Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432
Donald Barthelme is best known for his short fiction. Unlike traditional stories that concentrate on creating characters in a fictive world with which the reader can readily identify, Barthelme creates language objects that are self-conscious of themselves as language. Barthelme’s stories are full of parody, irony, and an infectious playfulness. The critic Wayne Stengel groups Barthelme’s stories into four major categories: identity stories, such as “Me and Miss Mandible,” communication stories, such as “On the Steps of the Conservatory,” society stories, such as “Report,” and art objects such as “At the Tolstoy Museum.” Another critic, Charles Molesworth, places Barthelme’s stories into five different categories: total incoherency, such as “Bone Bubbles,” the surreal place, such as “Paraguay,” the counterpointed plot, such as “Daumier,” the extended conceit, such as “Sentence,” and parodies of narrative structure, such as “The Glass Mountain.”
Barthelme’s early collections introduce the reader to the basic collage technique that becomes the mainstay of his fiction construction. He refines his strategies in his later collections, but he never abandons them. Guilty Pleasures and his posthumous The Teachings of Don B. contain pieces that come as close as Barthleme ever gets to traditional parody and satire. Barthelme’s playful, sophisticated technique attempts to reinvent fiction as a relevant art form. He starts with the assumption that contemporary life is made up of a flood of received ideas that come in the form of clichéd images and texts. The writer must take these ideas out of their original contexts and put them back together in innovative, usually ironic, ways so the reader can consider them anew.
“Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” for example, shows how the personality of a famous man is created by what is said about him. This identity contrasts sharply to the real man himself. The abundance of information about “K” only clutters the reader’s attempt to get at the real character, thus “K” becomes form without substance. A similar problem arises for the son in “Views of My Father Weeping.”
Barthelme also likes to bring to the foreground the manner in which fiction is created. By doing this, he forces readers to reevaluate their relationship to the ideas contained in the language and not innocently accept them as reality or truth. For example, “The Glass Mountain,” a story built out of numbered sentences, allows the reader to see the fairy tale as a constructed thing that may or may not be relevant to the reader’s life. The parody delivered in the structure leads the reader to reexamine the ideas inherent in the story.
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