Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Barthelme prefers a mixed mode to pure comedy or tragedy, admitting that he thereby sacrifices the opportunity to move his readers’ emotions. He keeps his readers intelligently alert by shifting from level to level of diction, by finding colloquialisms and clichés to which an odd twist or application can be given, and by including unexpected topics and concerns. In a brief speculation about lightning, for example, Connors thinks: “Lightning at once a coup de theatre and career counseling?” Here the comic juxtaposition of two very different interpretations is reinforced by the dramatic and sociological jargon. When Edwina generalizes from her marriage to a white man, one reads, “She had nothing against white folks, Edwina said with a warm smile, or rabbits, as black folks sometimes termed them, but you had to admit that, qua folks, they sucked.” The sentence is a comic hash of mixed terms where “white folks” and “warm smile” suggest geniality that is cooled by the amusingly denigrating term “rabbits,” is then altered completely by the mixture of a bookish Latin word and the colloquial in “qua folks” (which sounds silly), and is brought to a sharp ending with an insulting slang verb. (The thrice-repeated “folks” is a reminder that Connors is writing for the magazine Folks.)

The most obvious comic device is the story itself. This odd exploration of an odd subject, being hit by lightning, is a typical Barthelme literalization of a common notion. As his story “Falling Dog” acts out the common phrase “struck by a new idea,” so “Lightning” develops the common image of a life-changing event as “like being struck by lightning.”

Because Barthelme likes to surround any positive idea with ironic alternatives and doubts, several of the characters struck by lightning experience negative or less than profound results—adherence to Nazi ideas, ability to speak French, the end of a tiring job. On the other hand, two of them achieve serenity and happiness. However, the central experience of being “struck by lightning” is that of Connors, and it takes place when he meets and falls in love with Edwina. For her, the results of an actual bolt of lightning were ambivalent (“yes and no”), and the story ends so quickly that one is left to wonder which of these terms will apply to Connors’s new love—perhaps both.