Donald Barthelme has always been one of the most experimental and innovative writers in the New Yorker stable. Yet, as such, he operates within the mainstream of modern American fiction, and New Yorker fiction in particular. What characterizes American fiction since World War I has been an obsession with experimentation, with the basic task of defining and redefining over and over, with each successive attempt, the nature of fiction—the nature of narrative, of the novel, and of the short story. The distinctive New Yorker contribution to this long-running experiment has been an obsession with style, with the nature of what language artfully arrayed can achieve when put to the service of narrative expression. Especially in the seven dialogues in Great Days, Barthelme has dispensed with all the trappings of narrative—setting, description, plot, action, characterization—and instead has left himself only dialogue to work with. This radical jettisoning offers him the chance to explore, in all its purity, one sort of language, while raising questions about the nature of fiction and the limits of language for expressing that fiction.
The reader looks, in Barthelme’s dialogues, for the kinds of indirect transmission of information that would make possible constructing the dramatic context of these interchanges. There are clues—a street reference here, an allusion to action outside the dialogue there—but they are so brief and so much a part of the private worlds of reference known to the conversants but hidden from the reader that they frustrate rather than inform. Instead, one is finally drawn to the language of the dialogues themselves, to the allusive juxtapositions of sound and image, the ironic turns of phrase and shifts in subject. It is as though these conversations, always, seemingly, between two persons, are overheard by the reader who can neither see the conversants nor their surroundings. When all external references are lacking, all one has left is the words themselves. To borrow a term from the visual arts, we might say that Barthelme has created a verbal experiment in minimalism, to see how little is necessary to make a story.
What we are given, therefore, consists mainly of fragments—of speeches, of ideas, of images—and of the interplay of those fragments as they are arranged on the page and experienced sequentially by the reader. Since one overhears conversations all...
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