"]. Kennedy seems to accumulate mimetically from a mélange of real and fictive data, fractured and mounted. At such times it is as if a master of character making, an E. M. Forster or a Balzac, had gone to school to Cubism.

But there is a good deal of bad Barthelme, though even the bad is likable; and what bad Barthelme does is trifle with great subjects. What needs most to be said about them, looking at "Sixty Stories" as a whole, is that this trend is ominously on the rise. Barthelme's development is more or less toward the lyric and trivial. Having observed this, it would be easy to say that Barthelme grows more indulgent and show-offish, but the truth is rather different, I think. The truth is that he is shifting his artistic focus from the true to the beautiful; instead of conjuring, in his fractured, collagiste way, the weirdness of the emotional life, he is seeking the unbroken arias of the imaginary. That he no doubt finds the latter easier than the former is beside the point (though it makes for a slicer and slicker prose). The point is that we are not finished needing, from marvelously gifted writers such as he, help with the vicissitudes of modern life. (p. 23)

John Romano, "Working Like a Stand-Up Comic," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 4, 1981, pp. 9, 23.

Charles Newman

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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 experience and its literary embodient than to compare the solemnity of Saul Bellow, say the conclusion of Mr. Sammler's Planet …, with the coruscating irony of Barthelme in Snow White, parodying Henry James….

But it would be wrong to delimit Barthelme's worth by consigning him to the highly cerebral and balefully ironic strain of currently fashionable humor. Nothing is quite so tired as a tired novelty, and Barthelme's most vicious parodies are aimed precisely at those fashionable conventions of self-conscious cultural and linguistic relativism that are the residue of a long-exhausted avant-garde. In this sense, he is a truly regional writer, with an unerring ear for the elliptical discourse of the urban sophisticate going through the motions of the "intelligentsia."

Moreover, when read as a whole, the stories powerfully convey the heartbreak of people struggling to communicate through a culture increasingly out of control, trivialized by competing jargons, until aggressive silence seems preferable to any verbalized experience….

[It] is only when Barthelme plays opening to an audience that is totally prepared to make a joke out of anything that the stories fail. In an art so compressed and subtly grotesque, the one-liner pun generally has unsatisfying effect, though he yields to that impulse less frequently as his career progresses. At his best, Barthelme expresses humor as defiance…. Barthelme exploits the gap (crevasse is perhaps a better word) between the abstraction of literary discourse and what's left of the felt life and mental sanity. He gives us people whose social identity and psychology is not something to be inferred from their speech but is their speech….

The hallmark of a Barthelme story is that it is essentially unparodyable. Think of the consequences of this—an art that will not yield to further mimicry. Within its own framework, it can be neither fully challenged nor assimilated; it is the end of the road of interiority. (p. 381)

[In her classic study of American humor, Constance Rourke says] that "though extravagance has been a major element in all American comedy, and though extravagance may have its incomparable uses with flights and inclusions denied the more equable view, the extravagant vein in American humor has reached no ultimate expression."

With Barthelme, however, it is clear that the vein has reached a type of "ultimate expression," with all the risks and virtues that implies. And it is to miss the point to view his work as merely a surreal esthetic response to the silliness of modern life. Mark Twain himself noted that English comedy and French wit were dependent on their subject matter, while American humor relied on the manner of its telling. Donald Barthelme's manner represents a kind of culmination of national humor, and in its distanced burlesque and profound melancholy it underscores a society on the knife edge. (pp. 381-82)

Charles Newman, "Rouse the Stupid and Damp the Pert," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 233, No. 12, October 17, 1981, pp. 381-82.

Samuel Coale

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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, doodles, snatches, bits and pieces of conversations, intimations of rituals and apocalyptic situations. "It is wrong so speak of 'situations,' implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension." A void inhabits the surrounding territory….

It is very difficult to be rescued from the "sickliness of same" when reading 60 stories in a row by a single author. The tricks, the ironies, the thumbprints show up all too clearly. And yet Barthelme does consistently surprise. His characters spring to life; odd situations—a vast balloon encompassing all of New York City—grow and thrive; we catch glimpses of ourselves delighting in slides of language, in fanciful swirls of a quiet subdued erotic play. The conclusion of the brilliant "A Manual for Sons," shimmers with wisdom and wit…. His "Critique de la Vie Quotidienne" bristles with the querulous humor of a hassled husband. The swift, often glib surfaces lure us into uncharged seas where, adrift, we look for something to cling to, even though it may be just another surface in the water ahead.

"There is something 'out there' which cannot be brought 'here,'" Barthelme admits, but his strange tales conjure up an "out there" that at once chills and delights. The vision is askew—and often resides in warmed-over existential pronouncements—but the details fascinate. And we find ourselves rooting for Balloon Man no matter how many Pin Ladies yearn to pierce him through.

Samuel Coale, "Book Reviews: 'Sixty Stories'," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1981; all rights reserved), Vol. 145, No. 20, December 10, 1981, p. 404.

Lois Gordon

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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 every possible "how-to" formula.

If literature at one time presumably reflected life, Barthelme reverses the formula. His figures have in great part become the media, the art and slogans—the words—about them. They mouth technology, although they are utterly ignorant as to what it means; they explain everything and approach every experience with strategy and skill, with the statistics of management and survival, or the rationalizations of historical precedent. They accept roles—is it not one's greatest goal to be Mick Jagger or Blondie, the Brut man or Breck girl?—and they admire expertise, as though it had divine authority. Indeed, they give credence and praise to authorized texts and media personalities, as they once did to God.

Similarly, if literature until our time—in its focus upon character—reflected growth from ignorance to insight and measured the gap between seeming and being, Barthelme's fiction, when it concerns people, abolishes and such dualities and growth of character…. Barthelme says (or at least one of his characters does) that the meaning of books in in the lines, not in the spaces between them, a pithy analogy of his characters' programmed approach to experience. Most of his people are beyond questioning the difference between what they are and what they could be. They are so much the product of modern expertise regarding "identity," such authorities on Freudian or Jungian thought—and all the rest-that they speak and act this out in their very lines, in the very jargon of contemporary expertise. The inner and outer worlds, once a fascination for the literary artist, have now atrophied, and what was once an inner void (enigmatic, neurotic, or mythic)—at odds with act or spoken thought—is now identical with the slick jargon of conscious speech.

Barthelme has been called a surrealist, but apart from the fact that he is both hilariously funny and an implicit social critic, as the surrealists were not, he goes one step beyond surrealism, which externalized or concretized the inner world. For Barthelme, the one-time, inner, mysterious world—if it exists at all—is at one with the supereducated, supersophisticated outer one.

His people often appear as robots, or zombies … in a world without specific definition or locale. Lacking flesh and blood, they appear in a sense to be just forms of people or meaning, like skeletal outlines of sentences, or contours of words that lack substance. One rarely identifies with them. (pp. 20-2)

[But] one does identify with these odd and abstract figures linguistically. Although they may initially appear as word constructs and assemblages of language and information, with no emotion or felt-experience attached to their words, it is in Barthelme's "dislocations"—really his unique way of "characterizing" them—that they develop; they become purveyors of extraordinarily odd and unusual linguistic patterns. It is at this point that the reader, rather than the speaker, gets swept up with their infinitely suggestive language, with the spaces and movement between and beneath their words. Their odd juxtapositions of fragmented information, literary materials, and intensionally vague and open-ended statement and metaphor, present a world of potential connections which, while seemingly inaccessible to the characters themselves, are imminently available to the reader. This double vision toward language—as anesthetizing ("blanketing") and liberating—and the comedic form in which it is shaped, are uniquely Barthelmean.

In focusing upon his figures (rather than the reader's creation of their world), we might well consider as Barthelme's diagnosis of the contemporary malaise a term he uses in Snow White, a word which, interestingly enough, expresses the goals of many in our society—"equanimity." Modern man, Barthelme seems to be saying, the mass consumer, is stuffed with roles, words, and expertise; as such, he has pretty well achieved this goal. But to Barthelme, equanimity is paralysis.

Essentially both hollow and stuffed (starved of real feeling while overindulged in slogans), modern man is the offspring of T. S. Eliot's hollow man and waste lander, buried under the very thing Eliot yearned for—tradition, systems of belief, meaning, and explanation. It is as if the ritual Eliot wished us to pursue had completely lost its substance, and in our compulsive and habitual search for "meaning," we had gained the words and the process for search, but lost any significance that might have attached to either. We have lost our residual roots with humanity and instead become monsters of information, like computers.

Such a portrait of modern life may indeed reflect a disjointed and fragmented contemporary condition—and perhaps this represents a new sort of mimesis. Though Barthelme never admits it directly, there is implied social criticism in all his work. If a potentially serious or humorous situation elicits only a concatenation of fragmented, textbook responses, and jingles, or soap opera phrases, then one has indeed lost all connection with the affective life, indeed with life itself. If all one has to do is push a button in his head to find the proper words of condolence, love, friendship, and loneliness, then obviously something is gravely wrong. Furthermore, Barthelme's juxtapositions of serious and lighthearted response, even in jingle form, reflect another target of criticism, although Barthelme is surely not the first to explore this technique. As Pope had his Belinda equally concerned with "billet doux and Bibles," so too Barthelme shows us how, with the grave and trivial jumbled, people have lost their sense of priorities. Everything has become equally meaningful, traumatic, and alas, meaningless.

Such a portrait of human nature necessitates a flexible language, and to be sure, Barthelme's characters at times sound jazzy, like Antonioni characters, like John Wayne, or even Mr. Clean. In the same sentence they may recite the dubious abstractions of technology, the slogans of popular magazines, the latest gourmet recipe, or they may speak with awareness and assurance of their mythic potential and an instant later mime a line out of Freud announcing their limitations.

Barthelme's technique is to intentionally interrupt the flow of the story, to expand and dissolve meaning by contradictions, retractions, and any number of other means. This shifting from one voice of authority to another, or manipulation or literalization of metaphor or cliché, or creation of open-ended and seemingly nonfixed significations, is noticeably dislocating (or disorienting), and indeed this is the first of Barthelme's most striking characteristics. (More accurately, it is his "second"; first, and foremost, he is very funny.) (pp. 22-3)

Barthelme creates a spatial form close to collage or sculpture, where structure becomes more important than content…. Fragmentation, multiple points of view, a literature that begins with traditional meaning, which is then undercut or overlaid with additional statement, then mixed or split apart or truncated, and then given metaphoric transformation—all function to create portraits that shift, in traditional terms, between meaning and nonmeaning, with mixtures of what would conventionally be called the banal and fantastic, the comic and horrific. Because of the open-ended quality of his language—which always begins with a logical albeit extraordinarily unusual connection before it splits and widens into its several, moving parts—one never feels he "finishes" a Barthelme story, and this is perhaps his next most noteworthy characteristic. (pp. 27-8)

Barthelme's collages lack, as do all collages, a fixed perspective and meaning. His people—patchworks of and variations upon the world of literature, history, art, and the media—are shifting surfaces of any and all of the meanings we can bring to them as they strike a chord (literary and otherwise) in us. Since Barthelme reflects in a sense the phenomenological world continuously unfolding, and the ways language reflects that free and open-ended world, it is reactions, rather than "meaning," that he elicits, and these shift continuously. As in sculpture or collage, "meaning" lies in our perception of the varied relationships of the medium to space and time, and if it is his extraordinary arrangements of words that create the collages, it is their interplay with the variety of our verbal and nonverbal responses that organizes our relationship to time and space, the flux of experience. Yet once we articulate our response, that flux has been touched (organized and hence changed)—but only for the moment. One always has the sense in "interpreting" Barthelme, that our words, like his characters' words, like reality, are only temporarily stayed. In an instant, they separate and return to the larger flux.

This is, of course, not to say that his books lack meaning, but they do lack, as Merleau-Ponty says of life, a meaning "we can hold on to." (pp. 28-9)

It is … as if Barthelme had pushed the existential position to its furthest limits. If man's dilemma is that there is no inherent value in the universe, and he must hence embrace a "role" and be true to it to be authentic—whether that role is through the media, like television or film, or the respectable, authorized texts, say of philosophy—then one is virtually fated to becoming a nonbeing, an abstraction of the sort Barthelme parodies. It is as if Barthelme had observed that such a commitment to any role brings with it a ready-made script, and hence, built-in mechanization. To be a good parent is to 'be' Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care. To be a good lover is to master the variety of authoritative (and illustrated) manuals. "Identity" is really just a costume, an act, a role, a "bit," (p. 29)

Roles, then, and integrity and good faith, all involve fixed patterns of response, which Barthelme indicts for their strangulation of one's vitality and, in a word, one's pleasure in living, his ultimate freedom. But where did the existentialists go astray?

It's not that they were wrong in having us "act," in order to define ourselves. Nor were the Freudians wrong in urging acknowledgment of the unconscious side of self. What is wrong is the limited information and language inherent in any system of thought. "Fragments are the only forms I trust," says one of Barthelme's figures, and this may refer not only to the verbal collage Barthelme so often writes, but also to the fragmented authority of all scientific, psychological, philosophical, etc., systems. Any explanations are limited, rather than totalizing. Parts of them may be right, or they may be right under certain circumstances. Any single explanation can be no more fixed and absolute than reality itself. (pp. 29-30)

The obvious alternative to accepting these patterns, these wholesale definitions of self, is to use language freshly, to enjoy it as the only free act one has in the universe, truly our only barter against annihilation. Yet the same paradox that underlies existentialism underlies the use of language. Just as there are no absolutes except death and one must live with certain personal values as though they were absolute, so too one must use language to articulate the ultimate flux both inside and outside, as though one could define his universe and himself.

It is here that we get to the most interesting part of Barthelme's work, and most of his writing deals with just this—the word as an emblem of man in the universe, the way we separate ourselves from the universe in words, how we strive to define what we all think is that world out there, and ultimately how very feeble (though often joyously so) we are in our efforts to do so. Although the word is not our creation, it is our means of realizing consciousness (as the modern Cartesian might say: "I speak, therefore I am"), but our consciousness is always pluralistic. Words, like roles, both constrict and construct our lives.

The problem is this: the word—as word—inherently means nothing. (pp. 30-1)

Barthelme is … aware that despite their limitations words are our single connection with the universe, our single way of communicating and touching the world. His very difficult task (and his great achievement)—and this is at the heart of all his dislocations—is to use language in fresh ways and to ultimately create new combinations and wring fresh meanings out of them. Thus, while many of his stories deal with the problems inherent in using language (and his subjects include the sterile function of irony and the frequent failure of writing), some consist of totally unique combinations of words, or juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated materials within totally new spatial patterns. By the time he gets to Great Days (1979), he modulates language as musical phrase, and connections are established not so much through linguistic and thematic exposition, variation, and explosion, as through more subtle tones and harmonies, through only the most delicate recurrences of, say, concrete image, color, or gesture, through the evocation of mood at the base of most utterance. At this point, Barthelme is also concerned with more basic issues, like time and mortality. In his most recent work, he appears to have created more human figures than earlier, people with whom one even feels a certain personal kinship. (p. 31)

Barthelme is wonderfully interesting and funny: more important, he is remarkably liberating. Our pleasure comes not in figuring out how his people use words, or the sources of his parody, but rather we revel in his dazzling and endlessly provocative verbal textures. He may be aware that language constricts and that the mind tends to operate in structures, but he is unique in creating for us through his wonderful elegance the great and abundant world. He demands a sophisticated reader, for the better read and more sensitive to language and style one is, the more fun he will have, since Barthelme seems to have read everything. Unlike Eliot, however, whose literariness was didactic and in many ways, an end in itself—because it pointed back to a time of former value—Barthelme's vast information is but his means of stimulating us to a recognition of the limitations as well as the meanings of past formulations. Ultimately, Barthelme wishes us to break free and take pleasure in the world his thick textures evoke. (p. 33)

Barthelme seduces us to pick up on his vast expertise and begin source hunting. But he inevitably sidetracks us to the textures of language so that we act out—only up to a point—exactly what he is parodying, the foolish rituals of fact finding and authority worship. Yet, despite all our protestations about his uniqueness, art is art, and Barthelme's work is not entirely removed from traditional comedy.

If exaggeration lies at the heart of this form, Barthelme's continuous verbal dislocations function not only to transmit his extraordinary vision of the contemporary world but also to separate us from his characters. They stop us from obsessive intellectualizing, and … in their sheer magnitude they prohibit us from identifying with his figures. One is thus free to (in fact) howl at their ridiculousness.

But Barthelme also has the compassion of the comedic artist, and he makes the world more manageable for his reader—more comfortable and even more comprehensible. His stories may not "finish," and the traditional happy ending may be absent, but they do awaken in us a fresh awareness and delight in the multitudinous textures of language and experience. Finally, then, Barthelme educates, as he lifts us out of whatever monistic grid we identify our lives by and helps us to discover our own freedom.

One final irony: Barthelme's literature may really do what literature has always done (and perhaps Hamlet's actor was wrong when he said it holds the mirror up to nature), for literature has always been selective, and through the writer's organizing process, reality has always been distorted. (Even Zola's manuscript was not photographic.) Barthelme, like all the great writers before him, creates a context for our imaginations to function within. Perhaps the major difference is that his context, like our reality, has simply widened and become open-ended. (pp. 33-4)

Lois Gordon, in her Donald Barthelme (copyright © 1981 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1981, 225 p.


Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 2)


Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 3)