(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“At the End of the Mechanical Age” is Barthelme’s teasing meditation on the necessity and impossibility of conceptualizing human existence in the inhuman terms of “age” or “era.” His point of departure is certainly the suggestion, first developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, that industrial society was evolving into a state that would be fundamentally different from that which had defined it for the previous two centuries—what some commentators have called postindustrial society. Barthelme pokes fun at this notion without fundamentally overturning it, by having the two main characters, the unnamed “I” and his eventual wife, “Mrs. Davis,” speak of “the end of the mechanical age” as if it were the same thing as talking about the end of the day, a precise thing with a particular nature and schedule.

They speculate on what will come after the mechanical age, as if an “age” were like a day or a season, but Barthelme’s feelings come through in their agreement that whatever it will be, the age to follow will not be pleasant. In response to the question of whether there is anything to be done about all this, Mrs. Davis replies that the only solution is to “huddle and cling.” Clearly, whatever will happen to humankind, it is not something that can be controlled, at least not by the average citizens that make up middle-class society.

The protagonist has met Mrs. Davis at the grocery store in front of the soap...

(The entire section is 430 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barthelme, Helen Moore. Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001.

Gordon, Lois. Donald Barthelme. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Hudgens, Michael Thomas. Donald Barthelme: Postmodernist American Writer. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

Molesworth, Charles. Donald Barthelme’s Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Olsen, Lance, ed. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11 (Summer, 1991).

Patteson, Richard F., ed. Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Roe, Barbara L. Donald Barthelme: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Stengel, Wayne B. The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

Trachtenberg, Stanley. Understanding Donald Barthelme. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Waxman, Robert. “Apollo and Dionysus: Donald Barthelme’s Dance of Life.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Spring, 1996): 229-243.