Donald Barthelme, one of the most important American fiction writers of the postwar period, died in July, 1989, at the age of fifty-eight. The author of fifteen books—ten short-story collections, four novels, and an award-winning children’s book—Barthelme was not only one of the masters of the “postmodern” style but arguably one of its originators, who seemed to burst on the scene in the early 1960’s with his talent fully developed. His first published collection of stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964), contains some of his most radical experiments with the collage technique that was to become his trademark. In one story from that collection, “The Viennese Opera Ball,” such traditional and seemingly indispensable fictional elements as character, setting, and plot are completely ignored, and the reader is presented with a mosaic of cliche’s, platitudes, technical jargon, and advertising slogans, along with phrases lifted from such literary classics as Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Barthelme’s early stories—along with John Cage’s music and Andy Warhol’s paintings—heralded the end of the modernist period in the arts. Literary modernism, represented by such authors as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf, perfected a style of writing that avoided the omniscient narration and ornate literary language of the nineteenth century and instead stressed consistency in narrative point of view, psychological character development, and a return to a more natural, unpretentious use of language. “Make it new,” was Ezra Pound’s rallying cry.
By the 1950’s, modernism had established itself as the dominant style, and experimental writers gradually began to turn for inspiration to the very things the modernists shunned: two- dimensional characterization, cliche-ridden dialogue, and pulp- fiction plotting. Instead of trying to “make it new,” postmodernists force readers to contemplate the old.
Although Barthelme is probably best known as a short-story writer, his four novels are remarkable in their own right, and it is in the longer format that his underlying themes are most apparent.
Snow White (1967), Barthelme’s first novel, is a retelling of the familiar fairy-tale standard. The appeal of the frame story for Barthelme is precisely that it is exhausted, overused, devoid of possibility. Even the book’s characters are bored. Snow White laments her fate. “Well it is terrific to be anticipating a prince…but it is still waiting, and waiting as a mode of existence is, as Brack has noted, a darksome mode.” When asked why she remains with the seven dwarfs, she replies, “It must be laid, I suppose, to a failure of the imagination.” The absurdity of Snow White’s fairy-tale existence is heightened by the fact that she is a thoroughly modern woman.
In fact, she took courses in women’s studies in college, along with Theoretical Foundations of Psychology, Personal Resources I and II, and Realism and Idealism in the Contemporary Italian Novel.
Barthelme’s second novel, The Dead Father (1975), examines another exhausted mode of existence. Fatherhood is a role as burdensome as Snow White’s. “I never wanted it, it was thrust upon me,” says the title character. Fatherhood consists of a series of meaningless ritualistic actions, all form and no content. When someone asks the Dead Father what his latest edifying lecture meant, he answers, “[I]t meant I made a speech.”
Halfway through the novel is a book-within-a-book, “A Manual for Sons.” A survival course for children, the manual outlines methods for dealing with the oppressive presence of the father—including patricide. Against the backdrop of Barthelme’s relentless parody of stock phrases and genre- fiction situations, it is impossible to avoid reading The Dead Father as a literary allegory. The larger-than-life father clearly represents the early-modern masters, and the sons are the disfranchised authors of the postmodern era, who must somehow learn to ignore the awesome and daunting accomplishments of their predecessors.
The King, Barthelme’s fourth and final novel, is a restatement and refinement of the themes presented in his earlier work. Like Snow White, The King recycles old, familiar tales, perennial favorites in art and literature. Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (written c. 1469; published 1485) was itself a retelling of stories found in Chretien de Troyes and Geoffrey of Monmouth. In the sixteenth century, Edmund Spenser incorporated Arthurian elements in The Fairie Queene (1590, 1596), and in the seventeenth century John Milton contemplated an Arthurian epic (one of the most important unwritten books in...
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