Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Barthelme tells his story in the present tense, a technique that was relatively common by the time of the story’s publication in 1982. The effect is to negate the ordinary sense of a story as history unfolding in time; instead, it is all very flat and immediate, like a cubist painting. There is no attempt, that is, to provide any sense of historical perspective, of Edward’s past bearing down on and shaping his present. The story says: This is what life is for Edward today; then today vanishes, leaving only the faintest trace.

The use of the second-person point of view is much rarer, and the effect is problematic. First-person narration invites the reader’s identification with the narrator; second demands it. This is not simply Edward’s life, the persistent “you” seems to say, but yours, the reader’s. The danger is obvious, and explains why “you” is hardly ever used in this way in fiction. Most readers will resist, deny emphatically that their lives and Edward’s have anything significant in common.

Just as significant as the details Barthelme provides are those he omits. He never mentions Edward’s last name, the city in which he lives, the work he does, anything about his past except the “thing” with Carmen, his age, what he looks like, or what he may be thinking. Edward is Everyman living anywhere; in this world, all that matters is surfaces. Thus, the reader sees “Eileen’s stiff hair, like a giant black meringue, ris[ing] over the top of the fence” and gets a detailed catalog of the items that Edward looks at in the K & B Pharmacy. Barthelme describes the interiors of apartments but not of people. The inner lives of his characters are only hinted at—and that hint suggests that there is little within them that is worth mentioning.