Frederick Barthelme Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Frederick Barthelme’s short stories are frequently offered as examples of “minimalism.” Focusing on the surface of events, minimalism generally refuses to delve into a character’s psychological motivations and avoids overt narratorial commentary. Because this style is often attacked for its supposed moral defeatism and lack of historical sensibility, it is especially useful to consider Barthelme’s essay “On Being Wrong: Convicted Minimalist Spills Bean” (1988) when examining his writing. In this playful manifesto, Barthelme maintains that minimalist stories deliberately react against the postmodernist obsession with language, while simultaneously rejecting conventional realism. Human experience, according to Barthelme, “is so enigmatic that only the barest suspicion of it can be got on the page with any assurance.”

Barthelme usually sets his stories in malls, restaurants, and apartment complexes, rendering a vision of contemporary America that fastens upon the subdued sublimities of day-to-day existence. Suggesting that most people overlook or repress the weird peculiarity of the objects and situations they face in their daily lives, Barthelme augments the uncanny dimensions of suburban experience through stylistic experimentation. Narrators startle the reader by using the second-person form of address (“you”); everyday objects take on qualities independent from their common uses, creating an atmosphere that is both disturbing and quietly celebratory. Usefully locating this fiction within the literary mode of the “grotesque,” Robert H. Brinkmeyer maintains that Barthelme’s fiction “knots together the alien with the familiar and challenges the beholder to resolve the ambivalence that this intermingling evokes.”

Uncomfortable in their lives and with each other, yet at ease with incongruity, Barthelme’s characters find little to distinguish public from private experience. Although they are keen observers of their environments’ particularities, popular culture often forms the basis of their relationship with each other and the world. Desiring change while suspecting that attempts at personal transformation will only be cosmetic or, worse, result in self-deception, these characters face the confusions of late twentieth century life with integrity and an appreciable curiosity. Critic Timothy Peters detects a modest heroism in their unwillingness “to look back, to be nostalgic, or even to scheme for a more aesthetically or materially rewarding future.”


“Shopgirls,” from Moon Deluxe, encapsulates one of the central themes of Barthelme’s work: how a consumer-and media-based culture influences the men and women who live within it. Initially set in a mall, “Shopgirls” follows a chronic voyeur who scrutinizes the female clerks in a department store. Andrea, who oversees purses, forces an encounter with the narrator, surprisingly inviting him to have lunch with the various women he has been observing. They tease and fawn over him, then bicker among themselves, after which Andrea invites him to spend the night. In her apartment, she relates a bizarre story about her hurricane-obsessed father, who once attempted suicide when a storm failed to arrive, leaving him crippled. The couple does not sleep together; instead, the narrator fantasizes about further voyeuristic meanderings on another floor of the department store. When, during lunch, one of the women confesses that their cultural obligation is to “make the women feel envious and men feel cheated,” the reader sees voyeurism’s frustrating disconnections extending to social relations as a whole. Barthelme’s innovative narrative strategy—the subject of the narration is a second-person “you”—is a practice drawn from film. Skillfully manipulating readers into identifying with situations to which most would be unaccustomed, this technique resembles the way an audience unconsciously adopts a motion picture camera’s point of view. Although Barthelme often uses this stylistic maneuver, his particular application of it in...

(The entire section is 1677 words.)