Donald Barthelme was one of a number of experimentalists writing in the 1960s, and he was heavily influenced by earlier experimental writers, from the eighteenth-century novelist Laurence Sterne to James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges in the twentieth century. Barthelme and such writers as John Barth, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, and Tom Wolfe played with fictional forms, language, representation, and established literary norms. Their work was given a variety of labels—black humor, metafiction, surfiction, superfiction, irrealism—that attempted to describe the ways that the authors used language. "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning," a story in Barthelme's 1968 collection of short fictions Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, consists of twenty-four scenes, or vignettes, that concern Robert Kennedy, a then-powerful political figure. These vignettes are less ' 'story-like'' than they are like the work of Karsh of Ottawa, a famous portrait photographer, who explains in the story's ninth scene that in each portrait sitting there is only one shot that is "the right one." What Barthelme appears to offer, therefore, are a series of disconnected portraits. Indeed, throughout his career, Barthelme was deeply concerned with the fragmentary nature of everyday living, and the extent to which it consisted of so much "dreck" (garbage). Early reviews of his work were mixed. Critics who were searching for grand themes and who were used to more linear, plot-centered works had a difficult time understanding the seemingly fragmentary and often mundane representations that characterized so much of Barthelme' s work. Later critics have found his work to be highly representative of ordinary living in the late twentieth century, so much so that he has even been called a realist, despite the oddities and strange constructions he presents throughout his work.
The story consists of twenty-four vignettes, or short scenes. What the reader learns about Kennedy is filtered through what the narrator and Kennedy's acquaintances say about the man, as well as what Kennedy says about himself and about his views on the world. The story opens with a description, given by the narrator, of Kennedy at work. The description sets the tone for the rest of the story: these scenes will be brief and will often present contradictory ideas. K., as Kennedy is referred to throughout, is neither abrupt nor kind, or he is abrupt and kind, says the narrator. He uses the telephone both to dominate and to comfort those at the other end.
There is no plot in the traditional sense of the concept. The vignettes are not arranged by a sequence of events that build to a climax and resolve themselves in the falling action. Instead, the vignettes are arranged much as collages are. Therefore, some of their import depends upon what scenes are next to each other. For example, in one scene readers find one of Kennedy's friends speaking about Kennedy's solitary nature and how difficult he is to get to know. The next scene offers Kennedy's own commentary on his relationships with crowds of people. Often, like the narrator's comments in the opening scene, these juxtapositions offer contradictory views of the man.
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