Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Barthelme identified his primary influence as Samuel Beckett. From the beginning of his career, however, he has been identified as a postmodernist, one who has absorbed the techniques of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce and gone “beyond” them. His writing technique seems to be that of the collage, a form borrowed perhaps from modernist painters. In his use of this form, Barthelme joins literary allusions, attitudes, and clichés, often of a romantic nature, in a sort of upside-down way to modern moral and social problems. His method demonstrates, in an inappropriateness of the fit, how badly such romantic formulae illuminate the modern world.

The King seems to be a mellower version of this constant practice. The merging of a romantic Camelot with the Battle of Britain creates a strange, inappropriate world. The romantic clichés seem inadequate, and the more modern situation seems banal and not to the point.

The tone of the novel is less harsh than in many of Barthelme’s earlier stories; the author seems to be saying that this is certainly not the way to run the world, but that he cannot think of another way. Such a tone is perhaps more in tune with more optimistic postmoderns such as Frederick Turner. There is, for example, a sense of affirmation in Guinevere’s assertion that queens are myth-makers, and Arthur almost accepts the fact that a mythic structure shapes his life.

The novel’s impact has been small. Barthelme’s popularity has never been overwhelming; in fact, he has often been accused of elitism, of appealing only to the well-read and culturally chic. In the wake of his death, his works have been removed from some anthologies in favor of works by such writers as Raymond Carver, James Allen McPherson, and Bobbie Ann Mason. Such a practice indicates that the editors of anthologies, at least, believe Barthelme to have been no more than a minor writer.