Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrator’s autobiographical revelations bear a strong resemblance to the author’s own life. Like his protagonist, Donald Barthelme was a brilliant student at a Gulf Coast university (the University of Houston) in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, was drafted and served in Korea, returned to civilian life as a writer and editor for his alma mater, and by the early 1960’s had moved to New York, staking his career on his unconventional, radically creative intellect and imagination. Given this sort of clear authorial presence in the story, as well as the quirky incisiveness of the narrator’s commentary, the reader may reasonably enough identify the narrator with the author.

It is probably more accurate to think of the narrator as a persona, or character mask, through which the author speaks (and thus the “you” to whom the narrative is addressed is also the reader in addition to some hypothetical listener within the story). The effect of montage, or overlapped planes of meaning, is central to Barthelme’s method and outlook. Nothing is ever quite literally itself in a Barthelme story, because, for the author, fact and illusion, appearance and reality are not absolute, mutually exclusive categories. Truth, if it can be known at all, must be approached obliquely through satire, irony, and ambiguity. Thus, the author leads the reader, like Alice through the looking glass, into a strange world of wacky events and imaginings, non sequiturs, and...

(The entire section is 452 words.)