Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Paraguay” can be classified as an antistory because it deliberately flouts traditional techniques of fiction. Besides the lack of a conventional plot with events causally related to one another, the point of view remains vague. True, it is told by a first-person narrator who reports on the culture of Paraguay, but his identity, like that of Jean and Herko Mueller, remains unrealized and vague, and his connection to the story he is telling unclear. As in many stories by Barthelme, the characters remain fragmentary and undeveloped persons who fail to engage the emotions of the reader. The creation of such characters in much modern fiction represents a departure from one of the traditional central concerns of fiction—to endow an individual with personal identity, family, a place in society, and a history. Even the conventional sense of setting suffers in the story; Paraguay remains a shadowy and unrealized location. All these characteristics, then, contribute to the unsettling effect that antistories such as “Paraguay” have on many. Not only do they fail to meet a reader’s usual expectations, but also they sometimes are impervious to common sense.

An important aspect of Barthelme’s style, and one that also contributes to the bafflement of readers, is that he is interested in words as words; that is, words may be referential in that they point to some outer reality, but they are still things in themselves to be manipulated for the fun of it. Much of the antic charm of “Paraguay” lies in the arrangement and connections of words: the non sequiturs, the strange juxtapositions, the unexpected choice of words, the odd image, and the wry violation of the rules of plausible discourse.

Coupled with the emphasis on words themselves is the concern with the surface of things. “Paraguay” does not enter very deeply into the essential nature of the place it describes. It relies heavily on bits and pieces, on collages of details and impressions. Furthermore, there is little sense of what parts of the surface are more important than others; everything is treated on the same level of importance, and often the real is blended with the fantastic.

Ultimately, then, “Paraguay” offers little satisfaction to conventional readers, but it does provide a delightfully weird and satiric view of the American scene.