Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) was one of a handful of postwar American writers to create a genuinely original style, as distinctive as Franz Kafka’s, and like Kafka’s too in that, once invented, it seemed to have been called into being by a realm of experience which it alone could name. Barthelme’s short stories--his trademark pieces--are parodies with other elements mixed in, surreal collages. These effects generally do not work when extended over the length of a novel, a maxim confirmed by Barthelme’s own three novels prior to THE KING. That is why most parodies are quite short.
THE KING, however, is something else again. Set in Great Britain during World War II, this short novel takes off from Sir Thomas Malory’s LE MORTE D’ARTHUR. Arthur, Mordred, Guinevere, Lancelot, and the other Knights of the Round Table are the principal characters, with Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler in the background.
On the face of it, THE KING does not sound promising, but from this strange mixture Barthelme fashioned a brilliant book. The wildly anachronistic narrative and the bizarre, deadpan dialogue are consistently funny; at the same time there is pathos in the juxtaposition of chivalric daring-do with the modern technology of destruction. Barthelme’s overt ideological commitments may be all too predictable--one butt of his satire, for example, is the disagreeable itinerant preacher Walter the Penniless, a proto-fundamentalist--but this...
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