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Donald Barthelme 1931-1989

(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Lily McNeil) American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and children's author.

The following entry provides an overview of Barthelme's short fiction works. For additional information on his short fiction career, see SSC, Volume 2.

A preeminent writer of experimental fiction, Barthelme...

(The entire section contains 118839 words.)

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Donald Barthelme 1931-1989

(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Lily McNeil) American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and children's author.

The following entry provides an overview of Barthelme's short fiction works. For additional information on his short fiction career, see SSC, Volume 2.

A preeminent writer of experimental fiction, Barthelme created stories that are both humorous and unsettling by juxtaposing incongruous elements of contemporary language and culture. He typically structured a piece of short fiction in the form of a verbal collage by assembling disparate fragments of information, conversation, narrative, and wordplay and by detailing contemporary settings in which objects and abstract ideas proliferate and threaten to overwhelm his characters. Barthelme's writing is characterized by the absence of plot and character development, disjointed syntax and dialogue, parodies of technical, mass media, and intellectual jargon and clichés. His work contains allusions to philosophy, psychology, and various forms of art and popular culture. Barthelme entertained such themes as the ability of language to accurately convey thought and emotion, the function of art and the role of the artist in society, the complications of sexuality, the frailty and transience of human relationships, and the fragmentary nature of reality.

Biographical Information

Barthelme was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and raised in Houston, Texas, where his father became established as an innovative architect. While sharing his father's respect for visual art and architecture, Barthelme developed a strong interest in literature. After serving as editor for a literary journal published by the University of Texas and as a journalist and a museum director, Barthelme traveled to New York City in the early 1960s and edited Locations, a short-lived arts and literary journal. His first stories were published in literary periodicals during the early 1960s. A prolific writer, several of his stories appeared in the New Yorker. In his later years, he divided his time between New York City and a teaching position in the creative writing program at the University of Houston. He died of cancer in 1989.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Believing that traditional forms and structures of art and literature are inadequate for addressing the peculiar needs and concerns of the modern world, Barthelme endeavored to promote new and inventive approaches. Rather than creating traditional, linear fictional forms that provide commentary on life by conveying meaning and values that readers expect and are prepared to find, Barthelme viewed each of his stories as an individual object. In his early stories, many of which originally appeared in the New Yorker and were subsequently collected in the books Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964) and Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), Barthelme blended parodies of such media as advertising, comic books, and television shows with puns, non sequiturs, and disjointed dialogue and narrative. The publication of City Life (1970) solidified Barthelme's reputation as a major figure in contemporary literature. The stories in this collection exhibit such characteristic Barthelme devices as black humor, deadpan narrative tones, and experiments with syntax, punctuation, illustrations, and typography. In several stories Barthelme explored themes relating to art, including the positive and negative effects of irony, anxieties faced by artists who find traditional artistic approaches to life to be outmoded, and individuals whose search for meaning is complicated by a superabundance of objects, ideas, and random and incomprehensible events. Irony, anxiety, and sorrow are important motifs in the stories collected in Sadness (1972). The stories collected in Great Days (1979) and Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983) feature several new elements along with Barthelme's various characteristic techniques and concerns. For instance, Overnight to Many Distant Cities is composed of stories juxtaposed with brief, dreamlike monologues. While some critics have faulted this collection for Barthelme's idiosyncratic use of literary devices, others note the presence of hope in many of the pieces as well as an uncharacteristic willingness by Barthelme to confront and reflect emotions. Sixty Stories (1981) and Forty Stories (1987) collect pieces from all phases of Barthelme's career.

Critical Reception

The unconventional nature of Barthelme's work has provoked extensive critical debate. His detractors perceive in his work a destructive impulse to subvert language and culture and an emphasis on despair and irrationalism. These critics claim that he offers no remedies for the ills of contemporary life that he documents and that he refuses to convey order, firm values, and meaning. On the other hand, Barthelme enjoys widespread critical acclaim and is particularly praised as a stylist who offers vital and regenerative qualities to literature. There have been several commentators who have noted parallels between Barthelme's stories and those of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. They assert that like Kafka, Barthelme presents a surreal, irrational world in which the anxieties of his characters are amplified, and that he experiments with form like Borges to create fantastic and ironic scenarios that blur distinctions between the real and the imaginary. Some critics regard Barthelme as an insightful satirist who exposes pretentious ideas that purport to answer life's mysteries.

Principal Works

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Come Back, Dr. Caligari 1964

Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts 1968

City Life 1970

Sadness 1972

Amateurs 1976

Great Days 1979

Sixty Stories 1981

Overnight to Many Distant Cities 1983

Forty Stories 1987

The Teachings of Don B.: The Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme 1992

Snow White (novel) 1967

The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or, The Hithering, Thithering Djinn (children's book) 1971

Guilty Pleasures (satirical essays) 1974

The Dead Father (novel) 1975

Paradise (novel) 1986

Sam's Bar (novel) 1987

The King (novel) 1990

Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme (essays) 1997

Morris Dickstein (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: Dickstein, Morris. “Fiction at the Crossroads.” In Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, edited by Richard F. Patteson, pp. 59-69. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1977, Dickstein regards Barthelme's City Life as the apotheosis of fictional experimentation and ingenuity and compares it to other innovative fictional works of the late 1960s.]

When two publishers in 1962 brought out overlapping collections of the work of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges it was an important event for American readers, but few could have anticipated the impact it would have on our fiction. His work hardly fit into any traditional niche. The short story, even in the hands of Chekhov and Joyce, had always been the most conservative of all literary genres, the most tied to nineteenth-century conventions of incident and character, the least given to formal or technical innovation. Borges' stories hardly seemed to be stories at all; some of the best masqueraded as essays, laborious researches about nonexistent countries, ingenious commentaries on nonexistent books, mingled fantastically with the most out-of-the-way knowledge of real countries and real books. Where the traditional story took for granted the difference between the solid world out there and the imaginary world that tried to imitate it, Borges willfully confounded them. His stories were “fictions,” original creations, less reflections than subversive interrogations of reality. They were also “labyrinths” which, like Kafka's writing, dressed out their mystery in a guise of earnest lucidity and matter-of-factness.

Today there is not much life in the old kind of story, though some good ones and many bad ones continue to be written. This sort of well-crafted object, which used to be the staple of dozens of now-defunct magazines, became so moribund in the sixties that it will now probably experience a mild resurgence, since changes in culture often proceed like swings of the pendulum. But the publication in 1975 of anthologies like Superfiction by Joe David Bellamy and Statements by members of the Fiction Collective confirms that our younger and more talented fiction writers have by no means abandoned the experimental impulse, though it may sometimes take them in wayward and even fruitless directions. Like so much of what emerged from the sixties, fiction today is a lesson in the uses of liberation. Whatever the results (and I intend to stress their current limitations), they remain inherently superior to a return to the old stringent molds, which conservative pundits are always ready to reimpose.

The progress of American fiction in the 1960s conjoined two different but related insurgencies against the constraints of traditional form, and against the cautious realism and psychological inwardness that had been dominant since the second world war. The first rebellion gave rise to big, eclectic books like John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, Heller's Catch-22, and Pynchon's V., as well as ribald free-form tirades like Mailer's Why Are We In Vietnam? and Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. In all these books the grand raw materials of history, politics, literary tradition, and personal identity were transposed into fantasy, black or obscene humor, and apocalyptic personal expression. …

These writers did not so much cease to be realists as seek grotesque or hilarious (but accurate) equivalents for realities that were themselves fantastic. Catch-22 not only did not lie about war, it scarcely even exaggerated. Portnoy is not fair to his mother but he is true to her, even as he caricatures and mythicizes her. These writers took advantage of the decline of censorship and of the constricting demands of formal neatness and realistic verisimilitude to broaden the range of fictional possibility, to discover new literary ancestors—Céline, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Genet—and to claim their legacy.

In the last three years of the sixties, however, culminating in the publication of Donald Barthelme's City Life (1970), but to some extent continuing right to the present day, a second insurgency came to the fore. Between 1967 and 1970 American fiction, following its Latin American counterpart, entered a new and more unexpected phase, which was also a more deliberately experimental one. For convenience we can call this the Borgesian phase, though Borges has not been the only model for the short, sometimes dazzlingly short, and multi-layered fiction that is involved. (Interestingly, Borges' example served to release the influence of others, including his own master, Kafka, and even such different writers as Beckett and Robbe-Grillet.)

In just these three years there were many significant collections of this new short fiction, including Barthelme's Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (the mock melodrama of the title is typical of him), Barth's Lost in the Funhouse (Barth's funhouse is the original American equivalent of Borges' labyrinth), William H. Gass's In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Robert Coover's Pricksongs & Descants (subtitled “Fictions”), plus many of the impacted, truncated melodramas in Leonard Michaels' Going Places and some of the stories in Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House (his novels were even more to the point). But the last of them, Barthelme's City Life, was more audacious and more successful than any of the other volumes, a book that went beyond experimental ingenuity to find new ways of connecting fiction with feeling. I'd like to use it as my positive pole in examining the uses of liberation in fiction, and I'll play it off against a larger number of other works, including some by Barthelme, which (to my mind) take experiment and liberation down less rewarding paths.

The collections I've listed all had a great deal in common, yet no two are alike. All tended to eliminate (or use ironically) the realistic matrix in which most works of fiction are embedded—the life-like quality that gives them credibility and coherence, the thematic explicitness that gives them the gratifying feel of significance. “We like books,” Barthelme once wrote, “that have a lot of dreck in them, matter which presents itself as not wholly relevant (or indeed, at all relevant) but which, carefully attended to, can supply a kind of ‘sense’ of what is going on.”1 But these writers sometimes pay a heavy price for excising or satirizing this dross, which is rarely dross in good fiction anyway. They fall into inaccessibility, abstraction, or mere cleverness, substituting the dreck of literary self-consciousness for that of popular realism.

Coover and Barth, for example, seem overwhelmed by their own freedom, by the writer's power to invent a scene, a character, a world, to choose which word and which sentence he will set down next. Take Coover's maniacally brilliant and finally oppressive story “The Babysitter” (in Pricksongs & Descants), an elaborate set of variations on a few deliberately banal and melodramatic characters and plot possibilities, all merging into one another, all going off at once—a fiction-making machine run amok with its own powers, threatening to blow up in our faces, or blow our minds.

Several of Barth's stories in Lost in the Funhouse do comparable things in a more playful and self-ironical way. The title piece, for example, interweaves a sharp-minded yet pedantic commentary on fictional technique between the lines of a story that can't quite get itself written. In “Title” and “Life-Story,” Barth can already subject this very manner of formal self-consciousness to a weary and ambivalent parody, which in turn gives the stories another layer of the same self-consciousness they criticize. Barth's fictions make the case against themselves neatly: “Another story about writing a story! Another regressus in infinitum! Who doesn't prefer art that at least overtly imitates something other than its own processes? That doesn't continually proclaim ‘Don't forget I'm an artifice!’?”2 At times the formalism and literary preciosity that were routed from the novel during the sixties seem to have returned with a vengeance in the new short fiction.

Self-consciousness has always been a key element in modern art, however, and in fiction (as Robert Alter has demonstrated anew in Partial Magic) it has a long ancestry that goes back beyond modernism to Diderot, Sterne, and Cervantes, a tradition that sometimes makes nineteenth-century realism look like a mere episode. (Fortunately we also have Erich Auerbach's book Mimesis to demonstrate the long and complex history of the realist method.) E. M. Forster once said that it's intrinsic to the artist to experiment with his medium, but in the twentieth century we've often seen how the spiral of self-consciousness can reach a point of diminishing returns. This happens when artists mimic other artists without fully appropriating them, or when they make their concerns as artists their exclusive subject. We need to hold fast to the distinction, often hard to apply, between experiment for its own sake, out of touch with any lived reality, and experiments that create genuinely new ways of seeing. The fiction of the sixties shows how the once-subversive gestures of modernism can themselves become tiresome conventions (as Barth suggests but can't seem to evade); but it also indicates, quite to the contrary, that only now that the towering first generation of modernists has been safely interred in literary history have our young writers been willing to resume the risks of the modernist program, which is nothing if not experimental and avant-garde.

I'd like to examine Barthelme's achievement in City Life and elsewhere to show what experimental writing has only recently been able to do without becoming self-indulgent or imitative. … Barthelme's earlier books, which were as intransigently original as City Life, were mostly notable for what they did not do, for the kinds of coherence they refused to supply, for their discontinuities and even incongruities, which mixed abstract ideas with pop allusions, political figures with fairy-tale characters, pedantically precise facts with wild generalities and exaggerations, and so on. They aimed to cut the reader off, to keep him guessing and thinking, to make him angry. His novel Snow White (1967) was a book that adamantly refused to go anywhere at all. Without benefit of plot, characters, or even much of the sober-zany humor of the stories in his first book, Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964), the novel mainly limited itself to fragmentary take-offs on a huge variety of rhetorical styles and verbal trash. It was a minor-league version of what Ezra Pound saw in Ulysses, a species of encyclopedic satire; the book was all language, and at least on first acquaintance it seemed certain that the language was just not good enough to carry it.

Subsequent readings of Snow White have given me much more pleasure; though the book doesn't work as a whole, it has grown with time. It's still too detached, too satirical and fragmentary, but the author's really dry and wicked wit has worn surprisingly well. But it's finally too much of a book about itself and crippled by the absence of a subject. Its detachment is deliberate, but it leaves a void that language and satire can't entirely fill. By the book's whimsical discontinuities, by a certain deadpan mechanical quality, by a whole range of Brechtian alienation devices, Barthelme was deliberately blocking the debased and facile kinds of identification that we readers make in traditional fiction, yet he found little to substitute. … Taking a cue, I suspect, from Godard's films, Barthelme eliminated most of the dross of primitive storytelling so that the dreck of contemporary culture could more devastatingly display itself. He tried to remain, as he said, “on the leading edge of this trash phenomenon,”3 but the project was too plainly negative, and despite his wit he nearly foundered in the swill.

In his next book, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, Barthelme still proclaimed that “fragments are the only forms I trust,” but the fragments began insidiously to cohere, into point fables like “The Balloon” and “The Police Band,” into surreal and indirect political commentary, such as “The President” and “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning.” Like Vonnegut and Pynchon, whom he somewhat resembles—indeed, like Dickens and Kafka—Barthelme discovered that fantasy and caricature could serve maliciously to heighten reality as well to block it out, that fiction could, by symbolism and indirection, recover the world that it had long since abandoned to the journalists and historians.

“The President” is part Swift, part Kafka, part surrealist playlet; its hero is “only forty-eight inches high at the shoulder,” a graduate of City College, a “tiny, strange, and brilliant man.”4 He is like no president we've ever had, but his spooky presence tells us something about all of them. (In a similar way, when Pynchon and Vonnegut take on the Southern California scene, or the Eichmann case, or the Dresden bombings, they refract these topical subjects through a very personal imaginative medium, but without losing touch.)

In the Kennedy story Barthelme tried neither to explain Kennedy nor to give a credible portrait of him, but rather to thicken him into an enigma—he is called K. throughout—to find symbolic equivalents for his image, and for our fascination. Authentic facts—how he frequently changed shirts each day—mingle with astonishing inventions, such as Kennedy's capable discourse as [to] the literary criticism of Georges Poulet. The result is neither “about” Kennedy nor an exercise in Barthelme's technique, but a weird mélange of the two. The example of Borges may have made such an interrogation of reality possible, but Barthelme's handling of it is wholly original.

In City Life Barthelme for better or worse abjured topical occasions for literary and personal ones. The public immediacies of politics and war give way to Borgesian meditation on books, writers, and ideas. Barthelme was exploring his loyalties as an artist, and even his stylistic virtuosity, though toned down, served him well. There were a few stretches of mere verbal display or experiment for experiment's sake (an unreadable piece of Joycean gobbledygook called “Bone Bubbles” was the main offender).

Most of the stories move in an entirely different direction. At a time when some of Barthelme's contemporaries were trying hard to leave personal experience behind in hot pursuit of technical innovation, the pleasure of City Life came from seeing Barthelme break through to new areas of feeling with no loss of rhetorical verve. Without falling back to direct emotional statement or personal psychology, he learned to write fables whose ironies, far from blocking our emotions, make more complex demands upon them.

“Views of My Father Weeping” at once mimics a style of personal narrative, pays tribute to a whole body of literature in which such narrative abounds—it's written in the style of 1910 translations from the Russian—and interweaves two strands of action more successfully than Barthelme had ever done before. The speaker's father has been run down and killed by an aristocrat, but it is his father whom he repeatedly sees weeping: these alternating actions create between them a field of significance, an atmosphere rich in implicit emotion, while the author himself remains cool, detached, tantalizingly elusive. (The story concludes, staggeringly, on the word “etc.,” as if to say, you've heard all this before, fill in the blanks. The text of Snow White included an actual questionnaire addressed to the reader.)

Following Borges (and Cervantes, for that matter), Barthelme discovered anew how crucially books mediate our access to our deepest experience, and he brings to his “discussions” of literature his own large reserves of fervor and ambiguity. Few passages in the book are more vivid than the retelling of a Tolstoy story in “At the Tolstoy Museum” or the paraphrase of Kierkegaard's theory of irony in “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel.” In each story the narrator, who may or may not be Barthelme, feels fascinated and alarmed by the strange, imposing figure he is confronting, by the book he is bringing to life. Tolstoy's story, he says, “is written in a very simple style. It is said to originate in a folk tale. There is a version of it in St. Augustine. I was incredibly depressed by reading this story. Its beauty. Distance.”5

Most of Barthelme's story, however, is not about Tolstoy's work but about a museum full of huge pictures, clothing, and other supposed effects of Tolstoy—the book provides large illustrations of them—all of which are the absurdly displaced objects of the speaker's ambivalence toward Tolstoy, his nostalgia for Tolstoy's kind of writing. (The story begins with an echo of Psalm 137, a poem of exile and loss.) Tolstoy is after all the greatest of the realists, and his work is the immense anti-type to Barthelme's own mode of fantasy and irony. Yet the story that Barthelme chooses to retell, “The Three Holy Men,” is a small religious parable about three hermits and the strange but authentic way that they too pray. Moreover, his account of its atmosphere is eerily exact: “Its beauty. Distance.”6 Though most realistic in detail, the parable as a whole is cool in tone, integral, moving but untouchable—in short, very much like Barthelme's own tone. Tolstoy and Barthelme, opposites, rearrange themselves, and our conventional expectations are disoriented. Traditional parable and contemporary fable meet, as if to arrange a joint subversion of realism in the cause of reality.

One could give a comparable account of the Kierkegaard story, which raises different issues, or of “The Phantom of the Opera's Friend,” which, besides being wonderfully funny, further develops Barthelme's rich involvement with melodrama, conventional realism, and kitsch, his longing, like Barth's, to be a more traditional kind of writer. (The book's illustrations, half absurdly old-fashioned, half surreal, betray the same secret wish.)

Should the Phantom of the Opera leave his sumptuous underground quarters to take up a respectable life in the “real” world? Will the “hot meat of romance” be “cooled by the dull gravy of common sense”? Does the narrator deserve a more conventional friend, from the world of Henry James perhaps, “with whom one could be seen abroad. With whom one could exchange country weekends, on our respective estates!”?7 Will the angels in “On Angels” recover from the death of God and find new employment to replace their lapsed duties of adoration? Tuning in next week will not answer any of these questions, but Barthelme raises them in a way that gives a new wrinkle to the possible uses of pop material for serious purposes in fiction (mingled, in his case, with flotsam and jetsam of the most arcane intellectuality). Along with so many other of our new writers, Barthelme relegates the cultural hierarchies of the fifties to a memory. Learning to appreciate his best stories, we also learn to read in a new way, savoring them for their mock-serious humor, their imaginative weight, and their profound urbanity.

I've hardly done justice to the great variousness of City Life, or to the design of the book, which beautifully complements its substance. One story that must be mentioned is “Brain Damage,” which has no story at all but is a superb justification of Barthelme's fragmentary and surrealist method—he brings to mind the painter Magritte as much as he does any writer. It is one of the best pieces of non-sequential fictional prose I've ever read, a series of brilliant but unrelated narrative fragments—Barthelme could have been a fine conventional novelist—that finally cohere around the single inspired metaphor of the title.

The quality and character of Barthelme's work in the late sixties, and its frequent appearance in a glossy, above-ground periodical like The New Yorker, helped experimental fiction come of age in this country and released a flood that has continued to swell, though aside from Gravity's Rainbow it has yet to roar. In this, his best book, there's very little about city life but much that adds to our imaginative life and the life of our feelings. … Snow White and a later collection called Sadness have shown that Barthelme is not always strong in this way. More than fiction must have been involved when a character in Snow White made the following speech: “After a life rich in emotional defeats, I have looked around for other modes of misery, other roads to destruction. Now I limit myself to listening to what people say, and thinking what pamby it is, what they say. My nourishment is refined from the ongoing circus of the mind in motion. Give me the odd linguistic trip, stutter and fall, and I will be content.”8

Barthelme comes out of all his books as a complex and enigmatic person, one who has seen many things, but Snow White was a book of personal withdrawal, dour satire, “the odd linguistic trip.” I hope I've been able to indicate how City Life, with its new risks and new emotional defeats, represents a quite different sort of fictional victory.

The relative failure of Chimera9 underlines the limitations of nostalgia as a solution to the dilemmas of experimental fiction. Nostalgia really does take the writer backward rather than forward. Traditional stories, however conscious they may make us of the writer's “creative contradictions,” in themselves provide no instrument of creative breakthrough unless the writer experiences them in a new way. Barthelme's Snow White, though circumscribed by its linguistic and satirical rigor, was a much more successful book, for in its purity of intention it breaks more drastically with its traditional source. Where Barth's style is mock-dainty, or chatty and low, a lesson in the art of sinking in fiction, Barthelme's language is a model of planned incongruity. Like some of the New York poets, whose playfully surreal styles have similar roots, Barthelme has a background in the visual arts; he edited art journals, did the design for Fiction magazine, and illustrated many of his own stories, including a children's book. All his books are attractive objects, informed by an easy elegance and urbanity, and his fictional method is similar to his visual one. Barthelme the designer is principally a collector, who does bizarre collages of nineteenth-century engravings, the effect of which is neither wholly satiric, antiquarian, nor camp, but poised in a vacant eerie zone between nostalgia and irony, mad and mod. Barthelme the writer is also a connoisseur of other people's styles, not so much literary as sub-literary ones—the punishment corner of language, where curious things happen—from Victorian kitsch to modern pop, from professional jargon and journalistic formula to the capacious regions of contemporary cliché. His puckish feeling for other people's oddities of style is what makes Guilty Pleasures, his 1974 collection of fables and parodies, such an engaging book. The trash of inert language is his meat and drink. Snow White is a book about language, a collage of styles bleached and truncated into one pure and rigorous style of its own. Its fairy-tale subject is a hollow sham, the eye of a word-storm, the common theme of an anthology of ways of not saying anything. Its purity of purpose is cold and bracing: a good book for writers to read, like a verbal purge; or like ordinary-language philosophy, always sharpening the tools. But the book suits the theory of the new fiction a little too well: its surface is rarely ruffled, let alone subverted, by any actuality.

Snow White is an extreme case. Dominated by an austere, bookish wit and a negative appetite for verbal trash, it is a work of severe ironic distance. The perfection of Barthelme's method, now so widely and ineptly imitated, comes in half a dozen stories of Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts and nearly everything in its successor, City Life, still the most brilliant collection of experimental fiction these last years have produced. In stories like “Brain Damage,” “At the Tolstoy Museum,” and “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” as I tried to show earlier, the cool mode heats up electrically, and experimental writing proceeds from critique to creation. Where Snow White is a clearing of the ground, these stories construct a new fictional reality. They show what even Snow White made clear; that Barthelme is no mere collector, but a writer who juxtaposes strange forms and fragments in a way that creates new form and releases new meanings. Where Snow White is mainly an ironic book, City Life is also an impassioned one. Snow White is more sophisticated and condescending but it is experientially vacuous; City Life gives free play to that other side of Barthelme's temperament, the melancholy nostalgia for traditional art and old-fashioned feelings, unlike Barth's a nostalgia that animates rather than inhibits him. The longing is hopeless of course—he can't try to be Tolstoy. But he can plumb his ambivalence and make that contribute to the enigma, adding thick shadows to his subject. The Barthian writer escapes from personality; though he babbles about himself incessantly he discovers very little and achieve no deep subjectivity; his self-consciousness tells him that no art, no imagination, is still possible, and the prophecy is self-fulfilling. The Barthelmian writer is scarcely ever present; he loses himself in the oddest, most unpromising subjects—Kierkegaard, Robert Kennedy, angels, the Phantom of the Opera—but the space between passion and irony is filled with new perceptions and connections, self-discoveries, as in all the best fiction. The art is not confessional but it is hauntingly personal, full of mood and mystery, and the author is arrestingly present. Where writers like Wurlitzer, proclaiming the death of feeling, merely betray their own emotional poverty, Barthelme finds new imaginative life in the heart of the contemporary wasteland, in the land of “brain damage,” where art shacks up with kitsch and tradition lies down with the New. This art of incongruity brings Barthelme's stories closer to the work of the comic-apocalyptic writers of the early sixties, such as Pynchon, Heller, and Vonnegut—who meet reality halfway, and strike a Faustian bargain—than to the verbal austerities of, say, Gass's fiction, or of his own younger admirers.

Unfortunately Barthelme was unable fully to maintain his creative élan in the early seventies, and his difficulties are symptomatic of the problems of experimental writing during this period. Fiction is one of the few areas of our cultural life where the breakthroughs of the sixties have been sustained, if not carried forward. By the fall of 1973 Newsweek could inform its readers that Barthelme had become the greatest influence on our newer writers, but by then it seemed clear that neither the established nor the younger talents had delivered the body of innovative work the late sixties had seemed to promise. Other writers imitated Barthelme's manner rather than his inventive rigor, while he himself fell frequently into shallowness, decadence, and self-imitation. On both sides this resulted not in the kinds of stunning collage and fable that made City Life fresh and important but in an epidemic of easy-to-write pastiche or put-on which would have been at home in a college humor magazine of the 1950s.

It was to the credit of Barthelme's next (but weakest) collection of stories, Sadness (1972), that he became very conscious of the perils of repetition and self-parody. His main sadness is the fear that he's already said what he has to say: “When one has spoken a lot one has already used up all of the ideas one has. You must change the people you are speaking to so that you appear, to yourself, to be still alive.”10

It is difficult to keep the public interested. “The public demands new wonders piled on new wonders. Often we don't know where our next marvel is coming from. The supply of strange ideas is not endless. … The new volcano we have just placed under contract seems very promising. …”11 The realistic writer, who may take his form for granted, in principle need only find another corner of reality to portray, another “subject” for a novel. If he has the energy he can write a Comédie Humaine; this may be why writers like Updike and Joyce Carol Oates are so prolific. But the writer who interrogates and subverts his form at every turn has no such luck. He can run out of new wonders very easily, or stick to a manner that quickly degenerates into mannerisms.

Though it contains a few good stories, Sadness is a sad case in point, for it exposes the underside of all the writer's virtues. It shows who the collage method fails when the fragments remains disjunctive, unillumined. It shows how the fascination with cultural trash can devolve into a taste for trivia, lovingly collected but barely transformed. It exposes the merely campy side of Barthelme's interest in melodrama, kitsch, and old-fashioned iconography, or the snobbish side, in which the artist flaunts his cultural status while slumming and loving it. The book even betrays the limitations of Barthelme's most basic virtue, his purity of language and narrative technique, which cleans up too much—psychology, description, interaction—leaving only plastic figures with curious names, leaving elegant surfaces that mesh too well with The New Yorker's waning cult of style.

Barthelme is at his worst where the realistic writer is best: in describing the relations between men and women. Here he retreats entirely into the satiric and ironic mode of Snow White but without that book's freshness and wit. (I suspect this accounts for some of the difficulties he had in writing a second novel.) Sadness is much too full of the trivial and the inconsequential, the merely decorative or the merely enigmatic. I have no idea why Barthelme regressed in Sadness from the passionate fabulistic manner of his two previous books, except for the reasons he himself suggests, but the lesson for experimental fiction is clear enough. The “cool” mode has its limitations, especially in a period of disengagement and disintegration like our own. When “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” (arguably Barthelme's best story) appeared in book form in the late sixties, an otherwise admiring William Gass dismissed it, no doubt in alarm over its topicality. But the story is both fervently engaged and formally daring. Barthelme needs a great subject, an immediate subject, to draw him at least halfway out of his irony and aesthetic detachment. The feverish immediacy of life in the late sixties, the energy and pressure and swirl, which affected all of us, worked their way into his fiction with a fascinating indirection, just as it ruined some writers who tried to devour it too directly. Without that stimulus, without the pull of social ferment and spiritual possibility, Barthelme's work in Sadness looks the same but feels listless and remote, sketched rather than imagined.12


  1. Donald Barthelme, Snow White (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 106.

  2. John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968), 117.

  3. Barthelme, Snow White, 97.

  4. Donald Barthelme, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968), 147, 150.

  5. Donald Barthelme, City Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 47.

  6. Barthelme, City Life, 47.

  7. Barthelme, City Life, 103.

  8. Barthelme, Snow White, 139.

  9. [Ed. note: In its original form, this section was preceded by a discussion of John Barth.]

  10. Donald Barthelme, Sadness (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972), 61.

  11. Barthelme, Sadness, 139.

  12. The Dead Father (1975), his second novel, is better but not much better. It abandons the satiric language of Snow White for the gusto of Rabelaisian catalogues and word-heaps. Only one segment shows Barthelme at his best: an utterly brilliant but entirely tangential text-within-a-text called “A Manual for Sons,” which once appeared separately in The New Yorker.

Paul Bruss (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8428

SOURCE: Bruss, Paul. “Barthelme's Short Stories: Ironic Suspensions of Text.” In Victims: Textual Strategies in Recent American Fiction, pp. 113-29. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Bruss explores the suspension of self and the roles of narrative style and irony in Barthelme's short fiction.]

One of Barthelme's early short stories contains this quotation, which is Robert Kennedy's comment on Poulet's analysis of Marivaux:

The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant. The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line. The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history. Nothing follows from what has gone before. He is constantly surprised. He cannot predict his own reaction to events. He is constantly being overtaken by events. A condition of breathlessness and dazzlement surrounds him. In consequence he exists in a certain freshness which seems … very desirable.

(UP, 46)

This passage serves nicely as a touchstone for an introduction to Barthelme's short fiction because it addresses, with remarkable fullness, the matter of the timeless present that generally serves as the fundamental boundary for all human activity. It is true that Barthelme's stories frequently focus upon characters who are profoundly conscious of past achievements and/or of future goals, as if time were a continuum within which they can carefully stage their lives. Nevertheless, because these characters also know the terrible difficulty of trying to substantiate themselves, of verifying their perspectives as real, this consciousness of past and future tends to submerge in the overwhelming pressures of facing up to the present. The characters cannot know themselves in any final, absolute way, and for them, therefore, the question of their existence comes down to whether they possess the courage to acknowledge their insufficiency and, even more than that, whether they possess the vigor and freedom of mind to participate in a full dialogue with the present. In the process of “being overtaken by events,” the characters have a wonderful opportunity for observing the nature of their own reactions, to perceive the emergence of a texture that is both unanticipated and imaginative, and thus to explore that mode of Marivaudian being which has become the foundation of so much recent art.

In Barthelme's fiction time ultimately surrenders all authority. To some extent this surrender is already present in Nabokov—at least in the sense that, having freed his narrators to explore the bizarre character of their imaginative being, Nabokov develops a narrative texture that appears to be dominated by the succession of time but that finally only recovers the specific mingling of memory and the imagination in the present. As a result of the tricks of both memory and imagination, Nabokov's narrators always have some difficulty in maintaining strong coherence within their conceptions of themselves, particularly when they unleash their Humberts and Kinbotes, but in the end the dialogue of selves that underlies each Nabokovian text does stabilize in the narrators' increasing understanding of themselves.1 In Barthelme, on the other hand, the narrator generally possesses a more fragile, and sometimes very tenuous, relationship to a conception of self; and thus, always worried about the character of his identity, but at the same time recognizing that the identity will never cohere, he must engage in deliberate acts of suspension that allow him to come into closer contact with that complex world of the present which surrounds him. The narrator, or the character, who manages to avoid full organization “into a line” (where plural instants of time develop some pattern), gains a genuine, albeit limited (because he will never fully understand it), opportunity for freedom, for fresh personality, for spontaneity—for that “condition of breathlessness and dazzlement” which is crucial to retaining life's intensity. Man's deliberate surrender of authority for himself to the processes of being in which he is “overtaken by events” is for Barthelme, then, the key to the overthrow of time's authority and thus of those psychological obstacles which prevent man from remarking and even relishing the strangeness of whatever surrounds him. Quilty and Shade and even Veen manage this surrender only through the contrivances of narrative stance. In Barthelme, however, this surrender is the possession not only of certain obtrusive narrators, but also of all those characters who have avoided lives of content by maintaining full contact with the marvelous texture of the everyday experience that is theirs by birthright but that is so frequently lost in a misguided determination to establish a web of significance for experience.

Poulet's analysis of Marivaudian being serves as a nice touchstone for Barthelme's fiction because it isolates the fundamental consideration that underlies all of Barthelme's techniques. So often readers of Barthelme tend to dismiss him as a master of the parody, as a writer who is particularly adroit at capturing and mocking the absurd character of contemporary experience, but his ability in creating brief yet effusive forays into the quirks of the present is actually better evidence of his awareness of the impossibility of what has gradually become the post-existential position. For the post-existentialist, vision (even if created and sanctioned by the individual) is virtually a contradiction of itself: regardless of what one may accept as a framework of significance and value, the framework exists on quicksand because it can never contain all the perceptions that impinge on any human consciousness. The post-existentialist, therefore, like Barthelme's resourceful characters, cannot expend himself in anxiety over the consistency of his responses to the environment (as did many of the existentialists) but must, instead, freely indulge himself in the marvelous quiddities of the moment. He may not always regard those quiddities with enthusiasm, but at the very least he must accept as the source of his vitality and energy his contact with what in any ultimate sense represents the unknown but what in the immediate present is an opportunity for the unleashing of his being. Like the beings of Marivaux, Barthelme's characters extend themselves in what amounts to a negative space—negative because the space is not dominated by the characters' categories of thought—and thus come into touch with the deeper structures of their experience. That this is the case becomes even more evident if I now turn my attention to several of Barthelme's stories in which he, by employing a question-and-answer methodology, appears to pursue the reverse, i.e., positive (filled) space.

In “The Explanation” the exchanges between Q. (the questioner) and A. (the answerer) seem to be focused upon the desire for a full understanding of life's mysteries. The questioner is from the beginning, however, so overwhelmed by the monumentality of the task that he has great difficulty sticking even to one topic. As he shifts from subject to subject, in fact, from machines to blouses to literary questions to Maoism, the story turns into a rather exciting venture because its lacunae seem to swallow up the questioner's intentions, thus giving the story an unexpected texture in which negative space counts rather heavily. The black square that punctuates the story, apparently at random, probably serves as the best image of this negative space, but in the end all the verbal exchanges in the story (much like the exchanges between Julie and Emma in The Dead Father and the dialogues in Great Days) accomplish nothing and thus themselves rival the importance of the black square. Toward the middle of the story A. at least gives the reader a hint of what is happening when he comments on the advantage of Q.'s Socratic method: “I realize that [the method] permits many valuable omissions: what kind of day it is, what I'm wearing, what I'm thinking. That's a very considerable advantage, I would say” (CL, 73). A.'s comment goes to the heart of the matter, for by allowing the lacunae within and between the bits of conversation to take over the story, Q. has effectively avoided the folly of establishing a model that purports to explain all human experience. Later the shrewd A. seems to figure out what underlies Q.'s method, for during a conversation about madness and purity A. suddenly observes that “the content of right reason is rhetoric.”2 In other words, what A. seems to realize is that any system of understanding is dominated, not by “right reason” or unassailable models of logic, but by the persuasive powers of rhetoric—by the attitudes and assumptions that allow a logic to emerge. In and of itself, of course, rhetoric possesses no sufficient ground. It is merely the means (largely a technique or style) whereby a content is established. In Barthelme's fiction, because there is no category of absolute content, rhetoric—technique and style—lacks its usual function but at the same time becomes all the more important. Near the end of the story Q. rather urbanely points out that “the issues raised here are equivalents. Reasons and conclusions exist although they exist elsewhere, not here” (CL, 78). Reasons and conclusions generally reflect the use of an established, consistent rhetoric, and in the absence of such a rhetoric, as in this story of open-ended juxtaposition of questions and answers, there seems nothing to control the exchanges and thus organize the conversation. The exchanges in such a situation can only represent equivalent moments in time. Despite the lack, however, of a traditional rhetoric, one that supports the conventional acts of communication, this story does achieve its own imaginative, even supralogical, rhetorical character.

In “The Agreement,” a brilliant tour de force, the answers actually disappear. In the story, which is merely a long series of questions, the questions emerge out of the narrator's paranoia concerning his ability to complete the “task” (which is never specified), and they generate a nearly incredible realization of the anxieties latent in his awareness of the fundamental solipsism that attaches to human consciousness. Consider, for instance, the following sequence:

Will I deceive myself about the task that is beyond my abilities, telling myself that I have successfully completed it when I have not?

Will others aid in the deception?

Will others unveil the deception?

(A, 62-63)

This passage clearly addresses the horror of the narrator's inhabiting of a world of hypersensitivity where the personal splitting of hairs has become the modus operandi. Try as he may to establish for himself a stance of some courage and determination, he is always left only with the enervating sense that the assumptions underlying any stance he might choose lack sufficiency. The upshot is that, instead of accepting the limitations that attach to any formulation of experience, he increasingly finds himself the victim of a paranoia that has as its sources both his sense of the “mess” out there and his sense of his own inadequacies before the fundamental dilemmas of contemporary epistemology. As he recites the case, “If I embrace the proposition that, after all, things are not so bad, which is not true, then have I not also embraced a hundred other propositions, kin to the first in that they are also not true? That the Lord is my shepherd, for example?” (A, 64). Clearly this narrator desires the positive space of secure, i.e., rationalized, ground, and in its absence, instead of courageously accepting the challenge of Marivaudian being, he finds himself the victim of such nagging anxiety that finally he approaches the necessity of deliberate self-deception. Paranoid about himself, he even finds that he has no choice but to resort to social activities and associations that can convince him of his self-worth. Such deception will, however, depend heavily on “aid” from others, for given the extremity of his paranoia this narrator now requires the corroborating evidence of others in order to recover his pose of esteem. His is obviously a thoroughly unsatisfactory situation. At the very end of the story he may quote at length—and rather wistfully—the twelfth article of his divorce agreement, an agreement that seemingly spells out in detail the “rights, obligations and causes of action arising out of or under this agreement,” but even that agreement cannot give him the stability and exactitude that he desires. The divorce agreement, in fact, serves only as another illustration of his inability to rise above his paranoia, to surrender to the world of the present.

If in “The Explanation” the avoidance of strict logic and rhetoric makes possible a life of Marivaudian being, “The Agreement” points to the difficulty of achieving a separation from logic and rhetoric that will allow one to suspend oneself in the processes of unfolding experience. The first story exposes an eloquence of being; the second story, the failure to achieve the same. In a third story written in the Socratic method, “The Catechist,” the difficulty of establishing sufficient appreciation of one's “deeper structures” becomes even more clear. In the story the first-person narrator, himself a priest, encounters another priest who, while holding a text on church doctrine, daily catechizes the first priest about his use of alcohol and his relationship with a woman with dark hair. In order to deflect the catechist's concerns, the first priest alludes to the presence of alternative interpretations within any situation—a theme that causes the catechist to refer to his book, where he finally discovers the response, “A disappointing experience: the inadequacy of language to express thought. But let the catechist take courage” (S, 122). Intellectually, prompted by the text on doctrine, the catechist knows the problem of language and thus the corollary inadequacy of any rhetoric that presumes to fill the lacunae within all verbal statements, but there is little sense in the story that this knowledge has profoundly opened him up to experience. Rather, he is still clinging to as much structure as the church can provide. When the first priest proceeds with his “self-defense,” in fact, by professing to know nothing even of the theological virtue of love, the catechist immediately refers to several theologians whose views have established the ground for his own experience of that lofty emotion. Unquestionably the catechist requires a stable world of language and meaning that is no longer available to the first priest. In a certain sense what the first priest provides the catechist is an opportunity to come into contact with the deeper character of human experience—that character which lies beyond definitions wedded to doctrine. The catechist, however, fails to open up.

On the other hand, at least once he has given himself up to emotional realities beyond doctrinal limits, the first priest experiences only a compulsion to write inconclusive letters (“one does what one can”) or to submit to “analysis terminable and interminable” (S, 125). He has surrendered himself to the deeper character of his experience but in the process has lost his comfortable grasp on “reality.” When the catechist questions him about his call to the priesthood, for example, the bewildered priest can only admit that he “heard many things. Screams. Suites for unaccompanied cello. I did not hear a call” (S, 125). The catechist has failed to appreciate his having been trapped within a theological rhetoric, but the first priest, presumably more perceptive and imaginative, has failed to establish a creative relationship to a new, presumably more open, style that would allow him to accept the character of each moment in time as sufficient in itself. At the end of the story, to be sure, the priest does return to the woman with the dark hair. The woman, however, is married to a psychologist who is engaged in measuring “vanishing points” in an effort “to define precisely the two limiting sensations in the sensory continuum, the upper limit and the lower limit” (S, 126). Much in the fashion of this psychologist, who, despite his learned awareness of the limitations of perception and language, tries to quantify what is surely variable from person to person, the priest still hopes for some understanding and thus fails to surrender fully to the unstable nature of his experience. Instead of embracing from moment to moment a process of being that is inexplicable and thus unpredictable, he—despite his sensitivity—still thinks in terms of defining the limits of his own understanding. He has moved beyond the catechist's dilemma, but he is not yet free.

The most interesting feature of these three stories is that their method virtually contradicts what Barthelme seems to have concluded about human experience. The very posture of questioning, because it entails the construction of answers, frequently prevents the questioner from achieving that final gesture of liberation in which he, having recognized the unavailability of answers, turns his experience into the creative play, not of content, but of mere being.3 The principals in “The Explanation,” because they recognize that there is no explanation, gain such imaginative ground. The principals in “The Agreement” and in “The Catechist,” on the other hand, display varying degrees of hysteria because they fail to separate themselves entirely from the need for understanding. Even the narrating priest, whom the reader might not initially associate with hysteria, lacks the perspective that would introduce him to a radically new sense of being. What happens in these three stories, of course, generally characterizes the heart of almost all of Barthelme's fiction, where there is never much effective communication or human understanding. Whether I cite Snow White, which focuses upon problems of communication among peers, or The Dead Father, which focuses upon problems of communication between generations, the difficulty of substituting a new openness for the limited grounds of the past leads to the failure of all the principal characters. Trapped within their own solipsism, these characters know only a profound sense of personal inadequacy when dealing with the world of people about them. In order to broaden my discussion of this sense of inadequacy in Barthelme's fiction, I want to examine briefly four stories in which the husband-wife, the father-son, and the doctor-patient relationships serve almost as paradigms for man's fundamental need for a suspension of self as a means of countering his deeply felt anxieties.

In the first story, entitled “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” the principal character, Bloomsbury, manages to retain his hold on reality following a divorce from his wife, Martha, only by sounding off as the rather peculiar owner of a radio station. Repeatedly, and in an incantatory manner, he singles out in his broadcasts, “for special notice, free among all the others, some particular word in the English language, and repeat[s] it in a monotonous voice for as much as fifteen minutes, or a quarter-hour” (DC, 67). On occasion such repetition discloses in a word “new properties, unsuspected qualities,” almost as if the repetition were introducing the speaker to a new level of eloquence, but because Bloomsbury has actually intended only to fill up the time with such repetitions he never realizes that new dimension of experience which is rooted in a shrewd appreciation of the function of language in his life. That this is the case becomes more apparent when Bloomsbury devotes himself to a series of radio “announcements” that he directs at his wife. One of these announcements toward the end of the story gets to the heart of the matter: “You [Martha] veiled yourself from me, there were parts I could have and parts I couldn't have. And the rules would change, I remember, in the middle of the game, I could never be sure which parts were allowed and which not” (DC, 77). What Bloomsbury wanted in his relationship with Martha was stability, i.e., a stability that matched up with his conception of what a marriage should be. What he fails to realize here, however, is that short of defusing the normal processes of perception and language, stability will always remain an impossible goal. Stability is basically a function of content, and in a world where content is secondary to the actual processes of perception and language, stability cannot serve as the object of a relationship. When a dissatisfied Martha openly took another lover, therefore, the unimaginative Bloomsbury, who required above everything else steadiness in his life, completely fell apart. Having fashioned himself a “reckoner,” someone who could tally up the events of life and thus establish its significant quality, he could not deal with a situation that lay beyond his tally sheet. His experience without Martha is hardly much different. By his own reckoning Bloomsbury may have been “an All-American boy,” but now, following the collapse of his marriage, he continues to display the All-American failure to acknowledge the fundamental limitations of his childhood patterns of perception and language. Threatened, even cornered, by his recent experience, he resorts to the expedience of concentrating on words like nevertheless, or assimilate, alleviate, authenticate, ameliorate, or matriculate—all words that by virtue of their suggestiveness seem to offer a subtle and imaginative comment on his life—but finally these words fail to enlarge his understanding of that eloquence which lies at the heart of Barthelme's fiction.4 The story concludes with the termination of Bloomsbury's broadcasting career in the interruption of electrical service as a result of an arrears in his account. His propensity for reckoning has entirely failed him.

In the second story, “Views of My Father Weeping,” which serves as a brilliant analogue to The Dead Father, the relationship shifts to that of father and son. In the story the son, who has always felt powerless in the presence of his father, sets out to determine the facts of his father's death (the father has been run over by an aristocrat's carriage). From the beginning of the story, however, it is clear that he has had great difficulty establishing a perspective of his father when alive and, now, cannot establish a perspective of him when killed. He cannot, for example, ascertain whether it is his father who was lying in bed weeping or whether it is his father who, by virtue of drinking, was at fault in the carriage accident. The first issue, that of a perspective on his father when alive, explodes only in a series of unrelated images—such as the father wearing “a large hat (straw) on which there are a number of blue and yellow plastic jonquils” (CL, 13) or “peering through an open door into an empty house” (CL, 14) or “weeping” in bed (CL, 14) or “attending a class in good behavior” (CL, 15). Clearly there is no coherence in the images. In fact, the only moment of intensity that the son remembers in his dealings with the father, a moment that presumably might solidify his character, occurs on a hunting trip when, in the absence of “a long list of animals” (CL, 13) to shoot at, the two of them “hunkered down behind some rocks, Father and I, he hunkered down behind his rocks and I hunkered down behind my rocks, and we commenced to shooting at each other. That was interesting” (CL, 13). It is a strange scene—but not so strange, perhaps, in the absence of a coherent perspective that might bind father and son together. The son and his father are separate, and thus after the father's death the son still feels the difficulty of verifying the nature of his father. He never succeeds. The other issue, that of verifying the father's responsibility for the accident, would appear to reach a similar conclusion, but here the story takes a new turn. The son may establish the identity of the aristocrat's liveryman, but he also finds other witnesses to the event who both affirm and deny the father's blame. Even when the son visits the aristocrat's house, he hears in one moment the liveryman deny any responsibility for the tragedy and in the next a dark-haired girl rebuke the liveryman for being “an absolute bloody liar” (CL, 16). The son, like the questioners and catechists, can never get to the heart of the matter, at least in a preconceived sense, for the real problem in this situation is the limitation of all perception and language—a fact that depreciates the value of content and reinforces the importance of developing the ability to suspend oneself continuously in the processes of experience. The story concludes on the simple note of “Etc.” and at that point the fundamental question before the reader is whether the son has embraced this principle of suspension.5 Given the style of the story, one of Barthelme's finest and one narrated by the son, I think it probable that he has. A Bloomsbury he is not.

In the third story, “The Sandman,” which is essentially a letter from the narrator to his girl friend's psychiatrist (the Sandman), the importance of suspension in life's processes rather than adherence to a content is unmistakable. In his letter the narrator accuses Dr. Hodder, who has judged Susan to be a voyeur, of allowing “norms” to “skew” his view of Susan's problem (S, 92). What is interesting about the accusation, of course, is that the narrator, privy to Barthelme's basic attitudes, recognizes that the reliance upon norms introduces a content that may have little, if any, validity in its application to Susan. Hodder's belief, for example, that Susan might “become an artist and live happily ever after” profoundly troubles the narrator not only because such a belief is a commonly accepted norm for creative people but also because, at least in his eyes, “the paradigmatic artistic experience is that of failure” (S, 93). In his view Hodder's juxtaposition of Susan and a happy career as an artist constitutes an incredibly naive and arbitrary formulation of a “content.” The narrator, presumably because he is more sensitive to the dilemmas of perception and language, shrewdly recognizes that the artist deals fundamentally in failure because “the actualization [that he seeks in his art] fails to meet, equal, the intuition” with which he initiates his work. For the narrator, Hodder's associating of Susan, or anyone with an imagination as alive as Susan's, with the “content” of an artist is pointless because the artist finally deals not in content but in the processes that surround and support his being—and that resist easy classification and understanding. Distressed by the confusion or, perhaps, the absence of content in her life, Susan may herself have sought Hodder's assistance, but at the same time, as the narrator is quick to point out, she has taken care to avoid the easy content of such “instant gratification as dealt out by so-called encounter or sensitivity groups, nude marathons, or dope” (S, 94). Regardless of Hodder's appraisal of her dilemma, therefore, it is clear that her imaginative world lies well beyond a dependence upon his limited formulations. Eventually, in fact, having routinely seduced Hodder (he is himself clearly open to “instant gratification”), she recognizes that he possesses no real solution to the basic doubts that have momentarily diminished her self-confidence. She thus initiates her withdrawal from Hodder, and it is at that point, having patiently waited for Susan to master her own problem, that the narrator writes his letter in order to squelch any further interference in Susan's life that Hodder might be considering. As the narrator remarks about Susan, “Susan is wonderful. As is. There are not so many things around to which that word can be accurately applied” (S, 95). It is an astute observation. The imaginative being who develops his own technique and style, his own eloquence of being, despite the failure of all content, is genuinely a marvel.

There is another early story that parallels, but with a significant twist, “The Sandman.” That story, entitled “Alice,” is noteworthy not only because of the narrator's general suppression of punctuation (an act that destroys the fragile border between coherence and chaos) but also because of the narrator's indulging of himself in daydreams that center on a desire that compromises his professional ethics. In this story the narrator is the doctor, here an obstetrician, who in the course of his practice falls prey to an overwhelming desire to “fornicate with Alice” (UP, 119). The obstetrician is aware of the potential impact of such a relationship upon both his own and Alice's marriages, but influenced by the intellectual atmosphere of the New School he easily manages to regard “‘good’ and ‘bad’ as terms with only an emotive meaning” (UP, 125). Like the psychiatrist in “The Sandman,” the obstetrician with an air of sophistication tries to create a clever game whereby he might calm those moral qualms which hinder the fruition of his desire. Toward the end of the story, however, having already fantasized his release from the bonds of moral perspective, this obstetrician continues to consider such facts of his past experience as his having “followed obediently in the footsteps of my teachers” (UP, 126). Obviously, even after long consideration, he is having difficulty overthrowing his deep-seated moral scruples. His fantasies may turn to the crudeness of “chewing” on Alice's breasts, but by the end of the story, with no fruition of his desire at hand, he has managed only a sensitive examination of his situation—yet an examination that surely surpasses the psychiatrist's rather easy formulations. Here is the obstetrician's appraisal of himself:

possible attitudes found in books 1) I don't know what's happening to me 2) what does it mean? 3) seized with the deepest sadness, I know not why 4) I am lost, my head whirls, I know not where I am 5) I lose myself 6) I ask you, what have I come to? 7) I no longer know where I am, what is this country? 8) had I fallen from the skies, I could not be more giddy 9) a mixture of pleasure and confusion, that is my state 10) where am I, and when will this end? 11) what shall I do? I do not know where I am

(UP, 127)

Unlike the psychiatrist, the obstetrician does not possess an easy ground for initiating extramarital affairs. No matter what stance he adopts in relation to his desire for Alice, he cannot avoid the terrible sense of violating the moral field of his past experience. The reader who is impatient with his temporizing might even be tempted to accuse him of having allowed himself to be victimized by a rather narrow perspective of human relationships. And yet, particularly if one recalls the nature of Bloomsbury's possessiveness, there is good reason to argue, here, that the obstetrician is in fact very sophisticated in his examination of his personal situation. Indeed, instead of merely violating his past, or instead of merely discounting the significance of a relationship with Alice, he shows a wonderful ability to sustain himself in the very complicated addressing of the contradictions that have surfaced in his feelings. To be sure, he may never resolve the contradictions, and thus he may never fully escape his present confusion, but at least he has come into contact with the fundamental notion that human beings are not simply empty vessels but consciousnesses with peculiar imaginative configurations—configurations nurtured in childhood, sustained in maturity, and thus open to many contradictions. To some extent maturity does open the doctor's fields of moral experience, but finally some of the limits from his past will remain. Having realized this much, the doctor is a privileged character—confused yet eloquent.

The progression from Bloomsbury's life of narrow content to Susan's and even the obstetrician's lives of complex style points finally to the need, in Barthelme's fiction, for an ironic suspension of self. Whereas the son who tries to figure out the nature of his father is only beginning the process of suspension, Susan and the obstetrician have already committed themselves to its necessity. Barthelme's fiction in general reflects the same imaginative suspension, and as a fiction principally of technique and style it remains, at least theoretically, a matter of infinite variation. As an artist, of course, Barthelme may seem to limit the possible variation by his preference for certain stylistic traits. Despite his use of his own peculiar styles, however, his fiction continues to possess a remarkable openness that suggests that his stylistic variations shall know few boundaries. There is no question that style counts very heavily in Barthelme's fiction—witness, here, the final two selections of City Life.

“Brain Damage,” a story replete with the ominous headlines reminiscent of Snow White, on the surface provides an excursion into the cerebral litter of contemporary society—from the promise of ESP to the enthusiasm of the flower culture, from the priesthood of waiters to that of university professors. Throughout the story, however, people are caught up in the confusions of the present, and at the heart of it all is the narrator who works for newspapers “at a time when I was not competent to do so.” In Barthelme's world, it should be clear, no one is competent to report content, and thus the reader must not be outraged when the narrator elaborates on his incompetence: “I reported inaccurately. … I pretended I knew things I did not know. … I misinterpreted. … I suppressed. … I invented. … I faked. … I failed to discover the truth. I colored the truth with fancy. I had no respect for truth” (CL, 138). At the very point (in its development as a medium) that the newspaper has so much varied content to offer its readers, it has—rather ironically—become a generally unreliable source of information. The narrator knows that any source of information is inadequate, and, aware of the arbitrariness of all truth, he even goes so far as to argue, “Some people feel you should tell the truth, but those people are impious and wrong, and if you listen to what they say, you will be tragically unhappy all your life” (CL, 145). The long tradition of attempting to fix truth has in his view resulted in brain damage, and because Americans continue to be prone to the need for establishing “truth,” he has come to the second conclusion that “this is the country of brain damage.” In the narrator's world there are surely others besides Americans who know the dangers of content, but because the brain damage that originates in the pursuit of content is so widespread and even sustained in those American centers of learning that should avoid such contamination, he is hardly hopeful about the possibility of any real escape from the dilemma: “You can hide under the bed but brain damage is under the bed, and you can hide in the universities but they are the very seat and soul of brain damage” (CL, 146). For the narrator there is no escape. He is himself damaged, and in his own writing and howling, in his moans, he may ask repeatedly “WHAT RECOURSE?” but the answer is pale at best: “RHYTHMIC HANDCLAPPING SHOUTING SEXUAL ACTIVITY CONSUMPTION OF FOOD” (CL, 141). Even his question, as a question of content, exposes his lack of redress. In the end “Brain Damage,” like much of Barthelme's fiction, coheres only at its seams. While each of its fragments continues to unleash a furious comment on life's inanities, the story as a whole tends toward an awesome silence that mirrors the lacunae separating its fragments and thus again reinforces the importance of style.

“City Life,” the final story in the volume of the same name, is probably one of the best examples of the substitution of technique for content in all of Barthelme's fiction. In [a previous essay] I have already recounted Charles's description, late in the story, of the artist who manages to wrest something from his canvas only after a long series of seemingly false starts. Generally the story, which hinges on the complex and shifting relationships among Elsa, Ramona, Charles, and Jacques, achieves little more in terms of content than what the artist gains on his canvas. For as it explores the dilemma of men and women launching careers presumably of substance (in business and in law), it is continually pulling back in the face of the principal characters' discovery that the “content” that they have pursued is largely a hoax.6 Charles, for example, despite his grand intentions, loses his commitment to a promising business career in Cleveland. Elsa, in turn, quits law school in order to satisfy another desire, that of marriage, and Ramona, although continuing her legal education, finally sees the law as a joke that genuinely deserves the affront of her virgin pregnancy. Eventually all of the principal characters find themselves inhabiting a world of contradictory impulses—a world in which even such institutions as racetracks and art galleries merge and thus a world in which the most rigorous of distinctions and categories finally dissipate. Victimized by the loss of the framework that has traditionally supported the acts of civilization, the characters all seem to have misplaced their sources of energy, especially the energy necessary for sustaining a relationship. As Ramona rather succinctly remarks, the world of “City Life” is a place where “one couldn't sleep with someone more than four hundred times without being bored” (CL, 159).

In this apparent void, to be sure, Moonbelly writes his songs as if there were still something to be said and sung about human experience. Organized as comments upon contemporary life, the songs' very titles reveal Moonbelly's determination to establish some “content” for his existence: “The System Cannot Withstand Close Scrutiny” and “Cities Are Centers of Copulation.” The songs, nevertheless, instead of supporting human vitality, tend only to reinforce the emptiness that has reduced the characters of the story to postures of ennui. In the end, in fact, the songs have less imaginative value than the achievement of the artist whose struggles with his canvas results only in a busy quality of surface. In the final section of the story, when Ramona alludes to the fact that the people of the city “are locked in the most exquisite mysterious muck” (CL, 166), a muck that “heaves and palpitates” and “is itself the creation of that muck of mucks, human consciousness,” there is no longer any question that the pursuit of “content” is, in the context of urban complexity and contradiction, a hopeless venture. Ramona herself, unable to identify the father of her baby (is it Vercingetorix or Moonbelly or Charles?), simply indulges herself in the possibility that she is the chosen one, the vessel of light, the second virgin who will give birth. Such indulging is ludicrous—all the more so when a law student begins to defend her position—but as she herself recognizes, that ludicrousness is all she has: “What was the alternative?” (CL, 168). In Ramona the madness that lies near the surface of “Brain Damage” finally breaks out. She is the character of unleashed style. If, in the process of playing with the surfaces of her existence, she does end up with a content of flagrant madness, it is a content that is marginal at best. In the city style is everything.

The best example of the eloquence of style, however, is Barthelme's brilliant “A Shower of Gold.” In this story an artist named Peterson, while considering the possibility of appearing on a TV program suggestively entitled Who Am I?, confronts in rapid succession a number of instances of his own negligibility: a president who mutilates his—Peterson's—latest piece of sculpture in order to make him think; a barber-philosopher who insists that “in the end one experiences only oneself”; and a cat-piano player who obfuscates the issue of personal choice by confronting Peterson with the dilemma of whether he chose the cat or the cat chose him. The narrator of the story very cagily blurs the distinctions between dreaming and consciousness, and thus while it is apparent that Peterson wants the freedom to be the artist, it is also evident that the lack of a world that stands at attention, with strong outlines and moral purposes, prevents him from achieving such freedom. As in the two stories that conclude City Life, Peterson seems only to enjoy a choice of which brain damage or muck he wishes to associate with, for regardless of whatever achievement he gains as an artist, he remains the victim of an inescapable solipsism. In his own mind he may continue to hope for the circumstances that will allow him to establish his credentials as a man who can dominate the world about him, but those circumstances never arrive. In addition to the intrusions of the president, the barber, and the cat-piano player, his gallery director abuses him by neglecting to display his work and then by suggesting that Peterson might sell more of his work if he were to cut it into two—make the pieces smaller. Circumstances are never propitious, and Peterson is not much of a man. When he makes his TV appearance and there witnesses the humiliation of the other contestants, nevertheless, he rises above his strong sense of failure and manages to turn the absurdity of the situation into a running commentary that the announcer cannot terminate. Significantly the commentary is one of hope: “In this kind of world, … absurd if you will, possibilities nevertheless proliferate and escalate all around us and there are opportunities for beginning again” (DC, 183). The barber may have earlier reminded Peterson of Pascal's comment that man's condition is so “wretched” that he must be inconsolable, but now an eloquent Peterson, having earlier despaired of achieving the appearance of substance, does Pascal one better by counseling his audience to “turn off your television sets, … cash in your life insurance, indulge in a mindless optimism.” In the face of brain damage and muck Peterson himself now indulges in what amounts to the act of poetry:

My mother was a royal virgin … and my father a shower of gold. My childhood was pastoral and energetic and rich in experiences which developed my character. As a young man I was noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in form express and admirable, and in apprehension. …

(DC, 183)

If with Ramona's announcement of a virgin pregnancy in “City Life” there is a strain of pessimism about the ability of the mind to manage its prison of solipsism, in “A Shower of Gold” there seems to be some real hope. The narrator may conclude the story by suggesting that in his last comments Peterson “was, in a sense, lying, in a sense he was not,” but there can be little doubt that Peterson's new style finally represents a marvelous, perhaps the only marvelous, ground of human experience left to a Barthelmean protagonist.7

In a recent story, “What to Do Next,” Barthelme expands on the nature of Peterson's experience. In the story the narrator is providing counsel to someone whose life has apparently fallen apart. After citing such instructions as adopting a new attitude, traveling, writing a will, etc., he concludes his counsel by suggesting that the person in distress must become “part of the instructions themselves,” thus turning the person (and his style) into a creative act:

we have specified that everyone who comes to us from this day forward must take twelve hours of you a week, for which they will receive three points credit per semester, and, as well, a silver spoon in the “Heritage” pattern. … We are sure you are up to it. Many famous teachers teach courses in themselves; why should you be different, just because you are a wimp and a lame, objectively speaking? Courage. … You will be adequate in your new role. See? Your life is saved. The instructions do not make distinctions between those lives which are worth saving and those which are not.

(A, 86)

Here the person who accepts his status as maker, regardless of his stature as a man, becomes the standard for those about him—clearly a distressing situation and yet an astute observation of recent times. In a world that lacks a consistent metaphysical framework, eloquence becomes a matter of developing as much vitality of perception and language as one can.8 Because no one owns a corner on truth, every person alive, at least theoretically, enjoys a genuine chance of becoming the arbiter of the world in which he lives. In these terms human existence becomes, above everything else, a test of a man's courage to be “adequate” in his own role—and thus to enjoy his own limited yet profound sense of truth.

The madness of “Brain Damage” and “City Life” seems to conflict with the more confident and optimistic9 character of “A Shower of Gold” and “What to Do Next,” but by returning to another story in the Socratic method, “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” I think it is possible to capture the quality that unites all four of these stories and that also makes the emphasis upon individuality in the latter two more palatable. In this story A. seems at first to be interested in establishing how and why Kierkegaard is unfair to Schlegel. Later, however, he acknowledges that he is merely annihilating Kierkegaard “in order to deal with his disapproval” (CL, 90) of the character of such lives as A.'s. A. knows that Kierkegaard is in fact fair to Schlegel, but by establishing the reverse he gets himself off the hook of Kierkegaard's argument that religion is necessary for a “reconciliation with actuality.” Because A. cannot accept the religious stance, he must subject Kierkegaard to the irony inherent in his own—A.'s—insights into the matter. In reality, nevertheless, as Q. is quick to recognize, what A. is about is merely “the unavoidable tendency of everything particular to emphasize its own particularity” (CL, 92). For Barthelme, it appears, the location of any irony, of the contradictions that permeate even the simplest of contemporary experiences, becomes the source of an important grace: as long as man can establish a peculiarity of personal vision, if only in terms of irony, he can warrant himself as vital and still thinking for himself.10 It is a limited grace, but surely it is its realization that enables such different characters as Ramona and Peterson to achieve their styles of eloquence.

In the context of all these stories that emphasize the suspension of the self in the play of style and irony, it is clear that Barthelme himself continues to layer into his fiction at least a partial content. He may, as in the Socratic-method stories, disparage the deliberate pursuit of content, but in the end—and despite the fragmented character of his stories—he introduces content by way of his thorough exploration of the ironic nature of contemporary man. As the narrator of “Hiding Man” at one point implies, there is always a content, for “one believes what one can, follows that vision which most brilliantly exalts and vilifies the world” (DC, 35). The precise definition of such vision always remains problematic in Barthelme's fiction, but finally, as yet another narrator (from “The Party”) suggests, man must in moments of heightened consciousness reckon with his contents: “Of course we did everything right, insofar as we were able to imagine what ‘right’ was” (S, 62). In Barthelme there is no easy grace that allows his characters to escape the “brain damage” that surrounds and envelops them. At the same time that he stresses man's need for style and irony, however, Barthelme also recognizes man's continuing need for content. This contradiction underlies the genius within all his fiction.


  1. The complex strategies underlying Nabokov's texts are his means of approaching the fringes of human experience in an effort to understand them; in Barthelme the characters are at the fringes, and because there is no perspective that binds the experience together, there is no understanding.

  2. John Leland, “Remarks Re-marked: Barthelme, What Curios of Signs!” Boundary 2 5(1977): 807, has pointed out that right reason is “a function of cultural codes and conventions which prescribe our ways of doing, thinking, seeing, being.” The codes and the conventions define what is acceptable logic.

  3. For further discussion of the relationship between questions and answers, see R. E. Johnson, Jr., “‘Bees Barking in the Night’: The End and Beginning of Donald Barthelme's Narrative,” Boundary 2 5(1976): 84.

  4. James Rother, “Parafiction: The Adjacent Universe of Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, and Nabokov,” Boundary 2 5(1976):26, makes the point that “the trouble with words is that they are at our disposal, … and we use one another, dispose of one another, again and again” by manipulating words. Bloomsbury uses his wife through words.

  5. Rother, p. 34, suggests that “the one purpose writing can boast at this stage of the game [tradition of fiction] is that of isolating us from our fictions, not sinking us deeper into them. … Parafiction invariably takes up where ordinary fiction leaves off, where characters, situations, events no longer attune themselves to climax and dénouement.” Because the son in “Views of My Father Weeping” cannot stabilize his “fictions” of his father, whether alive or dead, he has a chance for achieving that openness of attitude at the heart of Barthelme's stories.

  6. Claude Lévi-Strauss, “From Cyclical Structure in Myth to Serial Romance in Modern Fiction,” trans. Petra Morrison, in Sociology of Literature and Drama, ed. Elizabeth and Tom Burns (Baltimore: Penguin, 1973), pp. 212-13, has commented: “Life, dreams, the past carry dislocated images and forms which haunt the writer when chance or some necessity … preserves or rediscovers in them the shadowy outline of myth. Nevertheless, the novelist drifts among these floes which the heat of history detaches from the solid formation which it has broken up. He collects these scattered materials and reuses them as they present themselves to him, though not without dimly perceiving that they come from another structure, and will become rarer and rarer as a current different from the one which kept them together bears them away. The decline and fall of the plot was contained within the development of the novel from the beginning and has recently become external to it—since we are witnessing the decline and fall of plot after the decline and fall in the plot.” The collapse of plot is especially evident in a story like “City Life.”

  7. Johnson, pp. 79, 81, has expanded upon the importance of this new style: “Fictional language … offers the only ground for the realization of consciousness. … Fictional language is given the task of animating an object or objects which will, in the process, acquire emotional value.” Peterson's fictions are the very ground of his being.

  8. Leland, p. 809, has pointed out that this eloquence is a function of one's understanding the processes of perception: “Orders are built up, only to be decomposed in a continual probing of the ordering of orders, an ordering which plays itself out over an essential abyss of non-meaning.”

  9. Johnson, p. 87, has pointed out that “Barthelme's is no facile optimism; he sees the inescapably destructive character of language as clearly as anyone today using words.” I obviously agree with Johnson.

  10. For a larger discussion of Barthelme's irony, see Alan Wilde, “Barthelme Unfair to Kierkegaard: Some Thoughts on Modern and Postmodern Irony,” Boundary 2 5(1976): 45-70.

Lois Gordon (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9865

SOURCE: Gordon, Lois. “Come Back, Dr. Caligari.” In Donald Barthelme, pp. 35-61. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

[In the following essay, Gordon surveys the dominant thematic concerns of Barthelme's first short story collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari.]

The first collection introduces many of Barthelme's themes and landscapes, most prominently the spiritually weary, contemporary world, brainwashed by popular culture and the media (“Viennese Opera Ball”), a society of people looking for “the right words” (“Florence Green”) and specific scripts with which to duplicate an identity (“For I'm the Boy,” “Big Broadcast,” “Hiding Man,” “Margins”). The theme of failed marriage recurs (“To London and Rome,” “Broadcast,” “For I'm the Boy,” “Will You Tell Me?” “Piano Player”). Another subject, which Barthelme will pursue, is the problem of using words, because “signs” sometimes “lie” (the remarkable “Me and Miss Mandible”). The artist as subject, in his personal and professional life, is the focus of “Shower of Gold” and “Marie,” two of the volume's best stories which treat, in a consummately humane and wildly parodic fashion, the contradiction of “the absurd” in theory and reality.


“The aim of literature is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.”

Barthelme explodes linearity of language and event, and splices characters, in order to capture the disintegration of value in both the contemporary world and individual consciousness. Love, lentils, children, toilets, and Texaco merge as equal priorities in a world only occasionally and peripherally acknowledged as one of war, loneliness, sexual desire, and professional yearning.

Barthelme, in addition, is concerned with the language that defines our world and minds, that conglomeration of catchy and hypnotic slang that swallows both serious and fashionable subject matter. As he focuses upon the rhythms that compose the contemporary psyche, his language slides in and out of meaning, like—to borrow two details of the story—Mandrake's piano and Joan Graham's gazpacho. Clichés, inadequately understood abstractions, fragments of anachronistic, woolly dreams of contemporary American life, and eminently quotable tidbits ransacked from the literature of the world, are jumbled together and packaged in easy slogans and matchbook and media rhetoric.

Words and more words: such is the junk and value of our lives. As the narrator-writer puts it, in a startlingly honest statement: “We value each other for our remarks”; “on the strength of this remark,” he goes on, “love becomes possible.” Nevertheless, if he is going to talk to us, and if we are to understand him, author and reader must make their way through the sludge of verbiage that envelops them and “free associate,” “brilliantly, brilliantly, to [be] put … into the problem.”

The “problem” is this: Florence Green, “a small fat girl” of eighty-one, who has 300 million dollars and blue legs, sits before her dinner guests and complains of a toilet that malfunctions. The narrator, a would-be writer (Baskerville), who aspires toward Florence's continuing patronage, is troubled by her mysterious statement: “I want to go to some other country” (our first of many askewed associations with T. S. Eliot). As preoccupied with a sexy girl at the dinner table as with Florence's drop-dead statement, the narrator describes the evening (which includes Florence's falling asleep “untidily”) in a rambling assemblage of non sequiturs. In the back of his mind is his growing anxiety that he will not impress this arbiter of contemporary taste and values; interspersed, in addition, are his own self-mocking and somewhat self-aggrandizing comments. About Florence Green, who provides, after all, the title of the story, there are only occasional comments: she is rather ridiculous, spoiled, and possibly senile, the matriarch who supports both war and art (really the narrator's two main concerns). At the same time, she is a wonderfully appealing and somewhat enigmatic woman who, despite her enormous vanity and eccentricities (she has a room filled with a cane collection), has driven men to write poetry for her.

Barthelme's particular brand of box-within-box satire on any number of subjects serves not only to equate the trivial and serious (to reflect how everything has become equally meaningless), but also to equate the very identities and activities of his characters. Ultimately, one has an impossible task “characterizing” anyone—and this is perhaps the point. Both Florence and the narrator, for example, prize “uniqueness” and both fear “boredom.” The narrator relates how, many years before, Florence vomited upon seeing the atrocities of Buchenwald (in Life magazine). Although she didn't know what “exterminated” meant, she raced to a resort for solace. Now her life, devoted (at least tonight) to toilet-repair-inflation and recollections of the good old days with her oil-baron husband, is boring, and she would go away. Although war is mentioned in the same breath as vegetables, its reality fills the story. Can it be that Florence will go away (again), because the atrocities of the contemporary world are overbearing? Or is toilet repair overwhelming? Is she bored with her life and guests? Is she bored with the world situation? Or is she simply looking for some new words to say—because words are one's identity? (“On the strength of” our remarks, “love becomes possible.”) All Barthelme gives us is this: “She is afraid of boring us. She is trying to establish her uniqueness.” At this point, let us remark not only on the impossibility of “characterizing” Florence, but on the extraordinary difficulty of understanding what the simple and frequently used words “bored” and “unique” mean.

About Florence's desire to go away—and her earlier escape to a resort—Barthelme, again, refuses to comment. But traditional readers that we are, we trust the narrator's point of view and share his alternating scorn and respect for her. Florence invites moral interpretation, and to prod us on, Barthelme even plants a line from Husserl in the story that fits our bill: Florence has “not grasped the living reality, the essence.” Yet, while this might neatly fit within the well-made story (and alienate us from Florence), Barthelme undercuts its authority at once. Indeed, if we impose any such fixed meaning, it is we who will not have grasped the living reality, which is that there is no such thing as the living reality, at least attainable through language.

Let us turn to one of many examples. Although Florence appears to attach equal importance to trivial and tragic concerns, so does the narrator. If this were traditional satire, the narrator, who at points enlists our respect, would stand as a foil against Florence. Instead, after drawing us to his side, he reacts in an equally indiscriminate manner to the reality about him. He recurrently qualifies his own positions to the point of contradiction. Thus, if he is the ironic voice, he is ironic about his own irony. As a result, we lack a consistent foil against which to construct a standard or central focal point. If Florence's evasion of reality for the “unique” seems a cop-out, the narrator, in his own statements about “uniqueness” and “boredom,” evades characterization, as he wavers erratically between integrity and opportunism.

First, he would be honest in his writing (presumably an indictment of war). Yet, comparing himself to a psychiatrist's patient, he admits that he would be manipulative, striving “mightily to establish” his “uniqueness.” He explains, in addition, that he writes to amuse and not bore. He then undercuts this with the conjunction “or” which, in context, neither qualifies nor contradicts, which is its function: “Or for fear of boring you: which?” Finally, he admits, “I adopt this ingratiating tone because I can't help myself.” What has happened to the fearless antiwar commentator? He then answers a claim that writing should not be discursive by defining it as “portages through the whirlpool country of the mind” and adds, “Mostly I make remarks.”

It is almost impossible to organize this mishmash of confessional material. Is the writer honest? playful? a liar? neurotic? confident? condescending? Is he socially committed? One is also dazed trying to figure out whether the narrator is indeed Baskerville and, in any case, if one can trust him. After all, while he is maintaining his integrity, he is also nervously jogging his memory for impressive comments other people might have made at a dinner party. He even admits, with self-mockery, how he has sold out professionally: he edits an interdisciplinary journal (with his left hand!), “The Journal of Tension Reduction,” which pampers the contemporary need for self-help information with “learned disputation[s], letters-to-the-editor, anxiety in rats.”

Yet this is really only the beginning of our confusion. If both Florence and the narrator are/are not, for example (in traditional “moral” terms), responsible/irresponsible, in their aspirations toward “uniqueness,” Barthelme plays with several other levels of irony, so that by the time we finish the story we haven't the slightest idea what self-confrontation, or evasion, or being “committed” and “having integrity” mean. First, it seems as if the speaker mocks and upholds both self-knowledge and self-evasion. He says (possibly of himself): “Oh Baskerville! you silly son of a bitch, how can you become a famous writer without first having worried about your life, is it the right kind of life, does it have the right people in it, is it going well?” Further, the narrator connects and equates introspection with middle-class chic: in Santa Ana, California, “100,350 citizens nestle together in the Balboa blue Pacific evenings worrying about their lives.” What is the narrator's point of view? Where has our author, Barthelme, disappeared to?

War, toilets, discursiveness, essence, Fleischmann's gin (the antidote to angst: “I favor the establishment of comfort stations providing free Fleischmann's … on every street corner”), psychiatrists, writing, and war: where are we? Barthelme tantalizes us with meaning; his story is indeed a “portage” through the “whirlpool country of the mind.” By the time one finishes, he has difficulty pinpointing anything or anyone. The final effect is curiously like a Cubist painting, montage, or mobile. No single surface, in terms of character, event, indeed words or their meaning, is fixed. The “colored doctor” at the dinner table (is he Mandrake the Magician and the pianist on Florence's vacation?), is also the proposed colored doctor for a novel. (Does life create art, or is it the other way around?) The doctor (psychiatrist) is the writer's audience, absorbing the author's “fantastications,” while acting out his own. The narrator's search for uniqueness is everyone's search for uniqueness; Florence herself writes poems and is their subject; it becomes increasingly more difficult to separate the dancer from the dance, that is, who, during this party, is author, and who is guest. The narrator gets a “promotion” and a “discharge” from his writing school (his “orders”), and words are surely a major “war” Barthelme writes about. Ultimately, the narrator is Baskerville, the soldier, the doctor, the poet, Florence, the sexy Kathleen (whose name is really Joan Graham), Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Onward Christian. We move full circle, patients and writers alike, all looking—in our compulsive search for and belief in the “right word”—for non-boring experience, for “total otherness.” Ironically, however, we avoid our true “uniqueness,” the total “otherness” we basically are—which could be ours if we would just recoup the instinctive life or those ideas and words that are truly ours, beneath or between all the packaged words and slogans. Unfortunately we remain, in grand philosophical terms, as well as in linguistic and concrete everyday terms, “all involved in a furious pause, a grand parenthesis.”

Finally, then, in “Florence Green,” there is no center or final resting point. Everything has been refracted by the narrator's uniquely personal perception of experience, all colored by his conflicting public and private values—this necessarily filtered through the limited and yet necessary forms of language. The final object created is indeed all of the story's seeming contradictions and shapes of meaning (which ultimately never coalesce)—Husserl's living reality, an essence which is a general discursiveness—free associations and portages through the whirlpool of the mind, a truly unique work of art, “a strange object covered with fur.”


A number of Barthelme's stories are tours de force in linguistic virtuosity, where, although syntax and sentence structure remain traditional, meaning is continuously challenged and widened by juxtapositions of odd, banal, literary, or technical diction; at other points, ordinary language is violated by bizarre and fragmented action. Space and time may be dislocated to reinforce the distortions of traditional language or narrative pattern. Here, in what appears to be a very simply told story, Barthelme outdoes Ionesco and his colorless Mr./Mrs. Smith/Martin people in The Bald Soprano. Identities merge; banality and horror are interchangeable; everything is equally meaningful and hence meaningless. Specifically, everyone is everyone else's lover, child, threat, and even nemesis.


Similarly, here is the typically fashionable and bored suburban couple in an exaggeratedly affluent background. Barthelme exposes the silly hollowness, indeed, the almost grotesque and ghostly quality of the contemporary family. Forms of meaning or structure (i.e., marriage) are present, in language as in life, but details and linguistic variations again prevent anything whole or substantial beneath from finalizing.

The identical and shallow inner and outer worlds of the mother, for example, are concretized, as she pleads that her dreary mental and physical condition (like her children's) will improve if only she can have a fancy car to take her to hobnob with intellectual celebrities: “If you gave me a TR-4, I'd put our ugly children in it and drive away. To Wellfleet. … I want to talk to Edmund Wilson.” Throughout, Barthelme literalizes metaphor (his trademark), as in the frequently quoted: “You're supposed to be curing a ham,” followed by “The ham died.”


“We can discuss … the meaning but not the feeling.”

The elegantly named Bloomsbury, accompanied by the also formally named Whittle and Huber, is returning from the aerodrome; his estranged wife, Martha, has just flown the coop. Conversations among the three men draw a bitter (and wildly funny) picture of empty marriage, sex, and even friendship. Once again, these people can articulate anything; what they lack is feeling: “There's little enough rapport between adults” without “clouding” the “issue” with “sentiment,” they say.

The story, filled with sardonic manipulations of familiar literature (from Hamlet's “what manner of man is this!” to The Waste Land's “[Tell me] whether she wept when you told her”), is remarkable in style. Barthelme manipulates, for example, two entirely different literary techniques to portray the common emptiness of human relationships—an elegant Jamesian style in which Whittle and Huber figure, and the more earthy Lawrentian lower-class idiom, in which Bloomsbury recites his sexual encounters with both his wife, Martha (who would rather spend the night with words—Mallarmé's), and his lover, Pelly: “An' what a fine young soft young warm young thing you have there Pelly on yer bicycle seat.” (Pelly's husband literally prefers bringing his T.V. to bed rather than her.) Not only is contemporary language incapable of communicating feeling, but the old standbys, even the language of fairy tale, are equally disfunctional: “Ah Pelly where do you be goin'?”; his Little Red Riding Hood answers, “T' grandmather's.” Regardless of linguistic mask, an emptiness fills all the love nests—for Bloomsbury and Martha, Bloomsbury and Pelly—knock offs, in name alone, of Joyce's Molly, Polly, and Bloom.

The story is very funny, beginning with a takeoff on the Casablanca-type airport scenario. The only catch is that Bloomsbury's friends are not sure if they have been “required” or “invited” to come along (as a guard against “privacy” and “thus weeping”). Barthelme focuses on their cold formality and bland self-awareness. Bloomsbury says, his “friends … were as men not what he wished them to be,” and he adds, “it was [also] very possible … that he was not what they wished him to be.”

He knows, for example, that they care most about his money and that one has even made a grab for his wife. Whittle and Huber speak with only the form of caring; any real feeling is missing: “Customarily … ribald,” they “nevertheless maintained attitudes of rigorous and complete solemnity as were of course appropriate.” Barthelme pushes to an absurd degree our role-playing and the way language reflects our blind adherence to scripts. Can Bloomsbury's friends, for example, still be “family friends” if the family has split up? Whittle sounds like a semanticist and lawyer: “The family exists … as a legal entity” “whether or not the family qua family endures beyond the physical separation of the partners.” Such dialogue is often interrupted by a familiar literary line or a song, which thickens Barthelme's irony and adds to the bitterness of his portrait. Bloomsbury can only say of his friends (from The Student Prince): “Golden days … in the sunshine of our happy youth.”

In one of the most memorable sequences, they question him on the “extinguishment” of his “union,” the details of the breakup. In efficient list fashion they say: “It would be interesting I think as well as instructive” to know “at what point the situation of living together became untenable, whether she wept when you told her, whether you wept when she told you … whether she had a lover or did not …, the disposition of the balance of the furnishings including tableware, linens, light bulbs, … the baby if there was [one] … in short we'd like to get the feel of the event.” To be “instructed” is to get the “feel”; light bulbs are as important as babies.

Huber, who has never married, says he knows the “exquisite pain” of breakup. (He had an affair with a Red Cross worker named Buck Rogers, after which he literally jumped from the Chrysler Building. Again Barthelme literalizes the metaphor: what could be more appropriate after a sad affair? Here, he goes on to admit—and this dislocates meaning—he got “a wonderful view of the city.”) Thus, when he is asked, “How would you know … you've never been married,” his answer is grim: “I may not know about marriage … but I know about words.” In a final, sardonic touch, Barthelme adds that he was “giggling” as he described his pain. They all comment on life, rather than feel it; forms of language have substituted for experience.

At the end, Barthelme turns whatever “meaning” we may have grasped thus far against us. Up to this point, we think that Bloomsbury has more “feeling” than his friends. Yet when he is asked, “How does it [the breakup] feel,” he replies: “What is it?” Reflecting on how one is “trained” to confront the inevitabilities (i.e., divorce), Bloomsbury also says (with playful echoes of Husserl): “It was interesting … that after so many years one could still be surprised by a flyaway wife” (shades of TWA). And he continues: “Surprise … that's the great thing, it keeps the old tissues tense.” His response (his language) is so alienating, it is not surprising that with this dramatic move away from feeling—his friends move toward it, with a vengeance. Now, when they want to know what he feels, he answers (with playful echoes of Gertrude Stein and Wittgenstein): “The question is not what is the feeling but what is the meaning?” They try bribing him and beat him with a cognac bottle and tire iron, at which point he is transfixed by the memory of a Tuesday Weld movie (whose name, like Rock Hudson's, must surely inspire), after which he felt like “a good man.” (Media creates identity and morality.) Bloomsbury has obviously had a more intense emotional experience from the movie than from his divorce. But art is short, and life long, and Bloomsbury is now depressed. The two friends, beating him for meaning, confuse his bloody response with feeling. In fact, what they get is “all sorts of words.” Indeed, contrary to the popular saying, one can get blood—not feeling—from a stone, a final irony.


“Are you tuned in?”

Orson Welles's 1938 radio drama “The War of the Worlds” was so lifelike that people actually took to the streets to protect themselves from what they believed was an extraterrestrial invasion. Barthelme's “Broadcast” pursues the way life is modeled after art, specifically the media—radio, film, magazine romances—and their various forms of soap opera. If life fails—i.e., a marriage collapses—it is due to the failure of script; should the role model for our “parts” age or die (the actor, a “legend,” like a god), a new one must be created. The media alone provide our culture heroes, our scripts—our lives. Life is but an arrangement of words to be enacted.

We meet Bloomsbury again, now divorced from Martha. He has given her the house, in exchange for a radio station where, in addition to playing music (he plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” “hundreds of times a day” because of its “finality”), he presents two kinds of talks. The first, for mysterious and private (i.e., creative) reasons, involves his endless repetition of a single word—like “nevertheless.” The second involves commercial advertisements, all directed to Martha; these consist of long recollections of their courtship and marriage. They are apparently spoken to woo her back.

One day a “girl or woman” of “indeterminate age,” in a long, bright red linen duster, which she takes off to reveal fifties-style toreador pants and an orange sweater (she is also wearing harlequin glasses), visits the studio. After brief verbal sparring, regarding why he is looking at her (“It's my you might say métier/Milieu/Métier”), we learn that she was the former president of the Conrad Veidt fan club. Now, however, she laments that Veidt's death has caused the death of a “vital part” or her “imagination.” Again they argue about words, discuss their attraction to one another (she's been told she resembles the actress Carmen Lambrosa), and before we know it, the woman is revealed as Martha. (Is she really, or does Bloomsbury simply see all women as Martha?) This Martha does indeed seem wooed by Bloomsbury's ads; she even takes up residence there and sleeps under the piano.

The difficulties of Bloomsbury's marriage are further revealed, and once again the trivial and significant are horrifically and hilariously juxtaposed: their problems in adequately freezing the ice cubes are given as much attention as their sexual incompatibility, unwanted child, and marital infidelities. Ordinary metaphors that one might use about a relationship are literalized—i.e., the proverbial mother-in-law “lay like a sword between us,” literally, in the bed.

Interestingly, in the present time of their meeting, they still act out the same problems and hurl the same abuses at each other, mostly over sexuality and language. As the story ends, their roles (or what Barthelme has once again tricked us into believing are their “roles”) are reversed. She would “come back” to him (is she more taken with artifice, his ads, than reality?), but he has lost interest (because he now realizes she is his wife, and he can only respond sexually to an illusion of the Hollywood type?).

In the light of this story, Barthelme's title Come Back, Dr. Caligari is clarified. What the modern world seems to need, Barthelme implies, referring to the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, is a Caligari, a giver of roles, a programmer of people, whether the roles are mundane or monstrous. Hence, all of the scriptwriting, playacting, and absences of “identity” in these stories.

Specifically in this story, it is doubly ironic that Veidt should have been a kind of Caligari to Martha. First, in the movie, the Veidt character is only a psychotic who imagines himself to be controlled by a legendary figure, Caligari. Second, the legendary status Martha has given Veidt as “handsome and sinister” has been created entirely through celluloid, through Veidt's movie roles. Yet, despite this last irony, Barthelme further implies that for one to function in the everyday world, he needs role models; he must mimic an actor who is himself only an interpretation, a reading of someone else's words.

In such a world, with God thus dead, Bloomsbury (whose name we associate with the literary group) seeks out his own mythology by writing, producing, directing, and acting in his ridiculous radio show. With no ready-made word supply or dialogue (for his role as “husband” or “lover”), he tries to create one. He uses his favorite (chic and utterly hackneyed) words to create a reality: “assimilate,” “alleviate,” “authenticate,” “ameliorate.” Barthelme explains: he singled out “for special notice … some particular word … [and repeated it] in a monotonous voice for as much as fifteen minutes.” (And Barthelme adds, to fracture meaning: “Or a quarter-hour”—which, of course, is fifteen minutes.) But Bloomsbury's intention in repeating these words remains private; although exposed to the audience, “the word would frequently disclose new properties [and] unsuspected qualities.” (Is this true for all writers and their words?)

With no ready-made “action” or “pattern” to his life, Bloomsbury chants his ads. (What better means of creating rituals by which to structure a life?) Perhaps if he repeats sufficiently his recollections of his marriage with Martha, he can create a myth to which she will at least subliminally acquiesce (and then be anesthetized to meaning or content).

What is, of course, odd but amusing is that these commercials—in mock-romantic, narrative style—provide the form of life and adventure story, with touches of chivalry, sacrifice, and honor. But their details betray a grotesque reality about their marriage. Although he may act out the Sir Walter Raleigh role, he is in fact an infantalized and castrated male: “I remember the time you went walking without your shoes, … I got down on my hands and knees and crawled in front of you. … Afterwards you treated me to a raspberry ice, calling for a saucer, which you placed, daintily, at your feet. I still recall … the way the raspberry stained my muzzle. … We had our evening quarrel. … The subject, which had been announced by you at breakfast and posted on the notice board, was Smallness in the Human Male.

This reminds us of Pinter's and Beckett's couples (in plays like A Slight Ache and Happy Days), but where these writers reveal the terror and pain beneath ordinary word games and daily routines, Barthelme omits any distancing between what his figures seem and are. His people are unique in their abstract weirdness; they blindly and totally live out the structure of marriage (life) without demanding any substance. Hence their words have the form of meaning (the substance) but are continuously drifting off into distracting particularizations or amplifications that leave behind their essential, conceptual meaning. An argument is an argument as long as it follows that form of discourse. At one point they make freezing ice cubes a cause celèbre; and somewhat reminiscent of Beckett in his sucking stones sequence in Molloy, Barthelme devotes two pages to their “procuring,” “conceiving,” “whelping,” “genesis,” and “parturition” of ice cubes.

Nevertheless, unlike Pinter and Beckett, Barthelme's final effects are always funny. Appropriately, the story ends with the melodrama suitable to Barthelmean soap opera. Bloomsbury doesn't die; he sort of fades away. His great amatory loss is mirrored by the stoppage of his electrical current. The universe is indeed just: “That was the end of this period of Bloomsbury's, as they say, life.”


That this party at the Waldorf-Astoria (a parody of the annual ball in Vienna) should be called the “Viennese Opera Ball” is just as pretentious as the conversations captured there. There is no dancing, as “Ball” might suggest (although both Lester Lanin and Meyer Davis are presumably playing their very classy music), and even the romantic excesses associated with Viennese opera are totally alien to this group. This “Ball” is just an excuse for a large cocktail party, where Barthelme plays theme and variations upon the silly words and mere rhythms of meaning that dance about the room.

Once again he juxtaposes meaningful and trivial chatter, mouthed by the indistinguishably undistinguished, chic and mod, successful and affluent guests. This he does in a fabulous evocation of radically different subjects and styles—of obstetricians, financiers, fashion writers, anthropologists, and empty-headed models. Paced at top speed, the barrage of wildly disparate subjects assaults the reader—on the techniques and instruments of abortion, the Jumbo tree and its resemblance to the elegant monkey and bison, the financial status of the American Machine Company, the “art rather than sheer force” of penile stimulation, Edward Stone's buildings in Islamabad, the size of black bands on both widows' and widowers' calling cards, Abbey Lincoln's stature as a great jazz singer, and so on. Surgery, travel, modeling, mortality, forceps, and freedom: these are one's concerns, and they share equal billing in one's life.

The story is not only funny because of Barthelme's measured juxtapositions, but it is also strangely interesting. In eavesdropping on these chic, contemporary New Yorkers—walking versions of Fortune, medical journals, anthropology texts, fashion magazines, biographies, and dictionaries—we must admit (if we are to be honest) we save ourselves time from our own reading. Typical of so many of his stories, this one is weirdly informative, as at the same time, it is thoroughly mocking. Barthelme allows us, in fact, in our greed for information, to identify with his figures—but only briefly, owing to their exaggeration.

Barthelme once again literalizes and/or plays with metaphor: “The devil is not as wicked as people believe, and neither is an Albanian”; “An abortionist [should] empty the uterus before … [the patient] has retinitis”; “the members were ruptured artificially and a Spanish windlass applied.” Finally, if we look closely at the story, we can discern a few motifs that underlie much of the sludge—on violence, art, force, and mortality. Serious lines emerge from time to time—i.e., Baudelaire's “Mortality is the final evaluator of methods.” But if—to Baudelaire—death justifies life in the existential sense, to Barthelme one can never be sure, for he pokes fun (but serious fun) at everything we do and think, including such highfalutin and serious pronouncements. Barthelme, to be sure, is in it for the fun, and humor always wins out. Immediately following Baudelaire's line is: “An important goal is an intact sphincter.”


Structuralist, phenomenologist, and deconstructionist critics alike can have a heyday here where, like a master chessman, Barthelme plays out the story's key line: “We read signs as promises” but “some of them are lies.” Focusing essentially upon the arbitrariness of both “seeming” and “being,” he goes beyond the disparity between what appears (in signs) and what is then interpreted (as fact or illusion) in order to show how virtually everything is sometimes true but sometimes false. One's roles and even the tenacity, or veracity, with which they are held, is similarly true/false, real/unreal. The “authority” both behind and presumably inherent within the word, the interpreted act, the relationship, perhaps life itself, is arbitrary. This most playful and imaginative story begins:

Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal's office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven't quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I've been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind.

(Italics mine)

Our man-child, Joseph, has returned to Horace Greely Elementary School to learn exactly where he went wrong. He was brought up to believe in signs and to believe that the promises of life would materialize: “Everything” in life, he says, “is promised … most of all the future.” Furthermore, “everything is presented as the result of some knowable process.” As a result, he followed all the prescriptive steps; his life was not of his choosing but of following the “clues”—“diplomas, membership cards, campaign buttons, a marriage license, insurance forms, discharge papers, tax returns, Certificates of Merit.” But no one prepared him for the fact that “arrangements sometimes slip, … errors are made, … signs are misread.”

His life went awry as he misread two very important signs, the first involving his marriage, the second his career. His wife had “beauty, charm, softness, perfume, cookery,” and so, he thought, he “had found love.” But his wife, who read in him the same signs that now Miss Mandible and the other girls read (i.e., a woman “would never be bored”), in fact left him “for another man.” Too, as an insurance claims adjuster, he followed the company's motto: “Here to Help in Time of Need,” but when he awarded a settlement of $165,000 to a claimant who without his aid “lacked the self-love to prize her injury so highly,” Henry Goodykind (note his name, as sign) fired him. He failed to understand the double message in his company's motto.

Now he sits in the classroom trying to get to the source of life's “conspiracy,” trying to learn the rules of life: “All the mysteries [of life] that perplexed me as an adult have their origins here.” His main questions are “Who decides?” and how does one apply those rules to life (specifically in his interpersonal relationships which, as Miss Mandible and her texts assume, alone make the rules relevant)?

What he learns, or at least we do, is that the promises we're given don't always come true, and this is a lesson necessarily learned after the fact. “It is the pledges that this place makes to me, pledges that cannot be redeemed, that confuse me later.” He learns that all signs (and therefore rules) and the interpretation of them (like all roles) are arbitrary. This he calls the “whimsy of authority” and adds: “I confused authority with life itself.”

Meaning, in fact, is locked in outside of one's experience—synchronically, rather than diachronically. It is only after the fact, chronologically after his role as soldier, husband, and employee, that he has any perspective on his life. Written in the form of a diary, it is only in the present moment that he can say: “Placed backward in space and time, I am beginning to understand how I went wrong, how we all go wrong.”

His present then consists of mysterious signs, which will make sense to him only after he lives through them. Reality can be articulated and placed in the construct of words, sentences, and interpretations, only after one has “finished” the experience. The logic that organizes words, like one's so-called comprehension of life, is not necessarily appropriate to the experience; it is a part of it, while not particularly descriptive of it. Any role he plays out, furthermore, will be as arbitrary and “meaningful” as any other he might have chosen. Hence, he can make an easy transition from insurance adjuster to student. As he says: “The distinction between children and adults” is “a specious one. … There are only individual egos, crazy for love.”

Miss Mandible tries to teach the children how to interpret signs or roles—how to apply their “knowledge” to real life situations. From her text “Making the Processes Meaningful,” she is advised that children will enjoy fractions if the subject has social significance. One student mockingly illustrates the inappropriateness of such an approach: when Bobby Vanderbilt “wishes to bust a classmate in the mouth he first asks Miss Mandible to lower the blind, saying that the sun hurts his eyes. When she does so, bip!”

While the teacher's text—and the applicability of the logic of common fractions to everyday experience—may be laughable, other “literature,” even popular magazines, contains messages or signs which, when interpreted, may or may not lie, but which indeed effect life, and this leads to the very funny conclusion, and Barthelme's ingenious treatment of how “art” or the media create life.

To begin, within this sixth-grade class, with its geography, history, and common fractions, there are numerous signs that lie. Each morning as the students face the American flag, our most obvious, misleading sign—the thirty-five-year-old Gulliver who is perceived as eleven (and who speaks as an eleven-year-old might: “Me and Miss Mandible”)—pledges allegiance to both Miss Mandible and Sue Ann; as they all lift their geography books to read, he lifts his clandestine journal. The major sign in the classroom, totally ignored by the authorities, is its atmosphere of “aborted sexuality”: the class is “a furnace of love, love, love.”

Not only is Miss Mandible confused about which sign to respond to in her student/sex-object, but the narrator has his second eye on eleven-year-old Sue Ann, who actually “reminds him of his wife,” just as Miss Mandible seems “like a child.” Frankie Randolph, another young girl (note how her name as “sign” misleads) is also attracted to him, and Bobby Vanderbilt, hard at work transferring his libido into peculiar oral imitations of racing cars, is making a record called “Sounds of Sebring.”

One day Frankie gives our narrator a copy of Movie-TV Secrets, after which the jealous Sue Ann thrusts seventeen more magazines at him, with their variety of infinitely suggestive articles on Liz Taylor, Eddie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds: “Isn't It Time to Stop Kicking Debbie Around?” “Can Liz Fulfill Herself?” among many others.

Joseph has been examining a rather compromising photo with the caption: “The exclusive photo isn't what it seems.” The “facts,” it continues, are otherwise. He, however, is not convinced. To him, the picture (the sign) and his interpretation, are one: “I am happy,” he says perhaps facetiously, “that the picture is not really what it seems”; “it seems to be nothing less than divorce evidence.”

An ad juxtaposes less ambiguous signs, although their connection with “reality” is questionable. “Hip Huggers,” or “padded rumps,” offer eleven-year-olds “appeal” in their “hips and derrière, both.” Realizing the unified message here between picture, caption, and inevitable interpretation, Joseph adds: “If they cannot decipher the language the illustrations leave nothing to the imagination.”

What follows is riotous. Amos Darin (because he is prepubescent? because he is stimulated by the ads? because he wishes to be Eddie Fisher?) draws a dirty picture in the cloakroom that is, the narrator says (with the expertise of a thirty-five-year-old), “sad and inaccurate.” “It was offered,” he continues, “not as a sign of something else but as an act of love in itself.” (But this is our narrator's “reading.”) This, in turn, is followed by (does it stimulate?) an acting out in the cloakroom of the Fisher-Reynolds-Taylor triangle: “Sue Ann Brownly caught Miss Mandible and me in the cloakroom, during recess, and immediately threw a fit … certain now which of us was Debbie, which Eddie, which Liz.”

Although he tries to convince the authorities of his responsibility in this act, they continue to read him as an innocent though wayward child who will simply have to see a doctor. As to Miss Mandible, and Barthelme literalizes his metaphors shamelessly, she has been “ruined but fulfilled.” Having read him as a thirty-five-year-old healthy male, her “promise had been kept.” She indeed now knows “that everything she has been told about life” is “true.” At the same time, she “will be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” At the end, preparing to depart, our narrator receives a gift from Bobby Vanderbilt, the recording Sounds of Sebring—perhaps to help him in what Bobby still reads as his eleven-year-old peer's confusion amid the mysteries of sex.


Because the pleasure of reading Barthelme lies so much in his wit, one is self-conscious in merely focusing on his “situations.” This is particularly true here, where Barthelme mixes a matter of philosophical speculation with an everyday New York happening, and the two transform into an outlandishly comic situation.

The story is this: Pickets, “pursuing their right to demonstrate peaceably under the Constitution,” are marching and distributing flyers in front of a church (St. John the Precursor!) and Rockefeller Center. They are met with a few sympathizers and hecklers, and even some bullies who beat them up. What is absolutely hilarious is their cause—or at least the concrete form their cause or “revolt” takes. Barthelme literalizes their rebellion against the inequities of the human condition and the existential plight—in a picket line.

Their placards read: “Man Dies! / The Body is Disgust! / Cogito Ergo Nothing! / Abandon Love!” Their flyers reflect their dissatisfaction and rally to action: “Why does it have to be that way?” “What Is To Be Done?” contains, in fact, a “program for the reification of the human condition from the ground up.” All of this, by the way, is being televised and “written up” for the “important” magazines.

Barthelme is equally funny as he captures the mentality of the bystanders (i.e., haven't you ever heard of Kierkegaard? some ask). Others, the “innocents”—“possibly from the FBI”—cross the picket line and enter the church. Most of the tourists milling around Rockefeller Plaza, however, are indifferent: “It's a paradigmatic situation … exemplifying the distance between the potential knowers holding a commonsense view of the world and what is to be known, which escapes them as they pursue their mundane existences.”

Now one may laugh at what seems to be Barthelme's parody of contemporary philosophical dilemmas, but if this sort of subject is not worthy of lofty language and concern, what is? What Barthelme is illustrating is that while content (man's condition) is of utmost significance (like “the absurd” in “Shower of Gold”), any form its expression takes is inadequate, or inaccurate—indeed ridiculous (although Barthelme is good-humored, rather than mocking toward these people).

Levels of comedy expand—through incongruity of situation and language and through excessive details; these undercut potentially dramatic statements that otherwise might advance the plot (indeed a reflection of our absurdity). When the bullies arrive, for example, “dressed in hood jackets … [and] tight pants”—and here Barthelme's psychologizing distracts us from our usual associations with delinquents—“they were very obviously … from bad environments and broken homes where they had received no love.”

If, up to this point, Barthelme has been playful with the demonstrators and non-demonstrators, he shifts gears and concludes on a more serious note. One of the picketers has been physically assaulted; nonetheless, with his head bandaged, he manages to get to the “Playmor Lanes” to deliver his lecture: “What Is To Be Done?” The story concludes: “With good diction and enunciation and in a strong voice” he “was very eloquent.” “And eloquence … is really all any of us can hope for.” If ripeness or readiness was all, at another time in man's history, now—in a bowling alley, pulpit, or just about anywhere—good style is all.

The title of the story (evoking the absence of belief and love in The Waste Land) is significant. The speaker has an obviously important and guarded relationship with someone named “Marie.” She, it would appear, has painted the placards, which are now fading in the rain, and she remains at home watching this on television. Now, as he passes a restaurant, he is reminded of something she said when at Bloomingdale's they bought her “cerise” bathing suit (the color of The Waste Land's hyacinths). (Is he recalling “And I was frightened,” the line that precedes “Marie, Marie, hold on tight”?) Questions of this sort, like his relationship with her, remain enigmatic, although he (and presumably she) are picketing on the “chimera of love.” What Barthelme really is doing here, typical of many of his best stories like “The Balloon” and “Indian Uprising,” is allowing his narrator to verbally focus on one thing—picketing, the human condition—while really concentrating on something else, i.e., Marie.

What we experience in the story (a series of boxes within other boxes) is the difficulty of pinpointing meaning in the narrator, as he tells a story about the dilemma of discerning meaning in life. Nevertheless, it is both a very funny and serious story. As Barthelme writes: “Eloquence … is really all any of us can hope for.”


Very much like “Will You Tell Me?” “Up, Aloft” is another example of Barthelme's technical virtuosity. It abounds in the mockery of cliché, the burlesque of traditional technique, and the literalization of metaphor. Plot is disarrayed; sentences flow with the form of meaning, but non sequiturs intrude upon otherwise potentially logical statements. What we have often is the form of meaning, suspended without logical content, or content that lacks clear-cut context.

Divided into four sections, the story would seem to be a picaresque adventure—as Flight 309 is forced to land in Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, and Cincinnati, and a would-be macho hero, named Buck (actually, one of Prufrock's descendants) encounters and is himself an example of the lust, infidelity, indifference, and general death-in-life quality in every decadent city he visits. The trivial and tragic are juxtaposed as Buck walks the streets of Akron, equally impressed with suicidal lovers and the shape of skyscrapers, his sweet tooth, the bakery salesgirl, and the sanitation men who clean up the suicides' blood. Note how the word “green” ties all together: “From the top of the Zimmer Building … a group of Akron lovers consummated a four-handed suicide leap. … The air! Buck thought as he watched the tiny figures falling, this is certainly an air-minded country, America! But I must make myself useful. He entered a bunshop and purchased a sweet green bun, and dallied with the sweet green girl there, calling her ‘poppet’ and ‘funicular.’ Then out into the street again to lean against the warm green façade of the Zimmer Building and watch the workmen scrubbing the crimson sidewalk.”

Striking are Barthelme's creations of unusual and expanded metaphors—i.e., “And the great horse of evening trod over the immense scene once and for all”; “Hookers of grog thickened on the table placed there for that purpose.” Even the following has its own logic if we literalize “ill-designed”: “The citizens of Akron, after their hours at the plant, wrapped themselves in ill-designed love triangles which never contained less than four persons of varying degrees of birth, high, and low and mediocre.” Some of Barthelme's most frequently quoted metaphors are found here: “Bravery was everywhere, but not here tonight, for the gods were whistling up their mandarin sleeves in the yellow realms where such matters are decided, for good or ill”; “[Buck] took the hand offered him with its enormous sapphires glowing like a garage.”

Barthelme literalizes a wild (green) salad mix(ture) with his “mix” of people, as he simultaneously plays on “grass” and “blanched”: at a party where people are dancing, “sensuously, they covered the ground. And then two ruly police gentlemen entered the room, with the guests blanching, and lettuce and romaine and radishes too flying for the exits, which were choked with grass.”

He incorporates the cornball language of melodrama to set up content (the structure of meaning) without context. In the midst of some silly instructions of how to deal with “orange and blue flames” in a 707 plane, we read: “And now, Nancy. He held out his arms. She came to him. / ‘Yes.’ / ‘Aren't we?’ / ‘Yes.’ / ‘It doesn't matter.’ / ‘Not to you. But to me. …’” One has little idea what they are talking about.

The story is filled with puns: “Former slumwife and former slumspouse alike,” enraged with their “progressive” new housing units in Akron, would call the day it all came to pass “Ruesday.” Barthelme moves quickly from one literary style or form to another. There is the silly drama involving the local poet, Constantine Cavity who, in his drugstore, holds meetings of the Toledo Medical Society. (The action is continuously disorienting, for we move from the poet to the drugstore, with its “cadenzas of documents,” to a long list of doctors present, including Dr. Caligari, Dr. Scholl, and Dr. Il y a, to the condemnation of the poet: “It was claimed that Cavity had dispensed … but who can quarrel with Love Root, rightly used? It has saved many a lip.”) In another funny sequence—this time, slapstick—Buck goes into the wrong hotel room and finds a beautiful girl in bed and makes a date with her for the next day.

In the midst of all of this are serious undertones, regarding the immorality of apathy. Near the end is an interesting line, reminiscent of Prufrock's “I grow old”: “I grow less, rather than more, intimately involved with human beings as I move through world life.”


Back in the world of pickets, we meet the black Carl (Carl Maria von Weber), the cultured man whose life, in part spent in jail, is advertised on his sandwich boards, and the white Edward, who tells him that the proper “presentation” on the boards—i.e., the size of the loops in the “g” and “y”—will or will not get him a job, even that of U.S. Vice-President. An implied satire on the possibility of openness between the races, the story really deals with how meaning is divorced from words. “What is your inner reality?” Edward repeatedly asks Carl, who replies, “It's mine.”


This is whimsical in its focus on the comic-strip characters fighting crime in our affluent, consumer society. Everyone has two Batmobiles in his Bat-cave. Although the “tale” involves an encounter with the Joker (whom Bruce analyzes by paraphrasing Mark Schorer's biography of Sinclair Lewis), it focuses on the relationship of Bruce Wayne, Batman, and his friend (lover?) Frederic Brown. (Robin, now at Andover, is having trouble with his French.) Its humor derives both from its quasi-humanization of these cardboard characters in a superchic society, and from its juxtapositions of the ridiculous or fantastic and the banal: “The Batmobile sped down the dark streets of Gotham City toward Gotham Airport”; “I usually prefer Kents … but Viceroys are tasty too.”


In this visually and typographically interesting story, Barthelme places the “narrative” on the right side of the page and a gloss on the left. “To London …” is a satire on contemporary marriage, about people who accumulate things to assure themselves they are alive.

Their purchases, starting with a Necchi sewing machine and including a mistress, a big house, a piano, a Rolls Royce, a race horse, and finally a hospital that treats horses and Viscount jets, is an exercise in pataphysics. The story, in addition, is filled with “pauses” in the gloss which, unlike Pinter's famous pauses (which are always a mask for terror beneath), emphasize the empty silence of the typically respectable, affluent couple, and they, the pauses, are really the subject of the story. The horror we feel in reading this comes from our locating meaning only in the lines and pauses, in the absence of anything beneath.


Although this story brings back many of the weirdly abstract people of the collection, it is Barthelme's jubilant affirmation of life's possibilities, contradictions, and indefinability. Peterson, a “romantic” sculptor, goes on a television program “Who Am I?” to earn some much-needed money. The program, designed “to discover what people really are,” is based on each contestant's personal testimony to life's absurdity. But Peterson revolts. Although he accepts the absurd condition, he realizes the contradiction of terms in articulating and embracing it. His final statement, with its echoes of Hamlet and Perseus, lacks Barthelme's typical irony and is unusually lyrical:

Don't be reconciled. Turn off your television sets … indulge in a mindless optimism. Visit girls at dusk. Play the guitar. How can you be alienated without first having been connected? Think back and remember how it was. … My mother was a royal virgin … and my father a shower of gold. My childhood was pastoral and energetic and rich in experiences which developed my character. As a young man I was noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in form express and admirable, and in apprehension. …

“Turn off your television sets” and close your texts—is this Barthelme speaking and the underlying message of the story? We live in what Joyce called a “hyper-educated” age, where, today, existential jargon is not only part of everyone's vocabulary, but it is our very identity. Not only are we walking texts of Pascal, Heidegger, Sartre, and the others, but we are the living products of T.V. lingo. Television has, after all, become the contemporary art that popularizes manners and morality, that establishes our ethical and spiritual consciousness.

Barthelme is caustic, as he belittles the cold indifference of the T.V. employee who says to Peterson: “Mr. Peterson, are you absurd? … do you encounter your own existence as gratuitous? Do you feel de trop? Is there nausea?” The catchwords of modern philosophy follow, as she continues, abstractly: “People today, we feel, are hidden away from themselves, alienated, desperate, living in anguish, despair and bad faith.” She could be speaking for mouthwash or corn pads: “Man stands alone in a featureless, anonymous landscape, in fear and trembling and sickness unto death. God is dead. Nothing everywhere. Dread. Estrangement. Finitude.” Lest she forget her Ivory soap-slogan mentality, she continues: “We're interested in basics”; and she adds: “You may not be interested in absurdity … but absurdity is interested in you” (echoing patriotic Uncle Sam posters and reversing JFK's “Ask not what your country can do for you …”).

Peterson goes to his art dealer, who can't sell his work because of the weather. (It is the season for buying boats, not art.) He mouths sympathy with the artist's having to sell himself to television, but he babbles more Pascal and Sartre. You are estranged, he says, “from those possibilities for authentic selfhood that inhere in the present century.” To cater to the public taste, he urges, Peterson should saw his sculptures in half: “two little ones would move much, much faster.”

Back in his loft Peterson thinks of the President, who has encouraged the arts, and he completes a new sculpture. Suddenly a wildly absurd event literally occurs. The President himself runs in and cracks a sledge hammer on the new sculpture, breaking it into several small pieces. As Peterson next tells his barber-confidant about this, the barber, another lay analyst and philosopher (like everyone these days) and the author of four books, all titled The Decision to Be (or not to be?), diagnoses Peterson, now in Martin Buber's “I-Thou” terms, cites Pascal and others, and tells Peterson to get out of his solipsism and be more like the President. Yet, like the dealer, he too scorns the television show as a sellout, totally unaware of how much like it he is: “It [and he] smells of the library.”

Two other wildly absurd events then occur, absurd again in the palpable and practical (literal), not theoretical sense—the only “absurd” one can really fathom and articulate. A piano player, who is a living example of a seventeenth-century engraving, arrives (with switchblades) to play a cat piano (made from real cats) and parrot more “pour-soi” philosophy. Three girls from California also barge in to freeload in his loft (since by definition the artist is automatically into the free life), and although they are waiting for their “connection,” they too spout Pascal.

Peterson finally goes on the television program, where the emcee resembles the President, and the contestants are attached to polygraphs to test the “validity” of their answers. Following their displays of “bad faith” (scientifically measured), Peterson admits: “The world is absurd … I affirm the absurdity.” Yet, he continues, “On the other hand, absurdity is itself absurd,” and recites the lengthy statement quoted above. Dwelling on the irrational and pursuing through logical discourse the illogical is, of course, ridiculous. One is rather obliged to “indulge in a mindless optimism [italics mine].” Most importantly, “absurdity is absurd,” because ultimately it affirms the meaninglessness of life. Peterson's answer to all of this is that one must “play.”

Attacking all the living-dead in this volume, Barthelme writes: “How can you be alienated without first having been connected? Think back and remember how it was. …” Indicting our “socialization,” education, and brainwashing by texts and the media, Peterson affirms the human potential for greatness: “My mother was a royal virgin. …” Evoking the great classical past, he, in a sense, is not lying as he tells of the time man was connected to a beautiful or humanistic universe, which he truly thought he could comprehend, a time when one's childhood could be rich, when one might grow up to be noble.

Although Peterson is aware that the world has changed, a potential for nobility still remains. Peterson bespeaks a passion for other pleasures still very much alive in today's world—generosity, creativity, integrity, and his own brand of optimism. Lest one forget the conclusion of “Marie,” “eloquence” is all.

As much as one might like to end the discussion here, once again nothing ever “finishes” in Barthelme, and we are reminded that words (we are discussing “eloquence,” after all)—any words—never truly reflect the texture of reality and one's experience: “Peterson went on and on and although he was, in a sense lying, in a sense he was not.” Indeed, one cannot verbalize “mindless optimism,” just as one cannot verbalize the absurd. In fact, not only may what one feels, in both cases, be similar, but once translated into words, both (emotional) experiences become transformed.

Furthermore, if one tries to utter the unutterable (i.e., Peterson's “eloquence”), his words may connect with associations—i.e., a mythology—that are totally anachronistic to his everyday world. Peterson's words move us because they are (in part) Hamlet's—not even Shakespeare's or Barthelme's, and they evoke a sensibility that is totally divorced from our (from Peterson's) contemporary world. We have our Barthelmean boxes-within-boxes once again.

Finally, the story is not only about the artist who must “play” and strive for eloquence. It is also about the urgent need we all have for authority—whether in our barber or President, our media or history and literature of the past, or our own artistic creations. It is about our passionate need for meaning—for some control over the incomprehensibility of life—and how ultimately any answer, even that of the greatest literary artist, must be shaped in sounds, and thus be removed from the very impulse that motivated it, like one's “sense” of the absurd or “mindless optimism.”

A final point: if, as Barthelme illustrated in “Me and Miss Mandible,” signs do sometimes lie, this extends beyond words to the richest sign of all—life itself. Words are but a microcosm of an infinitely suggestive and fluid reality. Beneath all its humor and levels of irony, “Shower of Gold” is both a proud and jubilant affirmation of artistic ambition, as at the same time it conveys the humility of the individual in the face of an endlessly provocative and irreducible reality.

Frank Burch Brown (review date 31 March 1982)

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SOURCE: Brown, Frank Burch. Review of Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme. Christian Century (31 March 1982): 385-86.

[In the following review, Brown views Sixty Stories as a welcome overview of Barthelme's work and “gives ample evidence that contemporary writing and stories of this kind defy capsule description.”]

At 50 Donald Barthelme has established himself as a remarkable—and remarkably influential—writer with a seemingly boundless capacity for invention. This representative collection of 60 stories [Sixty Stories] provides a welcome overview of his work to date, including an excerpt from the novel The Dead Father and five stories not previously available in book form. It also gives ample evidence that contemporary writing and art can be most frustrating at the very points at which they succeed most brilliantly.

More than one critic has called Barthelme's stories “parables”—presumably because the works are short, perplexing and suggestive, verging (one might suppose) on some larger realm of significance. But, as one soon realizes, these opaque little fictions are markedly different from the parables of Jesus or even Kafka. One feels, in fact, that they are the sort of thing a poststructuralist like Derrida would produce if he set out to write parables.

Ever ironic, sophisticated, perverse, fantastic and often extremely witty, Barthelme's stories seldom focus on character, plot or other features of traditional narrative. Instead, they seem determined to explore the range of interesting “misreadings” to be derived from intentionally eccentric ways of perusing and rearranging the artifacts—the “texts”—of the modern world. In so doing they envision other, impossible worlds; and they improvise endless permutations of the structures discernible in actual language and everyday perception.

Stories of this kind defy capsule description. It must suffice to note that some of them display as “found objects” certain moments of history, whether actual or invented (e.g., “Cortes and Montezuma,” “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning”). Most of them bring to mind aspects of the current “scene,” as in the wonderful account of Hokie Mokie the jazz king. A number play with material borrowed from politics, philosophy, metaphysics and religion. What, he wonders, are angels to do now that God is gone? What if a benign capitalist bought Galveston, Texas? And occasionally Barthelme goes in for genuine satire, the sharpest of which is directed at such things as pop psychoanalysis, commercialized existentialism, religious pieties of all sorts, modern marriage (and divorce), and other banalities of our culture, high and low.

Obviously, then, the world of ordinary experience and thought is related to the worlds of this fiction. But—unlike many of their absurdist and surrealist analogues—Barthelme's fictions are so constructed as to illumine, in the end, very little of that actual human experience or of real human possibility. Indeed, they reflect nothing so much as Barthelme's love of purely linguistic effects. And in this respect the stories in this volume are not parables (or stories) at all.

Yet it is also in just this respect that these pieces remind one of a great deal of contemporary art, including the nonverbal (to which many of Barthelme's stories allude). For it is plain that much of our “high” culture regards everything except the medium itself with disinterest and/or irony, with the result that—as Barthelme himself hints in “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel”—even the ironist's medium is purged of most of what can greatly amuse or engage.

It is fascinating, then, to watch Barthelme and others attempt to make more and more out of less and less. The greater their success, the closer they come to an already visible limit. Just once, as Barthelme is creating so much out of so little, one wants to quote for him the words of a nameless character in his story “Grandmother's House”: “Having seen all this I then realized what I had not realized before, what had escaped my notice these many years, that not only is less more but that more is more too” (his italics). But of course—ironically—he knows that already, while possibly forgetting that less can also be less.

Maurice Couturier and Regis Durand (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: Couturier, Maurice and Durand, Regis. “Barthelme's Code of Transaction.” In Donald Barthelme, pp. 42-50. London: Methuen, 1982.

[In the following essay, Couturier and Durand analyze the different forms of transaction and discourse in Barthelme's short fiction.]

Barthelme's fiction—rather like Beckett's—does point in the direction of a theoretical reconstruction of the self; this is a comic enterprise, however, and is undercut by one of Barthelme's favourite strategies of displacement and defence, his constant irony. His irony is, as we have seen, a generator of fiction, but when applied to the psychological and historical world it becomes part of the complicated game of the troubled subject. A good example of this is his story ‘The Sandman’, in Sadness, which consists of a letter written by a girl's boyfriend to her analyst. It is a funny letter, which displays Barthelme's thorough knowledge of psychoanalysis but also his ambivalent position towards it.

In ‘The Sandman’, the author of the letter writes to explain why he supports his friend's wish to terminate the analysis and buy a piano instead; he proceeds to expose the power game that underlies the process of psychoanalysis. He calls the analyst ‘the Sandman’ in reference, he says, to the old rhyme (‘Sea-sand does the Sandman bring / Sleep to the end of Day / He dusts the children's eyes with sand / And steals their dreams away’ (S, p. 86); but it is also a reference to Freud's use of the Sandman figure, which he borrowed from E. T. A. Hoffmann's famous tale ‘The Sandman’. The game of allusions and references is carried further when the author uses psychoanalytic literature against the analyst, quoting from articles in professional journals. The boyfriend is in effect challenging the methodology of the analyst—his rigid ego psychology and its underlying norms of behaviour, his desire to ‘stabilize’ Susan. This, if we bear in mind the author's own unhappy experience at the hands of a righteous ‘liberal’ analyst, can, of course, be construed as an indictment. The ironic refutation of the reductive practices of the analyst is forceful, and so is the act of love and total acceptance of the other which is put in its place. But the irony is both enhanced and undercut by the fact that in the process the narrator shows considerable analytic knowledge and skill (his observations would place him as a Freudian phenomenologist, not surprisingly for a writer who here and elsewhere quotes from Biswanger, Ehrenzweig, Ricœur and Phenomenological Psychology). His interpretations of voyeurism and creativity, in particular, are the standard ones. What comes out of the discussion of the case of Susan is a plea for the integrity of the self against stabilization, violent integration or escapism.

Beyond the anecdote and the little theoretical excursion, there remains a lesson for the artist. The lesson concerns not only creation itself (here, a characteristic way of writing stories) but also a way of being in the world (the characteristic ‘Barthelmean’ being):

Let me point out, if it has escaped your notice, that what an artist does, is fail. Any reading of the literature (I mean the theory of artistic creation), however summary, will persuade you instantly that the paradigmatic artistic experience is that of failure. The actualization fails to meet, equal, the intuition.

(S, p. 91)

What the individual is left with is the sense of his own energy, of his existential and intellectual creativity and integrity, with the inevitable ups and downs an uncompromising awareness brings about. But this seemingly self-centred consciousness leads to new developments in Barthelme's work, of a technical as well as of a psychological nature—as can be seen in more recent work, such as Great Days (1979).


Apart from its constant inventiveness in the use of language and fictional forms, Barthelme's writing has impressed its readers with the accuracy of the commentary on American life it provides. His work is, indeed, especially in collections such as City Life and Sadness, a critique de la vie quotidienne of urban civilization in the USA. This has been amply documented by critics and by the writer himself, but one particular aspect of it is worth pursuing here: the interactions, the interface in his work between the individual psychology and the social or political element. There is a formulation of this in ‘The Sandman’:

What do you do with a patient who finds the world unsatisfactory? The world is unsatisfactory; only a fool would deny it. … Susan's perception that America has somehow got hold of the greed ethic and that the greed ethic has turned America into a tidy little hell is not, I think, wrong.

(S, p. 93)

This remark, probably because it is formulated by a character whose explicit theme is a critique of strategies of escapism and adjustment, has a liberal modernist ring to it. But, if Barthelme deserves to be called, as he often is, a post-modernist, it is because of the way he captures and presents obliquely aspects of what we might call the cultural unconscious of America. We say ‘cultural unconscious’ not only to avoid the very dubious word ‘collective’ but also because other concepts, like ‘ideology’ or ‘epistemology’, are perhaps too heavy, too formidable for what we have in mind. But it is clearly something of the same nature, the sort of analysis of the forces at work in society as well as in discourse which Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, among others, have been conducting over the last decade.

Barthelme's fictions are crisscrossed by a bewildering circulation of flows and forces: money, speech, affects, information in the form of quotations, clichés and noise (the opposite of information) are caught in a process of continuous symbolic exchange. At times, especially in the early stories, discourse is explicitly translated into monetary terms (either because it is worth so much on the market, say in the media—as in ‘A Shower of Gold’, CBDC; or more generally because language and speech are a commodity, a currency that can be exchanged against almost anything, as in ‘The Balloon’, UPUA). Like money, discourse can suffer devaluation because of bad currency: dreck, scraps, clichés, waste. Or else excessive accumulation and acceleration of exchanges can create an inflationary whirlwind, leading to giddiness and panic. Barthelme, in stories such as ‘The Rise of Capitalism’ (S) or ‘Paraguay’, is a remarkable analyst of the uncharted waters of post-industrial capitalism. What makes him so intuitively accurate, and so close to the more theoretical work of, say, Baudrillard, is that the economic or monetary metaphor or level is always bound up with the psychic element. Discourse, reduced to pure exchange value, stripped of all referentiality, may suddenly regain objectality or use value because of scarcity or unexpected difficulties in the utterance—as in the wonderful scene from ‘A Picture History of the War’ quoted earlier—which characterize our retentiveness, the anality and anxiety of our greed ethic. But it is never long before it loses its objecthood and becomes an empty sign system, in the blanks between words, in the aimless repetitions and fruitless rewordings, the disjunction and monotony that characterize the obsessional neurosis of the culture.

In this respect, Donald Barthelme has affinities with William Gaddis, especially with his novel JR (1975)—except, of course, that with Gaddis the shattering of codes is more complete, the text becomes purely transactional, and words are only so many particles in a network of flows, totally and instantaneously exchangeable with others: stocks, automobile traffic, TV images, static, scraps of music, and so on. The human voice, like currency, is the vehicle for an infinite exchange-ability, void of all use value, in which exchanges create only additional exchange. The apparent differences in style between the two writers (the extreme length of Gaddis's novel, and its slow accretion over the years, as opposed to Barthelme's short fictions, and their appearance in periodicals, for example) should not conceal the deeper analogies. If there is a real difference, it lies in the fact that Gaddis carries the ‘destabilization’ of discourse, its decodification, much further. Barthelme—and this is perhaps one of his limitations—shifts his ground quite often, begins again from new positions, falls back on old dispositions. Precisely because his fictions are short, the strategies are more visible—indeed, they sometimes call attention to themselves. This is not necessarily a liability, since it is one of the constitutive aspects of Barthelme's post-modernism, giving his work a contemporary (one could almost say fashionable) self-reflexiveness and sense of the cultural ambiance. Besides, the brevity of the form generates intense situations, humour and the satisfaction (for reader and writer alike) of something having been, as Barthelme puts it, ‘completed’.

But the feeling of strategies of manipulation is never very far away. Barthelme is ever the gamester, the master of language games which often carry over into self-parody and to the edge of self-destruction. One of the favourite games is in the form of dialogue. Dialogue here is seldom ‘conversational’ in the traditional sense; rather, it serves as a generator of fiction: a word, a statement, is offered, tossed about, picked up, played with, and yields a certain amount of free association, self-confession or pure verbal energy. This can be considered the more ‘successful’ form of ‘conversation’, when a certain smoothness of rhythm is achieved, a lubrication, a music, as is the case in the voice stories of Great Days. But such ‘felicitous trularity’ is not always so easily achieved. A complicity has to be established, a framework set up. That is why conversations often borrow ritualized forms: the confession, the question-and-answer test, the psychoanalytic session, the interview, and so on. All those situations have in common an informational or therapeutic objective, as well as a power relation more or less explicitly realized. But, most of all, they provide the space and the pretext for a discourse free of the requirements of ‘normal’ conversation, free to indulge in all its obsessions, repetitions, fantasies and self-defences:

Q: Are you bored with the question-and-answer form?

A: I am bored with it but I realize that it permits many valuable omissions: what kind of day it is, what I'm wearing, what I'm thinking. That's a very considerable advantage, I would say

Q: I believe in it

(‘The Explanation’, CL, p. 80)

Every conversation is a form of mutual aggression and/or of mutual analysis. Sometimes this produces the standard rebellion of the ‘analysand’ against the ‘analyst’:

Q: You could interest yourself in these interesting machines. They're hard to understand. They're time-consuming

A: I don't like you

Q: I sensed it

A: These imbecile questions …

Q: Inadequately answered …

A: … imbecile questions leading nowhere …

Q: The personal abuse continues

A: … that voice, confident and shrill …

Q (aside): He has given away his gaiety, and now has nothing

(‘Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel’, CL, p. 99)

In the several stories based on a similar pattern, the answerer is a sensitive, depressed person, who believes in the power and confusion of love, against the technocratic order of textbooks of all kinds, against the inquisitorial discourse of psychology, religion or ‘science’. ‘The Explanation’ is particularly significant in this respect, since it stages the resistance of the ‘answerer’ to the questioner's technological cant and his attempts to manipulate him. The strategy is that of affects against hyperrationality, of ‘madness’ against ‘the reign of right reason’ (the content of which, according to the A figure, is rhetoric):

Q: I have a number of error messages I'd like to introduce here and I'd like you to study them carefully … they're numbered. I'll go over them with you: undefined variable … improper use of hierarchy … missing operator … mixed mode, that one's particularly grave … argument of a function is fixed-point … improper character in constant … improper fixed-point constant … improper floating-point constant … invalid character transmitted in sub-program statement, that's a bitch … no End statement

A: I like them very much

Q: There are hundreds of others, hundreds and hundreds

A: You seem emotionless

Q: That's not true

A: To what do your emotions … adhere, if I can put it that way?

(‘The Explanation’, CL, p. 79)

Confronted here are two modes of scanning the real and the discourses that attempt to structure it. And, in the comic enunciation of faulty transmission of information, the answerer probably sees, as the reader does, nothing but fantastic possible worlds of fiction, lusciously, parasitically proliferating. But, ultimately, his challenge is not even to the other as agent of organized technocratic power. Rather it is addressed to him, as the end of the quotation makes clear, as an agent and a victim of the tedium of repetition, of the slow death of non-feeling. ‘The Catechist’ (in Sadness) gives a particularly successful staging of this symbolic situation. A priest who has fallen in love with a woman is being questioned and instructed day after day by a catechist:

The catechist opens his book. He reads: ‘The apathy of the listeners. The judicious catechist copes with the difficulty.’ He closes the book.

I think: Analysis terminable and interminable. I think: Then she will leave the park looking backward over her shoulder.

He says: ‘And the guards, what were they doing?’ I say: ‘Abusing the mothers’

‘You wrote a letter?’

‘Another letter’

‘Would you say, originally, that you had a vocation? Heard a call?’

‘I heard many things. Screams. Suites for unaccompanied cello. I did not hear a call.’


‘Nevertheless I went to the clerical-equipment store and purchased a summer cassock and a winter cassock. …’

(S, p. 123)


The change that takes place with Great Days is that the dialogues seem to free themselves of the question-and-answer pattern and become more complex procedures. At the same time, the relations between the two voices are no longer ruled by aggression or investigation principles as in the examples above. Has conversation, then, become, as one of the speakers in Great Days puts it, a ‘nonculminating kind of ultimately affectless activity’? (GD, p. 159). Yes, in the sense that play has been substituted for confrontation, analysis and anxiety. As the same speaker says to his partner, ‘I respect your various phases. Your sweet, even discourse’ (GD, p. 159). This is not to say that Barthelme's later stories have become gentle psalmodies of love. If love does figure prominently in them, it is in a somewhat ambiguous way, and always with the peculiar edge of his humour: ‘Love, the highest form of human endeavour’, but also ‘Love which allows us to live together male and female in small grubby apartments that would only hold one sane person, normally’ (‘The Leap’, GD, p. 152).

But that is only one of the reasons why the later stories cannot be termed ‘affectless’ in any way. Affects, as always, are pervasive. The difference with earlier fictions is that they have become so pervasive that they are now the very object of the language games being played. ‘Morning’ begins as an exorcism of fear (‘Say you're frightened. Admit it—’). ‘The Leap’ is a ritual in preparation for the great day, the day ‘we make the leap to faith’. ‘Great Days’, similarly, is a ritual review and exorcism of past behaviour leading to the final promise to love and remember:

—There's a thing the children say

—What do the children say?

—They say: Will you always love me?


—Will you always remember me?


(GD, pp. 171-2)

But, beyond such apparent ‘culminations’, a lot of ‘nonculminating’ activity does go on in the Great Days texts. In fact, their structural principle is the performative mode. Micro-sequence after micro-sequence, games are played, promises made, inventions, rituals, exorcisms performed. Unidentified voices perform, act. In ‘The New Music’, the two voices ‘doing mamma’ fall into it like musicians going through a routine number. The texts become the record of the activity of voices; more accurately, they are the activities themselves.

Barthelme's success in this new form of experimentation is brilliant: the stories are, one feels, ‘purified’ of the whimsy and of the sometimes facile post-modernist chic of the earlier collections. They are also purified in the sense that all trace of narrative ‘dross’ has been removed from them. The surprising fact is that this genuinely innovative technique also remains accessible and enjoyable to the reader. With the precision and insight of the master craftsman, Barthelme has refined and inflected his technique, emphasizing the more creative elements of his earlier work and discarding the rest, and working into it the dynamism of the performative mode. One is reminded of Samuel Beckett's wonderful rebound in Company (1980), of his cunning use, once more, of the voice, of what in recent theories has the highest creative potential, the verbal inventiveness, the sense of play and transaction. Such a keen sense of transactions and strategies (will Barthelme ever write a play, one wonders?) radically displaces the question of metafiction. The notion itself always had, it seems, something formalistic and limiting about it. Of course, it is true that one aspect of some of Barthelme's stories does concern itself with the art and the act of telling stories, of performing discursive acts of all kinds. And their modernity certainly has to do with the way the reader finds himself actively enlisted in them, his alertness and creativity being part and parcel of a successful performance of the text, of its being ‘completed’. But then this can be said of almost every good writer, even though the modalities, of course, can be widely different. And metafiction, if it is to be successful as such, must carry the self-reflexiveness and the self-performance much further—as, for example, Italo Calvino has done in his recent meta-novel to end all meta-novels, Se per una notte d'inverno, un viaggiatore (If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, 1981). Clearly, Barthelme's originality and effectiveness do not rest on such brittle notions. His is a genuinely inventive and innovative fiction, for the many reasons we have suggested (and, no doubt, for several others as well).

Larry McCaffery (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8994

SOURCE: McCaffery, Larry. “Donald Barthelme: The Aesthetics of Trash.” In The Metafictional Muse: The Worlds of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass, pp. 99-149. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, McCaffery focuses on the “metafictional interests” of Barthelme's short fiction.]

The final possibility is to turn ultimacy, exhaustion, paralyzing self-consciousness and the adjective weight of accumulating history … to make something new and valid, the essence whereof would be the impossibility of making something new.

—John Barth, “Title”

After a life rich in emotional defeats, I have looked around for other modes of misery, other roads to destruction. Now I limit myself to listening to what people say, and thinking what pamby it is, what they say. My nourishment is refined from the ongoing circus of the mind in motion. Give me the odd linguistic trip, stutter and fall, and I will be content.

—Donald Barthelme, Snow White

On August 31, 1963 the New Yorker carried a story entitled “Player Piano,” which was written by an almost totally unknown thirty-year-old writer named Donald Barthelme. Although few readers or critics could have anticipated it at the time, the appearance of this brief, surreal story in a magazine as rich in literary heritage as the New Yorker must today be regarded as one of the most significant events in recent literary history. Ever since that date, the steady stream of Barthelme's fictions that have appeared in the pages of that magazine has undoubtedly served as a constant source of inspiration to other young experimental writers. Indeed, especially during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Barthelme's work probably had more impact on American innovative fiction than that of any other writer.

Even today, more than fifteen years since his New Yorker debut, much of Barthelme's work—particularly his output up through his collection Sadness—still seems enormously fresh and vital. Because of his stories' resistance to paraphrasable interpretations, their surreal landscapes, unusual characters, and fragmented, seemingly chaotic style, Barthelme's fictional methods have often been compared to those of surrealist or minimalist painters, pop artists, and such writers as Kafka, Beckett, lonesco, and Borges. More important to this study, however, is the inward, metafictional quality of his writing, the way he uses his fiction to explore the nature of storytelling and the resources left to language and the fiction-maker. As was true with Coover, Barthelme's metafictional concerns are intimately related to his other thematic interests: the difficulties of expressing a total vision of oneself in a fragmenting universe, the failure of most of our social and linguistic systems, the difficulties of making contact or sustaining relationships with others. But above all, Barthelme has been our society's most consistently brilliant critic of the language process itself and of the symbol-making activity of modern man. And like the work of Coover and William Gass, Barthelme's metafictional examinations of how our symbols and fiction systems operate—or fail to operate—offer direct and revealing insights into the sadness, anxieties, terrors, and boredom of the modern world.

Rather than attempting to examine each of Barthelme's novels and collections of fiction—a repetitious process, as it turns out—this study will first of all make some general observations about his thematic and stylistic approaches and will then examine more closely two representative early works: Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964) and Snow White (1967). This approach will emphasize the metafictional continuity of Barthelme's work and will not analyze the relatively unimportant ways his work has evolved during his career. Barthelme's literary methods and major thematic concerns have remained relatively stable over the years and, in fact, his recent works—with the exception of Great Days (1979)—seem to be suffering from too much of this very “sameness.” For a period in the late 1960s, especially in City Life (1970), Barthelme seemed very interested in exploring the possibility of using visual and typographic elements to reinforce certain moods or themes. And, as several critics have suggested, there seems to be a greater sense of acceptance or resignation in Barthelme's recent work, a less rebellious or despairing attitude than we find in the early works.1 But for the most part Barthelme's metafictional interests have remained remarkably consistent throughout his career.


The title of one of Barthelme's best short stories, “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,” offers a good summary of what has always been the principal focus of his fiction: the attractions and frustrations offered by ordinary modern life. As Alan Wilde suggests in his perceptive examination of Barthelme's work, it is this scaled-down range of interests which may be what is most distinctive about his work: “The articulation [is] not of the larger, more dramatic emotions to which modernist fiction is keyed but of an extraordinary range of minor, banal dissatisfactions … not anomie or accidie or dread but a muted series of irritations, frustrations, and bafflements.”2 Certainly the reaction of Barthelme's characters to “la vie quotidienne” is easy to summarize, as a few of their remarks pointedly indicate:3

“I was happier before.”

“Like Pascal said: ‘The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us.’”

“I've been sorry all my life.”

“I spoke to Sylvia. ‘Do you think this is a good life?’ The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. ‘No.’”

“The paradigmatic artistic experience is that of failure. … The word is unsatisfactory; only a fool would deny it.”

Nearly all of Barthelme's work to date has been permeated by this overwhelming sense that life is not as good as we expected it to be—“The world in the evening seems fraught with the absence of promise,” says the disgruntled narrator of “La Critique.” This lack of satisfaction on the part of Barthelme's characters is produced by a series of closely connected personal anxieties which are neatly balanced by Barthelme's own evident artistic anxieties and the anxieties presumably experienced by Barthelme's readers. Indeed, there is a significant relationship in Barthelme's fiction between his characters' struggles to stay alive, to make sense of their lives, and to establish meaningful connections with others, and Barthelme's own struggle with the disintegration of fictional forms and the deterioration of language. Often Barthelme's self-conscious, metafictional approach allows these struggles to operate concurrently within the stories (many of his main characters even being surrogate artist figures), the two serving to reinforce or symbolize each other. Meanwhile, we ourselves provide a third aspect of this relationship: as we grapple with the elements to organize and make sense of them, we provide an additional sort of analogue or reflection of this struggle with disintegration. The relationship between these personal and metafictional concerns can be seen more clearly in the following schematic listing:

Ennui with life's familiarities (both animate and inanimate); ongoing personal fight against the “cocoon of habituation which covers everything if we let it” (S, p. 179) Anticipation of the reader's sense of boredom; need to invent new revitalized literary forms
Sense of personal, political, and social fragmentation Impulse toward collage, verbal fragmentation, free association, and other methods of juxtaposition to break down familiar sense of order
Inability to sustain relationships with others (especially women) Inability to rely on literary conventions (linear plots, notions of cause and effect, realistic character development, etc.) which tie things together into a pleasing whole
Sexual frustration and anxiety; sense of impotence and powerlessness in comparison with others Artistic frustration and anxiety; belief that art is useless and can never effect significant change
Inability to know; impulse to certainty blocked (and mocked) by lies, disguises, simplistic formulas, and the irreducible mystery of life Refusal to explain or clarify, denial of hidden or “deep meanings” with tendency instead to “stay on the surface”
Inability to communicate with others; frustrating sense that language blocks or betrays the feelings one wishes to express Suspicion that language has become “drek,” so full of “stuffing” and clichés that meaningful communication with an audience is impossible
Inability to create change in one's condition, a condition made more difficult by one's self-consciousness which serves to paralyze one from spontaneous, possibly liberating, activities Sense that one must accept language's limits and its trashy condition (hence the “recycling tendency,” with clichés and drek being transformed into new objects); self-consciousness making the telling of traditional stories impossible

In Barthelme's fiction, then, the sources of dissatisfaction as well as the means of coping with it are intimately connected for both the artist and the ordinary person. Although the specific manifestations are varied, these parallel struggles often have to do with the attempt to maintain a fresh, vital relationship with either words or women—an obsession which is evident in the works of many other contemporary male metafictionists such as Gass, Coover, Barth, Sukenick, and Federman. Moreover, Barthelme's characters are typically shown not only to be painfully aware of their own personal and sexual inadequacies but, more generally, to be disgruntled or bored with the systems they rely on to deal with their fragmented, meaningless lives. Simply stated, their fundamental problem is twofold: on the one hand, they are bored with their humdrum lives and humdrum relationships with others and are therefore constantly seeking a means of overcoming their rigidly patterned but ultimately inconsequential lives; on the other hand, Barthelme's characters fear any loss of security and are unable fully to open themselves to experience because they find it so confusing, ambiguous, and unstable and because they don't trust the systems at their disposal for coping with it. Paradoxically, then, their very awareness of the dismal realities around them makes it all the more difficult for them to face up to the frightening moment when they must go forth and confront “the new.” The narrator of “Subpoena,” after being forced to dismantle his “monster-friend” Charles, offers a good summary of these mixed feelings: “Without Charles, without his example, his exemplary quietude, I run the risk of acting, the risk of risk. I must participate, I must leave the house and walk about” (S, p. 116). Even more pointed are the remarks of the narrator of “The Dolt” (possibly Barthelme himself) regarding a would-be writer's inability to think of anything to say: “I myself have these problems. Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin” (UP, p. 65).

Thus, the question for Barthelme's characters remains: given a reality which is chaotic, and given the fact that the system of signs developed by man to help him deal with reality is inadequate—“Signs are signs and some of them lie,” says the narrator of “Me and Miss Mandible”—how does one generate enough humanly significant, exciting moments to insure that one is alive? Certainly one cannot rely on any exterior systems to help find assurances and solutions. As Alan Wilde suggests, “In a general way, what Barthelme takes his stand against are pretentions to certainty and the insistence on perfection; large demands and great expectations; dogmatisms and theories of all kinds.”4 Like Coover's characters, then, Barthelme's characters find themselves constantly confronting worn-out systems which fail to operate successfully—systems such as the government, the church, the military, the news media, and a changing series of intellectual systems. (Psychiatry, existentialism, literary criticism, and Freudian psychology are among Barthelme's favorite targets.) Indeed, Barthelme often seems to suggest, perhaps playfully, that the acceptance of any final claims to truth and certainty may result in a deadening of our ability to respond naturally to experience. In “The Photograph” Barthelme suggests precisely this point when he has one scientist suggest to another that they should burn the photographs they have discovered of the human soul:

“It seems to me to boil down to this: Are we better off with souls, or just possibly without them?”

“Yes. I see what you mean. You prefer the uncertainty.”

“Exactly. It's more creative. Take for example my, ah, arrangement with your wife, Dorothea. Stippled with uncertainty. At moments, we are absolutely quaking with nonspecific anxiety. I enjoy it. Dorothea enjoys it. The humdrum is defeated. Momentarily, of course.”

(GP, pp. 158-59)

As Barthelme well knows, any solution to casting off this “cocoon of habituation”—which deadens our responses to art, to other human beings, and to ordinary reality—can only be provisional in nature. But the key for Barthelme, just as it was for Coover, lies in our “keeping the circuits open,” in our remaining open to experience sufficiently so that new responses and new systems can be produced to generate the freshness and vitality we all seek. This is the overt subject matter of a number of Barthelme's best fictions, such as “The Balloon” and “Daumier,” in which Barthelme examines how art can rescue man from the ordinary.

Barthelme's much-analyzed metafiction, “The Balloon,” presents a wonderfully deft and amusing allegory about the status of an art object's relationship to both its creator and its public.5 As with Coover's “The Magic Poker,” the narrator of “The Balloon” opens his story by describing his creation and then reminding us of his control over it: “The Balloon, beginning at a point on Fourteenth Street, the exact location of which I cannot reveal, expanded northward all one night, while people were sleeping, until it reached the Park. There I stopped it” (UP, p. 15). Although we discover in the very last paragraph of the story that this balloon had a specific meaning and served a specific purpose for the narrator—(it is revealed to be “a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence, and with sexual deprivation” (UP, p. 21), the narrator apparently does not intend for this private meaning to be apprehended by his audience. Indeed, his main interest seems to be simply to add another interesting object to the landscape of Manhattan. As he explains:

But it is wrong to speak of “situations,” implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension; there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there … at that moment there was only this balloon, concrete particular, hanging there.

(UP, pp. 15-16)

Not surprisingly, the public experiences some initial difficulties in its attempts to analyze the balloon; but eventually the fundamental epistemological uncertainty of the times forces people to take a more practical approach to the balloon's presence:

There was a certain amount of initial argumentation about the “meaning” of the balloon; this subsided, because we have learned not to insist on meanings, and they are rarely even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomena.

(UP, p. 16)

Rather than seeking external “meanings,” the public soon contents itself with using the balloon for its own private uses: “It was agreed that since the meaning of the balloon could never be known absolutely, extended discussion was pointless, or at least less purposeful than the activities of those who, for example, hung green and blue paper lanterns from the warm gray underside, in certain streets, or seized the occasion to write messages on the surface” (UP, p. 16). Soon the balloon is also being used much like any other arbitrary coordinate system to assist people in orienting themselves: “People began, in a curious way, to locate themselves in relation to aspects of the balloon: ‘I'll be at the place where it dips down into Forty-seventh Street almost to the sidewalk, near the Alamo Chile House” (UP, p. 20).

The balloon also serves another function that reveals much about the role that Barthelme believes that art can play for a regimented easily bored public. As the narrator suggests, the balloon offers an archetypal representation of the limitless freedom of the imagination itself:

It was suggested that what was admired about the balloon was finally this that it was not limited or defined. … This ability of the balloon to shift in shape, to change, was very pleasing, especially to people whose lives were rather rigidly patterned, persons to whom change, although desired, was not available. The balloon … offered the possibility, in its randomness, of mislocation of the self, in contradistinction to the grid of precise, rectangular pathways under our feet. The amount of specialized training currently needed, and the consequent desirability of long-term commitments, has been occasioned by the steadily growing importance of complex machinery, in virtually all kinds of operations; as this tendency increases, more and more people will turn, in bewildered inadequacy, to solutions for which the balloon may stand as a prototype, or “rough draft.”

(UP, pp. 20-21)

Like all good art objects, then, the balloon effectively provides a sense of freedom and a moment of distraction from the mundane […] effects of reality. Because its shifting, ambiguous surface allows it to be played with and freely interpreted, the balloon also serves as a reminder of the freedom we all have in confronting experience itself.

In “Daumier,” Barthelme explores how the fictional “construction of surrogates” allows a writer to accommodate himself to his unsatisfactory “real” life. The story—which in its labyrinthine structure resembles a miniaturized Universal Baseball Association—opens with the writer/narrator Daumier explaining to his wife the nature of the “great dirty villain,” the self: “Now, here is the point about the self: it is insatiable. It is always, always hankering. It is what you might call rapacious to a fault. The great flaming mouth to the thing is never going to be stuffed full” (S, pp. 163-64). In response to this view of the self, Daumier has decided that the construction of surrogate selves in his fiction will help ease his plight. As he suggests, “The false selves in their clatter and boister and youthful brio will slay and bother and push out and put to all types of trouble the original, authentic self” (S, p. 163). In fact, Daumier has already succeeded in creating a fictional Daumier who “is doing very well” because he knows his limits. He doesn't overstep. Desire has been reduced in him to a minimum” (S, p. 164). During parts of the story we observe this second Daumier operating in his own fictional setting, transporting a number of lovely young women across the “plains and pampas of consciousness” (S, p. 164). After a while the fictional Daumier becomes especially enamored of one particularly attractive woman, a long-legged, kindly lady named Celeste; and, as in The UBA and “The Magic Poker,” we begin to observe a “real” character becoming obsessed with his own creation. Thus the real Daumier notes at one point, “I then noticed that I had become rather fond—fond to a fault—of a person in the life of my surrogate. It was of course the girl Celeste. My surrogate found her attractive and no less did I; this was a worry. I began to wonder how I could get her out of his life and into my own” (S, p. 177).

Sensing that his one fictional construction is not really enough to sate his rapacious self, Daumier next decides to invent another surrogate, “a quiet, thoughtful chap who leads a contemplative life” (S, p. 178). This second person provides us with one of the most direct statements available of what Barthelme feels must be done to accommodate oneself to the world. After a lengthy period of self-analysis, he says, “It is easy to be satisfied if you get out of things what inheres in them, but you must look closely, take nothing for granted, let nothing become routine. You must fight against the cocoon of habituation which covers everything if you let it. There are always openings, if you can find them. There is always something to do” (S, p. 179). This solution sounds remarkably similar to the advice Henry Waugh gives himself just after he sacrificed Jock Casey: “The circuit wasn't closed, his or any other: there were patterns, but they were shifting and ambiguous and you had a lot of room inside them” (UBA, p. 143). At the story's end, the fictional Celeste has entered into the “real” Daumier's life, while he has temporarily packed away his other surrogates until he feels he will need them. Daumier seems well aware that this solution is but a momentary relief from the demands of the self, but nevertheless this projection has provided exactly the sort of imaginative “opening” that frees the ordinary from its tediousness and allows us to go on. The story concludes with Daumier himself rephrasing his surrogate's advice: “The self cannot be escaped, but it can be, with ingenuity and hard work, distracted. There are always openings, if you can find them, there is always something to do” (S, p. 183).

Barthelme also knows, however, that the ability of the artist to create a new, vital form of distraction is a self-generating problem, for what is new and fresh today is destined to soon lose these qualities. Often, as in “The Glass Mountain,” Barthelme depicts man striving to unlock the new only to discover that what he has produced is merely another cliché. In this story, the artist/narrator seeks to escape from his ugly, hostile surroundings to the magical realm of art; but what he finds is merely more conventions, more clichés: when he finally reaches the end of the search he tells us, “I approached the symbol, with its layer of meaning, but when I touched it, it changed into only a beautiful princess” (CL, p. 71). “The Flight of the Pigeons” deals with the difficulties of sustaining the new even more directly, as when its narrator says, “Some things appear to be wonders in the beginning, but when you have become familiar with them, are not wonderful at all. … Some of us have even thought of folding the show—closing it down” (S, p. 139). Clearly this struggle with the new has wide implications for the ordinary man as well as for the artist; indeed, as many other metafictionists have observed (see, for example, John Barth's “Title” in Lost in the Funhouse), people's tendency to become tired of the familiar is just as damaging to personal relationships as it is to the artist. Thus we should realize that the narrator's remarks in “The Party” apply to us equally as well as they do to the writer: “When one has spoken a lot one has already used up all of the ideas one has. You must change the people you are speaking to so that you appear, to yourself, to be still alive” (S, p. 61).

Compounding the difficulties of both the artist and the ordinary individual is the decay of the communication process itself at a time when modern man is becoming increasingly inundated with supposedly meaningful symbols. “You can't even eat breakfast any more without eating symbols as much as anything else,” said William Gass in a recent interview,6 and Barthelme's fiction constantly examines the various ways that man is betrayed by these very symbols. The main problem facing us all, of course, is the trashy, brutalized condition of language itself which makes our communication process almost completely bog down—hence the “sludge quality” of our language—how it is filled with “stuffing”—which is described more thoroughly in Snow White. As a result of his views about language, Barthelme often suggests that language itself may be responsible for the isolation of his characters, their inability to put the pieces of their lives together, and their inability to sustain personal relations. Consequently, ambiguity constantly stalks their lives. They are, quite literally, unable to make sense of their lives or of what is going on around them—though, as the earlier quotation from “The Party” suggests, there does seem to be the Beckett-like hope that if they go on, if their words go on, things may finally come together. One indication of this self-reflexive interest in the linguistic process is the way these characters so often question each other about the meaning and implication of words, though they are almost never able to come up with any definite conclusions. The failures and dissatisfactions created by these linguistic investigations serve to reflect the larger pattern of failure and dissatisfaction in their lives. Information can be gathered, of course—for example, about Robert Kennedy in “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” or about one's father in “Views of My Father Weeping”—but final answers or insights are beyond them. This epistemological skepticism, evident in many Barthelme stories, tends to keep our attention focused on the surface of the events. When his characters—or we ourselves—try to gain “deeper” insights or teleological explanations about what has happened, the search inevitably ends futilely with our efforts often being anticipated and directly mocked.

Both “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” and “Views of My Father Weeping” offer formal critiques of the whole information-gathering process. Each of these stories, which Jerome Klinkowitz has termed “experiments in epistemology,” is composed of brief, seemingly unrelated bits of prose which will supposedly provide enough information to clear up the basic mystery of their subjects.7 “Views” opens with a casual introduction of violence: “An aristocrat was riding down the street in his carriage. He ran over my father” (CL, p. 3). The rest of the story describes the narrator's frustrating efforts to uncover the meaning of this murder and of his father's character. As Coover does in his cubist stories, Barthelme here takes all the elements of a familiar literary framework—in this case, the stock characters and language of a cheap nineteenth-century melodrama or detective thriller—and manipulates our conventional expectations for his own purposes. Much of the enjoyment of the piece comes from Barthelme's uncanny ability to mimic worn-out style and conventions while totally undermining or trivializing the easy assumptions they make. This mimicry also tends to keep our attention focused on the process of the story unfolding while distancing us from its human reality.

Not surprisingly, the story's narrator finds it difficult to relate the bits of contradictory evidence he uncovers. In fact, he finds even the simplest of statements difficult to make without qualification—he is not even sure that he can identify his father. As he tells us, “Yes, it is possible that it is not my father who sits there in the center of the bed weeping. It may be someone else, the mailman, the man who delivers the groceries, an insurance salesman or tax collector, who knows. However, I must say, it resembles my father” (CL, pp. 3-4). While trying to maintain a straightforward method of investigation, the narrator soon discovers that anything he is told is qualified by later considerations. For example, when he questions a witness, he is told that the man in the carriage “looked ‘like an aristocrat’”; but this just leads him to consider the fact this description might simply refer to the carriage itself because “any man sitting in a handsome carriage with a driver on the box … tends to look like an aristocrat” (CL, p. 4). Certainly the old signposts and clichés no longer seem useful to his investigation. When he discovers that the driver's livery was blue and green, for instance, this seems like a substantial clue. But even this proves to be useless because, as he explains, “In these days one often finds a servant aping the more exquisite color combinations affected by his masters. I have even seen them in red trousers although red trousers used to be reserved, by unspoken agreement, for the aristocracy” (CL, p. 8).

Finally, when the denouement arrives, the narrator is able to talk with Lars Bang, the driver of the carriage, who explains the death away as a mere accident caused by the father himself. But within one sentence of this “final resolution,” contradictory data is added by a dark-haired girl who defiantly announces that “Bang is an absolute bloody liar” (CL, p. 17). The story ends with the word “Etc.,” an ending which, as Jerome Klinkowitz suggests, “cheats us of the supposedly false satisfaction fiction supplies”8 and which also suggests that we are familiar enough with the material at hand to continue the story ourselves if we should desire.

Like “Views of My Father Weeping,” the “Robert Kennedy” story also mocks our traditional epistemological assumptions. Ostensibly the story aims at illuminating the nature of an ambiguous referent—the life of Robert Kennedy—by the usual method of gathering bits of factual and interpretive information. These descriptions are assembled for us, but because the reports are so contradictory and banal, we never gain any real insight into the subject. Once more, much of the information we receive is immediately qualified or contradicted.9 The story opens with the news that Kennedy “is neither abrupt with nor excessively kind to associates. Or he is both abrupt and kind” (UP, p. 33). When Kennedy himself talks, his words are inevitably created out of political clichés—“Obsolete facilities and growing demands have created seemingly insoluble difficulties and present methods of dealing with these difficulties offer little prospect of relief”—pure blague—“It's an expedient in terms of how not to destroy a situation which has been a long time gestating, or, again, how to break it up if it appears that the situation …”—or useless redundancies—“I spend my time sending and receiving messages. Some of these messages are important. Others are not” (UP, pp. 36, 41, 33). As Klinkowitz has pointed out, the main thrust of the story is basically that “the conventional epistemology fails,”10 and this failure is underlined in the last section in which Kennedy is saved by the narrator from drowning. Because of the story's title and because of the dramatic nature of the events, we surely expect a revelation into Kennedy's character at last. But even here Kennedy “retains his mask” and when he emerges from the water, he offers a noncommittal and very unrevealing cliché: “Thank you” (UP, p. 44).

Because of their skepticism and self-consciousness, most of Barthelme's characters react very differently from Coover's inveterate fiction makers to the prospect of a random, absurd universe. In “See the Moon,” one of Barthelme's most famous stories, the narrator provides a striking metaphor for the epistemological dilemmas faced by so many Barthelme characters. The story opens with the narrator explaining that he is conducting certain “very important lunar hostility studies”; he goes on to explain that “at night the moon [is] graphed by the screen wire, if you squint. The Sea of Tranquility occupying squares 47 through 108” (UP, pp. 151-52). If we consider the relationship that exists between the narrator, the moon, and the porch screen he uses as a personal grid system, we find a nicely defined metaphor for the way Barthelme seems to view man, reality, and the fragile, artificial systems man has devised to help him organize his experience. Like the equally arbitrary grid system developed by Descartes for analytic geometry, the screen is a neatly patterned but artificial system which doesn't give us any clues about the real nature of the moon (Kant's ding an sich). Yet the screen is useful to the narrator in that it creates a certain temporary order and meaning; like the balloon in “The Balloon,” the screen itself remains ambiguous even though it can be used to help us locate ourselves in relation to other objects. [From] the postmodern perspective we can view all of our fictional grid systems—including science, mathematics, history, and art—to be, epistemologically speaking, really no different from this porch screen.

The narrator in “See the Moon” is therefore representative of most Barthelme characters in that he perceives the world, in Alan Wilde's words, “as a kind of haphazard, endlessly organizable and reorganized playground.”11 Unlike Coover's typical characters, who tend to invent systems and then rely on them too absolutely, Barthelme's characters are often all too aware of the way reality seems determined to resist our efforts to categorize and control it. “See the moon,” says the narrator after explaining how his screen porch functions. “It hates us” (UP, p. 152). Because of his desire to discover some underlying sense of coherency in the elements of existence, the narrator has pinned objects from his past onto his wall. These objects are “souvenirs” which he hopes “will someday merge, blur—cohere is the word, maybe—into something meaningful. A grand word meaningful” (UP, p. 152). Within the story itself, these souvenirs are transformed into the text of words which the narrator produces for us with the same hope of generating some sort of meaning. Before us pass fragments of his past life, anecdotes about his family, his friends, his own experiences, none of which he is able to organize into the neat patterns, supported by explanatory cause-effect relationships, that were available to previous literary generations. Acutely aware of how his self-consciousness about the limitations of our systems hinders his ability to create pleasing, well-rounded wholes, the narrator jealously comments about contemporary painters:

I wanted to be a painter. … You don't know how I envy them. They can pick up a Baby Ruth wrapper on the street, glue it to the canvas (in the right place, of course, there's that), and lo! people crowd about and cry “A real Baby Ruth wrapper, by God, what could be realer than that!” Fantastic metaphysical advantage. You hate them, if you're ambitious.

(UP, p. 152)

Unable to connect the pieces together—hence the famous statement, “Fragments are the only form I trust”12—this narrator can only wistfully hope that the fragments of his existence will someday mysteriously come together. In the meantime, what frightens him the most is the prospect of initiating his as yet unborn child into this whole process:

You see, Gog of mine, Gog o' my heart, I'm just trying to give you a little briefing here. I don't want you unpleasantly surprised. I can't stand a startled look. Regard me as a sort of Distant Early Warning System. Here is the world and here are the knowledgeable knowers knowing. What can I tell you? What has been pieced together from the reports of travelers. … What can I do for him? I can get him into A.A., I have influence. And make sure no harsh moonlight falls on his new soft head.

(UP, pp. 164-65)

What we have been examining thus far has been the “first level” of Barthelme's fiction—the personal struggles of his characters with disintegration and fragmentation. On the second level, however, the reader is usually aware that Barthelme himself is engaged in the same epistemological struggles that plague his characters—struggles that are intimately related to the disintegration of fictional forms and the decay of language itself. Self-conscious about the inadequacies of such fictional conventions as linear sequence, causal explanations, and well-rounded characters, Barthelme finds himself in a difficult position as a writer. As we have already seen in our discussion of “Robert Kennedy” and “Views of My Father,” Barthelme feels that he cannot offer his readers the easy assurances which lie at the center of most realistic narratives, and he is equally suspicious about the ability of language to probe beneath the surfaces of things. In “Paraguay,” for example, Barthelme suggests that the modern experience presents special difficulties to the writer simply because of the sheer quantity of things that we are bombarded with:

The softening of language usually lamented as a falling off from former practice is in fact a clear response to the proliferation of surfaces and stimuli. Imprecise sentences lessen the strain of close tolerances. Silence is also available in the form of white noise.

(CL, p. 27)

Faced with both the “proliferation of surfaces and stimuli” and the loss of confidence in our systems' ability to explain and define reality, Barthelme's work is characterized by his refusal to present well-rounded characters, supply easy explanations, or make causal connections. As a result his characters never develop into psychologically convincing people so much as mere linguistic consciousnesses or collections of odd words. Realistic characters and events, suggests Barthelme, are patently false because the elements out of which they are created—words, plot conventions, arbitrary connections—have proven unable to depict faithfully how human beings operate in the world. So, instead, Barthelme contents himself with creating literary fragments, anecdotes, and sketches which he skillfully builds out of the clichés and verbal drek of our contemporary idiom. Barthelme's emphasis on “surface” and on process is further heightened by his manipulation of style and the technological aspects of print on the page which serve to keep the reader aware of the writing itself and to discourage the reader's search for “depth.” Wilde summarizes this tendency as follows:

The use of collage, of fragments, of pictures and black spaces; the sudden irruption of large, capitalized remarks, which may or may not comment on the surrounding text; … the constant experimentation with styles, ranging from the severely paratactic to the most involutedly subordinative: all function, of course, to call attention to the fact of writing (or ecriture, as we are learning to say), to the medium in which Barthelme and his perceptual field intersect.13

Thus like Coover, Gass, and other metafictionists, Barthelme often creates fictions which reflexively examine their own status as artifacts even as they proceed. The point which seems to unify the intentions of all the metafictionists is that there is a close analogy between the author's difficulties in composing and organizing a work of fiction and our own attempts to build the fiction we call our life. It is at this point that the second, reflexive level of Barthelme's fiction intersects with the first and third levels: the point at which personal and literary disintegration serve to mirror and reinforce each other.

As has already been mentioned, this third level in Barthelme's fiction is the role that we ourselves play as we confront the often absurd, seemingly random and meaningless elements in his fictions. Typically these fictions present us with a surreal mixture of the mundane and the peculiar; often the structure employed is fragmentary, with bits of words and visual elements threatening to disassemble completely into noncontiguous puzzles or, as with Kafka, mysteriously appearing to present themselves as ambiguous allegories. Like the “protagonists” of the first two levels—i.e., Barthelme's characters and Barthelme himself—we as readers probably sense that it is up to us to hold the pieces together, to find hidden clues in the elements before us, to create some sense of order and meaning without our responses being too rigidly determined. Like Barthelme's characters, we find ourselves trying to unmask the meaning of symbols and to uncover patterns—and, similarly, our efforts are usually mocked. We may even begin to share their suspicions that any order or meaning to be found is the product primarily of our own fiction-making ability, that Barthelme's stories are “merely” what they first appear to be: wonderfully deft and amusing verbal constructions that show us something of the nature of contemporary living, but which don't really “mean” anything in the way we would expect. Although I do not wish to push the “nonmeaning” aspect of Barthelme's fiction too far,14 the possibility that many of his fictions can be analyzed as constructions to be encountered as we encounter other objects in the world brings up several crucial points about contemporary innovative fiction.

Like Beckett, Joyce, and Flaubert, Barthelme often seems primarily interested in assembling all possible combinations of words, and in the process he exposes the condition of the current status of our language. Thus like many modern painters—and again like Beckett—his art is reductionary in that he throws away ideas and concentrates instead on the effect of words themselves. Given Barthelme's pessimistic attitudes about the condition of contemporary language, probably the best phrase to describe his fiction is one which he coined himself in Snow White: “the leading edge of the trash phenomenon.” In the much-quoted passage which produced this phrase, a manufacturer of plastic buffalo humps gives the following speech which reveals what Barthelme's “aesthetics of trash” is all about:

Now you're probably familiar with the fact that the per-capita production of trash in this country is up from 2.75 pounds per day in 1920 to 4.5 pounds per day in 1965, the last year for which we have figures, and is increasing at the rate of about four percent a year. Now that rate will probably go up, because it's been going up, and I hazard that we may very well soon reach a point where it's 100 percent. Now at such a point, you will agree, the question turns from a question of disposing of this ‘trash’ to a question of appreciating its qualities, because, after all, it's 100 percent, right? And there can no longer be any question of ‘disposing’ of it, because it's all there is, and we will simply have to learn how to ‘dig’ it. … So that's why we're in humps, right now, more really from a philosophical point of view than because we find them a great moneymaker. They are ‘trash,’ and what in fact could be more useless or trashlike? It's that we want to be on the leading edge of this trash phenomenon, the everted sphere of the future, and that's why we pay particular attention, too, to those aspects of language that may be seen as a model of the trash phenomenon.

(SW, pp. 97-98)

By building his novels and stories precisely out of “those aspects of language that may be seen as a model of the trash phenomenon,” Barthelme reflects the increasing banality and vulgarization that is rapidly becoming 100 percent of our society. Barthelme shares with both Coover and Gass a deep concern for the way in which language has assumed a dead, cliché-ridden character, as is demonstrated in today's mass culture represented by television, newspapers, movies, and supermarket best-sellers. For Barthelme, however, Gass's call for a new poetry of language and Coover's for a revitalization of fictional designs is useless, for the “trash” is “already 100 percent.” What is needed, then, is a means of appreciating the trash (“digging it”)—an appreciation which Barthelme assists by building new artifacts out of the verbal garbage that he finds around him.

An obvious, but perhaps inexact, analogy that comes immediately to mind would be one between Barthelme's fictions and a painter's collage, which is similarly built out of “found” elements. And, indeed, the analogy with painting in general and with the collage in particular is very useful in understanding the relationship between many of Barthelme's fictions and their “meaning.” Up until now, we have been considering Barthelme's fictions primarily as “meaning systems” which indicate, however indirectly, something about current conditions in the world. As our examination of Barthelme's metafictional impulses has already indicated, his fictions can be analyzed as “saying something” about related personal and literary dissatisfactions with the modern world. Barthelme's work also mirrors other specific aspects of the world in much the same way that a painting by El Greco or Rembrandt might indicate something about a particular country's mode of dress, its architecture, or even its system of values. On the other hand, like some of Coover's fictions, Barthelme's works often seem to function mainly as ways of looking at things; in this respect, his fictions are like the paintings by the cubists or the Italian Futurists: they aren't nearly as interesting for what they themselves have to tell us about the world as for presenting different methods of viewing or thinking about it.

Obviously these analogies with painting are inexact and are open to objection. Yet it is interesting that we have come to accept this idea of the art object as object in painting—and we have always accepted it in music—but the idea has never really caught on in fiction writing. This probably has to do with the nature of the writer's medium: words seem to always be “pointing” somewhere, to have a referential quality about them that lines and colors or sounds and rhythms do not necessarily possess (William Gass discusses this idea at several points in Fiction and the Figures of Life). Many contemporary writers, however, are seeking new means and strategies with which to focus the reader's attention on the book as object. In an important early essay entitled “After Joyce,” Barthelme discussed this idea of the work of fiction as a new reality or object in the world, rather than as a comment upon a previously existing reality. Referring to what he terms “the mysterious shift that takes place as soon as one says that art is not about something but is something,” Barthelme says:

With Joyce, and to a lesser degree Gertrude Stein, fiction altered its placement in the world in a movement so radical that its consequences have yet to be assimilated. Satisfied with neither the existing world nor the existing literature, Joyce and Stein modify the world by adding to its store of objects the literary object—which is then encountered in the same way as other objects in the world. The question becomes: what is the nature of the new object? Here one can see an immediate result of the shift. Interrogating older works, the question is: what do they say about the world and being in the world? But the literary object is itself “world” and the theoretical advantage is that in asking it questions you are asking questions of the world itself.15

Barthelme acknowledges that the point he makes here is hardly new, although it was not usually emphasized by the theme-conscious writers who largely dominated American fiction in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. But this idea lies at the center of innovative fiction of the past ten years, with its emphasis on the writer's obligation not to mirror reality or express something (be they private or social realities), but to add new objects to the world.

Let's imagine Barthelme sitting in his Manhattan apartment—his “studio,” we'll call it—about to begin building one of these “literary objects.” All around him are words. Words issue from his radio and television, which drone on tirelessly. Newspapers cover his floor, along with all sorts of popular magazines and obscure, scholarly journals. The bookshelves which line his walls are filled with the works of his favorite authors (Kleist, Kafka, Kierkegaard, William Gass, Walker Percy). Through his open window he can hear people walking down the street exchanging banalities and gossip; words even seem to linger in the air from the incredibly boring, pretentious party he went to the night before. Obviously, he has plenty of material at hand, but how to put it down, how to organize it? As a post-modern metafictionist, Barthelme sees no reason to limit what he can build to what resembles everyday life, a model which will mimic an exterior order. Besides, what with cameras, recording devices, xerox machines, and assembly lines, reality is being reproduced often enough as it is. He is not even sure that there is an exterior order; maybe cause and effect, beginnings and endings, and character motivation are just conventions developed by fiction writers. Like many other modern artists, Barthelme is also interested in getting his audience more actively involved in the artistic process; he wants to force their participation, break down the old creator/consumer barriers. So he won't order his stories in a linear way or give them the sort of “finish” his readers expect; he'll even add random elements which the reader may or may not attempt to assimilate, along with other elements ostensibly untransformed from the real world. One of his intentions is to make the reader create his/her own connections and associations in order to link them up—let them do some of the work. He is finally ready to begin writing:

We defended the city as best as we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds. The war clubs of the Comanches clattered on the soft, yellow pavements. There were earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark and the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire. People were trying to understand. I spoke to Sylvia. “Do you think this is a good life?” The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. “No.” Patrols of paras and volunteers with armbands guarded the tall, flat buildings. We interrogated the captured Comanche. Two of us forced his head back while another poured water into his nostrils. His body jerked, he choked and wept. … And! sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love. We talked.

“Do you know Fauré's ‘Dolly’?”

“Would that be Gabriel Fauré?”

“Then I know it,” she said. “May I say that I play it at certain times, when I am sad, or happy, although it requires four hands.”

(UP, p. 3)

This passage, taken from the opening to “The Indian Uprising,” was chosen because it contains much of what is characteristic of Barthelme's fiction: the surrealism, the sense of chaos and fragmentation, the unexpected combination of words, the casual overtones of violence, the sexual despair, the sadness, the banality, the clichés. We might say, “Excellent! Barthelme has created a brilliant symbol of the modern wasteland.” But it can also be argued that although we can apply Barthelme's story to the world in this manner—just as we can apply Euclid's geometry to the everyday world—this is not to say that Barthelme's intention is really to make a statement “about the world” (just as Euclid's geometry, so it turns out, is not really “about the world” either). Indeed, the characteristics listed above may be viewed as deriving not from the nature of the world but from the nature of modern language.

To see what this means, we might imagine a sculptor who is building an object which he covers with strips of print from his morning newspaper. Someone who sees this object might say, “Oh, I see—this artist is trying to comment on the United States' involvement in Angola, along with something about dissention on this year's Yankees.” But because newsprint is the medium of this artist, it might be argued that although his object does “say” these things, it really shouldn't be analyzed as being “about” them; actually, such an object could probably best be viewed, in the self-referential sense we have been discussing, as being “about” newsprint as a medium. In short, considering the nature of the society from which Barthelme draws his materials (and his “materials” are words, concepts, systems of thought), it shouldn't be surprising that his stories frequently exhibit violence, confusion, utter banality, and cliché, hackneyed thinking. The fact that words are “trashy” and that the rational systems built out of them are full of holes can, in some respects, be seen as being beside the point for Barthelme—though not necessarily for his characters—just as painters have not been kept from using straight lines in their work despite Einstein's discoveries about the curved nature of space. Thus the process involved here can be likened to a “recycling approach” in which the drek of familiar, banal language is charged with a renewed freshness via the mysterious sea-change of art.

At the end of a remarkable piece of metafiction entitled “Sentence,” Barthelme observes that both writers and philosophers have had to face the fact that because language is a human system, it therefore has its limitations. This discovery has been “a disappointment, to be sure, but it reminds us that the sentence itself is a manmade object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weaknesses, as opposed to the strengths of stones” (CL, p. 121). This passage, which might serve as a gloss on Wittgenstein, also emphasizes what Barthelme, Coover, and Gass all use as a starting point in their fiction: that stories made of words and sentences can never escape their purely constructed, fictive nature, and that the awareness of this condition, far from being a source of despair for the author, can actually free the writer to take full advantages of the treasures of language—even bankrupt language.


  1. See, for example, Alan Wilde, “Barthelme Unfair to Kierkegaard: Some Thoughts on Modern and Postmodern Irony,” boundary 2 5 (Fall 1976), 45-70.

  2. Ibid., p. 51.

  3. The following passages are taken from Donald Barthelme, City Life (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), p. 84; Come Back, Dr. Caligari (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964), p. 177; Sadness (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974), pp. 9, 93-95; Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (New York: Bantam, 1969), p. 3; henceforth these works will be abbreviated as CL, CB, S, and UP. Also cited will be Snow White (New York: Bantam, 1968) and Guilty Pleasures (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974), abbreviated as SW and GP.

  4. Wilde, “Barthelme Unfair to Kierkegaard,” p. 56.

  5. The fullest critical treatments of “The Balloon” are R. E. Johnson, Jr., “‘Bees Barking in the Night’: The End and Beginning of Donald Barthelme's Narrative,” boundary 2 5 (Fall 1976), 71-92; Maurice Couturier, “Barthelme's Uppity Bubble: ‘The Balloon,’” Revue Française d'Etudes Americaines 8 (1979), 183-201.

  6. William H. Gass, in interview with Larry McCaffery.

  7. Jerome Klinkowitz, Literary Disruptions: The Makings of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), p. 69.

  8. Ibid., p. 72.

  9. Thus R. E. Johnson's remark that “almost anything the reader might determine about a Barthelme sentence will be taken away from him by some contrary movement in that sentence or another” (p. 83).

  10. Klinkowitz, Literary Disruptions, p. 70.

  11. Wilde, “Barthelme Unfair to Kierkegaard,” p. 52.

  12. UP, p. 153. This statement has often been quoted as a statement of Barthelme's own aesthetics, something which he objects to in an interview with Jerome Klinkowitz when he says, “No. It's a statement by the character about what he is feeling at that particular moment. I hope that whatever I think about aesthetics would be a shade more complicated than that.” (In The New Fiction, ed. Joe David Bellamy [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974], p. 53.) John Leland examines the role of fragments and meaningful wholes in Barthelme's fiction in “Remarks Re-marked: Barthelme, What Curios of Signs!” boundary 2 5 (Spring 1977), 795-811.

  13. Wilde, “Barthelme Unfair to Kierkegaard,” p. 52.

  14. For a more complete treatment of this issue, see my essay, “Meaning and Non-Meaning in Barthelme's Fictions,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 13 (1979), 69-80.

  15. Donald Barthelme, “After Joyce,” Location 1 (Summer 1964), 14.

Charles Molesworth (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11669

SOURCE: Molesworth, Charles. “The Short Story as the Form of Forms.” In Donald Barthelme's Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning, pp. 10-42. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Molesworth examines the defining characteristics of Barthelme's short stories.]

About fifty years ago, Elizabeth Bowen, in her introduction to the Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, compared the short story to the cinema, that other “accelerating” art form. She listed three affinities between the two:

neither is sponsored by a tradition; both are, accordingly, free; both, still, are self-conscious, show a self-imposed discipline and regard for form; both have, to work on, immense matter—the disoriented romanticism of the age.

Such affinities may not seem very illuminating at first glance and may strike some as the result of an intuition that barely rises above the journalistic. Still, the three points are worth considering, if only as a way to orient Barthelme's talent in terms of this protean genre. Take the last point first: the immensity of matter. This is perhaps the most obvious characteristic of Barthelme's work, its heterogeneous range of subjects, or at least its range of references. The stories in some sense reflect their place of publication, namely the modern magazine. Addressed to an audience with a relatively wide experience of travel, an acute sense of fashion and change, as well as a consciousness formed in part by a purposely pliant cultural context, these stories must constantly widen, shift, and quicken their readers' sense of timely details. In a sense, Barthelme's stories must compete with, even as they ironically comment on, the advertisements and nonfiction “features” that surround them. This calls for a fictional voice that is both coy and disaffected, naively desirous and dispassionately suave, especially in regard to the vagaries of status and the quicksilver tokens of its possessors.

Which leads us to Bowen's characterization of the age's matter: a disoriented romanticism. It's easy to imagine how Barthelme would respond to such a phrase. In fact, one could imagine him writing a brief sketch or story that would revolve around the very inanity such a phrase can lend itself to. Yet it's just the tone of this phrase—an exhaustion that wants to proclaim itself, but that must be on guard against making its very lack the ground for too large a claim—that Barthelme's fiction often explores. For the typical Barthelme character, it is just the variousness of the world that spells defeat, since the variety is both a form of plenitude and the sign of its absence. The realm of brand names, historical allusions, “current events,” and fashionable topics exists in a world whose fullness results from the absence of any strong hierarchical sense of values, and the casual randomness of such things both blurs and signals how any appeal to a rigorous, ordering value system would be futile.

The second affinity between the short story and the cinema suggests a similar double truthfulness. Where the immensity of matter is both a fullness and an emptiness, the self-conscious, self-imposed discipline of both forms is also a burden and a possibility. In its earliest days, the cinema turned directly to the stage for its discipline, especially its plots and characters and settings. But before long the new form had developed strict generic limits of its own. The train robbery, the last-minute rescue in the weekly serial, the gothic horror show, the costume drama: in ways large and small the cinematic vocabulary defined itself by following its own successes. At one level this was mere common sense. Chase scenes seemed a natural thing to film, and reenacting past historical epochs obviously satisfied a longing for entertainment and curiosity. The cinema found its own mimetic boundaries, often because it discovered it could create illusions. So, to quote one cynical entrepreneur, “we give 'em what they like, and they like what we give 'em.” The short story, especially in its appearances in nineteenth-century magazines, obviously borrowed heavily from the parent form, the realistic novel. Increasingly, short stories began to utilize certain devices that not only worked well, but seemed to be natural extensions of its form, generic limitations turned to advantage. The elliptical opening, reliance on especially accurate dialogue, a certain use of symbolist concentration on atmosphere, and the surprise ending (refined by Joyce into an epiphany): such things would work less well in an extended narrative. So the short story slowly built up its own tradition, in part supplying what in another context Ezra Pound said “the age demanded,” an “accelerated image of its own grimace.”

But how much of this discipline was imposed by its creators and how much was a response to audience demands, real or supposed? Everyone knows how hard Joyce had to labor to get Dubliners published, and clearly some of the resistance to the stories centered on their structural innovations as well as their bleak moral tone. The trick of writing surprise endings was that they shouldn't be too surprising. By building with care toward the singular epiphanic moment, Joyce obviously challenged the generic limits. The point of all this for Barthelme is that the devices that provided for the short story's self-imposed discipline are turned into a storehouse of parodic motifs. As the would-be short-story writer in “The Dolt” says, “I've got the end but I don't have the middle.” Indeed, the story inside this story, that Edgar, the struggling writer, has produced as part of the National Writing Examination, is a classic parody of the opening of one of those nineteenth-century novels of frustrated romanticism. It is a narrative that could easily be seen as the equivalent of painting by numbers, a rationalized assembly of preplanned parts. But the joke is that it remains essentially a narrative for a novel, not a short story. (The further joke is that Edgar can easily pass the oral part of the Examination, having become so proficient that he prepares for it by reciting the answers and asking his wife to supply the questions. Edgar has, like many of Barthelme's characters, mistaken form for substance.)

The short story's self-imposed discipline also concentrates on singularity of effect (here Poe's theory is the classic articulation), and on a brevity, almost a static sense of character development (here the essays by H. E. Bates and Alberto Moravia, among others, stand out.) This almost lapidary sense of getting just the right effect in the tightest space will undoubtedly put a premium on devices, and on the self-conscious play they usually entail in an ironic age. Each of Barthelme's selections of stories is a veritable catalogue of such devices, which are often parodied and played off against one another. One of the most subversive of these devices is the unreliable narrator. In full-length novels such a device allows the reader slowly to adjust his or her moral and veridical senses, even if, as with Gulliver's Travels, such adjustment cannot lead to a final, singular standard. But in the short story the smaller scope makes such unreliability resemble mere prankishness. And the notoriously final sense of the short story's closure also invites a self-conscious use of narrative trickery. Where a strained ending in a novel can obviously harm the overall effect, it does not necessarily ruin it. But in a short story such closure dominates our sense of the story's structure, even its very reason for being written. And where this dominance is too strong, as with many of de Maupassant's and O. Henry's stories, we feel cheated, as if the story is merely an excuse for its ending. Such a feeling can often be caused by a variety of devices in a Barthelme story. Rather than a free, unsponsored tradition, the short story's battery of generic devices can be as bafflingly plentiful, and possibly self-defeating, as that of any other art form.

And so as for the third of Bowen's suggested affinities, that neither the short story or the cinema is sponsored by a tradition, the argument thus far has maintained nearly the opposite. In a strictly limited way, the modern short story doesn't have a clear tradition that extends in any way like the novel's. But again there is a doubleness here. For the very lack of a tradition, seen from a different vantage point, can mean that the short story has open to it a host of traditions. If there is no mainstream to the genre before the popularity of magazine stories that originated in the latter part of the nineteenth century, still there are a dozen or so tributaries that constitute a flood of possible models and sources. Again, like the cinema, the short story's pliancy makes it a veritable devourer of other artistic traditions. Here the figure of Borges is especially germane, as he extended the story into the realm of the “ficciones,” impinging on and often incorporating elements of the tale, the philosophical essay, the romantic “fragment,” and other popular and familiar forms. For Barthelme, the line between the short story and other genres is, of course, a prancing, erratic, subversive line even when it's most stable. The clearest evidence of this is in his volume, Guilty Pleasures, called his “first book of nonfiction.” But many of the pieces in this book are easily compared to his stories, and he even tries to categorize them as

… pieces [that] have to do with having one's coat pulled, frequently by five people in six directions. Some are brokeback fables and some are bastard reportage and some are pretexts for the pleasure of cutting up and pasting together pictures, a secret vice gone public.

The last sentence refers to several pieces that use actual photographs and line engravings, with ironic, playful captions, recalling the once popular illustrated tales designed for semiliterate audiences. And by extension it can refer to the use of collage, one of Barthelme's aesthetic devices. But the “six directions” offers the clue to how Barthelme sees the short story, namely as a genre that is overdetermined, as it were, subject to an excess of impulses and obsessions. Somehow, wonderfully, the author manages to avoid having these impulses cancel each other out. Yet the other clues in the above quotation—brokeback, bastard, pretexts—also point toward the hybrid destiny of the genre, as if in trying to vindicate its lineage the short story had first to acknowledge all the illegitimate offspring that preceded it and still haunt its memory.

One family resemblance of a majority of the pieces in Guilty Pleasures is the shared source of their parodic material, the mass media. This would include such “byways” as the letters-to-the-editor column and the consumers' bulletin annual. The media are also a source for much of Barthelme's fiction. In a general sense, Barthelme's work can be read as an attack on the false consciousness generated by meretricious sources of information that are accepted as commonplace in the modern, technologized, urban society of mass man. This is, however, to read the stories as more morally pointed than they are intended. But in formal terms, the stories are obviously shaped to a large extent by the fascination of the abomination their author feels when faced with the media. It seems to me the stories are built with a divided consciousness that says first that all the formats of information and narrative are compromised, if not actively corrupt. The possible response is then twofold: either use these available formats since the audience is reachable by no other, or demonstrate by a parodic “de-creation” of the formats that no real binding or altering force is left to the narrative imagination in today's world.

A great many of Barthelme's stories are structured parodically on various fictional formulae and their closely related forms in the other media. This variety of formal structures reflects the absence of clear generic demarcations in modern literature, a fact that has become commonplace, as witness such “new” genres as the nonfiction novel and the new journalism. But formal diversity is such a salient fact of Barthelme's fiction that it has to be interpreted as part of his artistic vision. Consider, for example, the first seven stories in the collection, Sadness. The opening story is a first-person narration of a marriage that ends in divorce. The second is a manic third-person monologue, apparently addressed by a mother to her son, an aging child-prodigy. Next comes a story, called “The Genius,” made up of nonsequential paragraphs, some only a sentence or two long (the story is structured much like “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning”). Then there's a story built out of numbered sections, but told in a relatively continuous narrative line, although the line is “split” between two major characters. (Here the characters are an estranged couple, much like the one in the first story.) The fifth story is built on the conceit conveyed by the title, “A City of Churches”; a newcomer is instructed in the rather bizarre local piety and is both repelled and entangled by the repressive forces that are symbolized by the several dozen ecclesiastical structures that dominate the city. The sixth story, “The Party,” is a first-person monologue concerned with the whacky events and overheard chatter among the guests, as well as with the narrator's not-too-secure relationship with his friend, Francesca, to whom the story is ostensibly addressed. The seventh story concerns the artist Paul Klee, during his service in the German Air Force in March 1916. It is constructed out of two overlapping but partly contradictory accounts, one given by Klee himself and the other drawn from the files of the Secret Police who have the artist under surveillance.

All in all, a very mixed bag, and no two of the stories are related in terms of the effect of their formal structures. Two are told from a first-person point of view, but “The Party” is much like a manic letter or plea to Francesca, whereas the first story is told very dispassionately. The two stories that have a split focus are also quite different in effect, as are the two that are made up out of discrete paragraphs (the first using nonnumbered, nonsequential units, the other using numbers and a fairly continuous narrative line). Thematically, some of the stories can be loosely grouped: two deal with divorce or estrangement, two deal with an individual trying to manoeuvre around repressive, institutionalized forces, two have manic narrators (one first-person, the other third) who clearly suffer from paranoia, and so forth. But it is the profusion of formal inventiveness that strikes most forcefully, especially when one glances at the rest of the stories in the collection. These include one that uses line engravings, another that mimics a catechism lesson, yet another that is a letter from the narrator to his girlfriend's analyst. And in many cases the parodied form—the catechism, the letter to the analyst, the secret police files—is both thematically appropriate and at the same time undercut by the narrative.

The story about Paul Klee typifies this dual status of the trustworthiness of the stories' formal dimensions. Entitled “Engineer-Private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916,” thematically the story centers on the artist oppressed by institutionalized structures. An aircraft, one of the three in his care, is “misplaced,” and Klee's first reaction is to sketch the loose canvas and rope that had been covering the plane. Eventually he conceals the loss of the plane and apparently goes unpunished. This ending makes a mockery of the Secret Police files, since, though the police are obviously observing him with skill and thoroughness, the discipline or punishment such observation is meant to insure never takes place. Of course part of the story's theme is that the secret files are their own justification for being, regardless of whether they bring about punishment or reward. In fact, the “voice” of the files is in many ways more sensitive, more laden with Weltschmerz than is Klee. As the Secret Police say:

Omnipresence is our goal. We do not even need real omnipresence; hand-in-hand as it were, goes omniscience. And with omniscience and omnipresence, hand-in-hand-in-hand as it were, goes omnipotence. We are a three-sided waltz. However our mood is melancholy. There is a secret sigh that we sigh, secretly. We yearn to be known, acknowledged, admired even. What is the good of omnipotence if nobody knows? However that is a secret, that sorrow. Now we are everywhere.

In some ways this “voice” resembles that of the deranged narrator from some existential novel. The self-deluding consistency and the consistent self-contradiction are played off against an obviously comic distortion of formulaic language (“hand-in-hand-in-hand”). While other parts of the secret files contain the sort of information we might expect (the registration numbers of the aircraft, for example), this passage conveys the tone of existential angst, and further back, the conundrums of scholastic theology. Again, at this further remove, the form becomes thematically appropriate, since parodically the Secret Police are the “absent God” that haunts the modern artist. As the story ends, the Secret Police even condone Klee's falsification of the official papers to conceal the missing aircraft, and say, “We would like to embrace him as a comrade and brother but unfortunately we are not embraceable. We are secret, we exist in the shadows, the pleasure of the comradely/brotherly embrace is one of the pleasures we are denied, in our dismal service.” By this time, the Police have begun to sound like the guardian spirit of a romantic knight-errant. Meanwhile, Klee tells his part of the story in rather matter-of-fact, naive language.

Of course, among the manifold ironies of this story, one central element is the presentation of a real-life, historical individual named Paul Klee through a secret file that we presume is entirely Barthelme's invention. Some readers will assume that Klee was a private in the German Air Force during March 1916 and may even have visited the towns of Milbertshofen and Cambrai mentioned in the story. This thread of verisimilitude in some ways violates the principles of realism, which generally militate against using facts about actual, specific people. And thus the device of the secret file is both part of the possibly “real” detail of the story and a sign of its impossible, even surreal, fictiveness. By having the story incorporate the formats of Klee's diary and the police files, otherwise historically reliable sources in most cases, Barthelme playfully undercuts the historicist yearnings for “real” data about “real” famous people. And by parodically reducing Klee's sensibility while increasing that of the Secret Police, Barthelme deflates the theme of those stories about the persecuted, alienated artist. In a sense, the story pretends there is a “real” record behind the stories, the received opinions; at the same time, the story obviously creates fictional records to make its points. Clearly the fictional records are less true than the “imagined” truth about alienated artists and oppressive institutions. The story, then, “de-creates” not only imaginative stories but actual police files (since the only thing “true” about these files is the melancholy self-doubt they record, a quality strictly proscribed in all actual police records).

We can for the moment reduce the formalist play of the story to a few “statements”: 1) sentimental notions about alienated artists are often contradicted by the historical record; 2) the historical record is made up out of rhetorical formats that often preclude certain kinds of truth from being recorded; 3) stories, which are free to mix the actual and the imagined, might lay claim to a higher truth than records, but 4) stories, if they are to be at all believable, must acknowledge their own fictiveness, although 5) if all the forms of conveying information are equally suspect, because each in its own way must answer formal demands, then the story, by its very ability to mix and violate other formats, can approach the otherwise fugitive truth. The story, that is to say, will, even more readily than the novel, acknowledge its own formal requirements by the parodic manipulation of the formats of other genres. The short story, for Barthelme, pollutes itself so that it can demystify other genres. Or to put it the other way around, it seeks to demystify other forms because it cannot claim any but a formal truth for itself. For Barthelme the highest success is not if the story strikes us as true, but rather if it shows us how it works.

All this is to apply something like Barthes's “writing degree zero” to Barthelme's playful consciousness of generic forms. For Barthelme, as for Barthes, writing can never be a pure, transparent representation of reality; it must always involve a choice among previously formed models of selection and arrangement. And neither can writing produce totally autonomous structures free of ethical forces and temporal limitations. In a real sense all writing is compromise, an attempt to mediate between apparently pure forms that claim an unequivocal truth, however limited. The short story engraves this compromise into the very lines of its fabrication. Barthes's formulation of these problems has a Marxist-existentialist cast to it, but the terms nevertheless can illumine Barthelme's situation. Barthes says:

It is under the pressure of History and Tradition that the possible modes of writing for a given writer are established; there is a History of Writing. But this History is dual: at the very moment when general History proposes—or imposes—new problematics of the literary language, writing still remains full of the recollection of previous usage, for language is never innocent: words have a second-order memory which mysteriously persists in the midst of new meanings.1

This “second-order memory” often results from the use of a word, or phrase, or general vocabulary in a specific genre. Barthelme takes the generic freedom of the short story, which is also of course a generic limitation, and uses it to attack the “old” meanings. The generic limitation consists in the very absence of a strictly definable generic format, and so for Barthelme the short story is condemned, as it were, to be a parasite of other genres.

Many genres, of course, develop historically with a given outlook or ideology. In fact one well-known definition, proposed by Wellek and Warren in their Theory of Literature, says that genre consists of an integration of an inner form (attitude, tone, purpose) and an outer form (structure). But the short story as practised by Barthelme resembles cinema in that it appears to be an empty form that can be filled by various kinds of matter, and so not reducible to a coherent outlook. In cinema we have the newsreel, the training film, the animated short, as well as the feature film, with its full range of generic traditions. And pursuing this a step further we can borrow a notion from an early theorist of film, Sigfried Kracauer, who formulated film's chief aim as “the redemption of physical reality.” This is admittedly a vague notion, but adapting it to our purposes we might venture the following: Barthelme uses the short story for the goal of “redeeming fictional consciousness.” But for Barthelme, as for Kracauer, the prior act in this redemption is mimesis. By mimicking other forms, rather than by trying to “imitate” the real, by giving the reader the experience of form recaptured by form, Barthelme is, like many filmmakers, partly an archivist. He has an obvious hunger for play and manipulation that takes for its material less character and plot than the formal, one might almost say the technical, aspects of writing. This, of course, is what leads many critics to dismiss his work as trivial, and the charge has a certain substance. The reader of a Barthelme story is bound to be aware of effects. But whereas other metafictionists create effects of estrangement and disorientation only eventually to re-establish a consistency on some other grounds, Barthelme is open to the charge that he disorients for the sake of disorientation.

But joined with this largely comic disorientation there is a serious sense of a hunger for the fugitive and the ephemeral, that is in turn joined with impulses that may be called archival. Barthelme's work contains an undeniable note of melancholy, and though it doesn't have the grandeur or resonance we find in writers like Borges or Beckett, this sadness still functions as a vital part of the overall effect. This longing for the fugitive, at its strongest, comes from an existential ethos, an awareness that all human desire for permanency remains condemned to frustration, and that to institutionalize means to destroy, though not to do so is to face the same result. Genres are institutionalized structures on a small scale. While they represent attempts to preserve that which is undeniably fugitive, genres are fit subjects for black humor. But while they represent attempts to create what Frost called “a momentary stay against confusion,” their redemption in and through another structure can be an act of homage as well.

Too much can be made out of the purely formal aspects of Barthelme's work, however. Theoretically there would have to be some ideological content in any work, no matter how ostentatiously or genuinely preoccupied with formal matters it was. This is especially true of narratives, which implicitly tell us how people have come to be the way they are and what their prospects of change and development involve. Again, the comparison with cinema provides a clue. The early cinema, especially in the hands of Eisenstein, Vertov, and the other Russian experimenters, was hailed as a revolutionary art, superbly suited to contain the message of a new social reality. This claim was based on several factors, including the need for cooperative effort in the various stages of filmmaking as well as the revelatory and gripping effect of photographic accuracy combined with the emotional charge of “moving” pictures. A similar ideological intention has been imputed to the short story by one of its masters, Frank O'Connor. For him, the short story is dominated by “the lonely voice”; it is the fiction of “the Little Man.” Tracing his notion back to Turgenev's famous remark, “We all came out from under Gogol's ‘Overcoat,’” O'Connor goes on to focus on a juxtaposition. O'Connor says:

What Gogol has done so boldly and brilliantly is to take the mock-heroic character, the absurd little copying clerk, and impose his image over that of the crucified Jesus, so that even while we laugh we are filled with horror at the resemblance.2

Of course, Gogol's clerk is far removed from the “new man” of socialist visionaries such as Eisenstein, even assuming Gogol had the benefit of O'Connor's Christological context to enlarge his historical resonance. But the antiheroic figure does find an appropriate home in many modern and contemporary short stories. One reason is that the story allows for little extended sense of chronological development; in a story, character seems given, whereas in a novel it can appear earned or slowly uncovered or shaped by alternating or dialectical forces. And if character is given in the short story, then society, the “other” against which we recognize and evaluate the single character, is equally fixed and unyielding. In simplified Marxist terms, the Little Man may be seen as counterrevolutionary, bringing with him an ideology that posits the impossibility of social change, let alone upheaval.

Barthelme creates many characters who are closely kin with Gogol's clerk. From the narrator, either a precocious eleven-year-old or a stunted thirty-five, who is obsessed with his teacher in “Me and Miss Mandible,” to the would-be writer in “The Dolt,” to the frustrated speaker in “And Then”: All these figures, and many more like them, have difficulty dealing with social forms. Often, as in Gogol, the social forms are agencies of accreditation or certification that make consistent but impossible demands on their increasingly hapless victims. The structure of their stories is often congruent with the exposition of their situation. Very little change is depicted; the inability to act becomes the dominant theme. Origins and apocalyptic conclusions seldom occur. Even “The Balloon,” from Unspeakable Practices, in which a forty-five-block-long balloon covers Manhattan, raises all sorts of terminal anxieties and catastrophic possibilities, but ends with this sentence:

Removal of the balloon was easy; trailer trucks carried away the depleted fabric, which is now stored in West Virginia, awaiting some other time of unhappiness, some time, perhaps when we are angry with one another.

The juxtaposition at the end is one between an implied social disaster (“some other time of unhappiness”) and a trivial personal feeling (“when we are angry with one another”). Besides Gogol's clerk, Prufrock lingers in the background here, as someone for whom eating a peach and disturbing the universe are commensurate and unthinkable possibilities.

This figure of impotence confronted by bureaucratized reality dramatizes many of the features of a society that has increasingly developed toward what Max Weber called “rationalization”—the employment of carefully chosen means for limited ends. For Weber, the domination that provides the social cohesion that allows means and ends to be mediated exists in three forms—traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. Barthelme's fiction is clearly dominated by the third of these forms, although it has a faint nostalgia for the first and a skewed enchantment with the second. But a special sense of rational-legal forms constitutes a weird counterpart to the highly self-conscious sense of aesthetic form Barthelme constantly exhibits. Part of the irony in Barthelme comes from just this tension: a highly skilled author is creating especially maladroit characters, that is, a writer enchanted with the manipulation of artistic constructs is constantly showing us people who are baffled and defeated by bureaucratic forms. And, again, it is the very transparency of the short story genre, its openness to other genres, that allows Barthelme access to the greatest range of forms, allusions to form, and formalized behavior.

As O'Connor puts it: “In discussions of the modern novel we have come to talk of it as the novel without a hero. In fact, the short story has never had a hero. What it has instead is a submerged population group.” Add to this the feeling that for Barthelme's fiction the submerged population group has been extended to become virtually coterminous with the entire society, and you have a fair sense of what the stories are about. Barthelme's characters, for all their tics and guilts, are like flawed versions of Phillip Reiff's “therapeutic man,” people hyperconscious of the mechanisms of repression and neurosis but unable effectively to alter their condition. It is this psychological literacy that also gives them access to the various forms the stories parody. In Barthelme the narrator or main character has always read the current best-seller, has always just finished a course in self-improvement (or has promised himself he will begin soon), has always learned the value of appearances. As I said earlier, the typical character values form over substance, but he is also often defeated by his inability to deal properly with form.

One story that exhibits many of these themes and characteristics is “At the End of the Mechanical Age,” from Amateurs. Here is the opening section:

I went to the grocery store to buy some soap. I stood for a long time before the soaps in their attractive boxes, RUB and FAB and TUB and suchlike, I couldn't decide so I closed my eyes and reached out blindly and when I opened my eyes I found her hand in mine.

Her name was Mrs. Davis, she said, and TUB was best for important cleaning experiences, in her opinion. So we went to lunch at a Mexican restaurant which as it happened she owned, she took me into the kitchen and showed me her stacks of handsome beige tortillas and the steam tables which were shiny-brite. I told her I wasn't very good with women and she said it didn't matter, few men were, and that nothing mattered, now that Jake was gone, but I would do as an interim project and sit down and have a Carta Blanca. So I sat down and had a cool Carta Blanca, God was standing in the basement reading the meters to see how much grace had been used up in the month of June. Grace is electricity, science has found, it is not like electricity, it is electricity and God was down in the basement reading the meters in His blue jump suit with the flashlight stuck in the back pocket.

“The mechanical age is drawing to a close,” I said to her.

“Or has already done so,” she replied.

“It was a good age,” I said. “I was comfortable in it, relatively. Probably I will not enjoy the age to come quite so much. I don't like its look.”

“One must be fair. We don't know yet what kind of an age the next one will be. Although I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort, and that is what I like, personal well-being and comfort.”

“Do you suppose there is something to be done?” I asked her.

“Huddle and cling,” said Mrs. Davis. “We can huddle and cling. It will pall, of course, everything palls, in time …”

The God here recalls the play by Bruce Jay Friedman, in which the Supreme Being turns out to be a Puerto Rican attendant in a steambath. Barthelme's story is clearly in the absurdist tradition, for this and other reasons. But notice how the details and the run of certain sentences in the story recall other fictional forms. We can hear a quick mocking reference to the woman's magazine story in “nothing mattered, now that Jake was gone”; the tone of the first exchange of dialogue recalls, say, the fiction of John Cheever or John O'Hara, though the actual references don't fit that mode at all. The reference to grace and electricity refers to the sort of surrealism made popular by Vonnegut and Brautigan, while the phrases “interim project” and “the mechanical age” mock the jargon of academic disciplines. The conceit about electricity may have been inspired by the ironic Auden poem, “Petition,” in which God is asked to send us “power and light.” But the structure of the story has a further and more complex ironic resonance. The narrator and Mrs. Davis eventually marry and then divorce. But before they marry, each sings to the other a “song of great expectations.” The somewhat lengthy songs are in fact parodies of a sort of epithalamion, in which an ideal mate, a Jungian anima, is described as coming to satisfy the deepest desires of each partner. Further back still is the ecstatic description from the Song of Songs, though Barthelme's hymns are thoroughly modern in content. The irony, of course, is that the two characters are not at all comparable to the ideal mates of the songs. But a further irony is generated by the actual wedding itself, which is attended by God, “with just part of his effulgence showing,” and the narrator wondering “whether He was planning to bless this makeshift construct with His grace, or not.” What we see finally in the story is a parody not only of the epithalamion but also the story of Genesis, and the Miltonic version of Adam and Eve's marriage from Paradise Lost. The new age, the post-mechanical epoch, is thus analogously linked with the post-lapsarian world. By implicit comparison the new electronic or cybernetic or post-industrial age (Barthelme doesn't name it in the story) will make the now passing mechanical age look paradisal.

At the end of the story, the narrator is in the same position as when it began, a helpless bystander blindly stabbing at a future over which he has no control but into which his air of knowingness will carry him almost protectively. (Ralph and Maude are the names of the ideal mates in the hymns, and the explanation referred to is Mrs. Davis's disquisition on how marriage is “an institution deeply enmeshed with the mechanical age.”)

After the explanation came the divorce.

“Will you be wanting to contest the divorce?” I asked Mrs. Davis.

“I think not,” she said calmly, “although I suppose one of us should, for the fun of the thing. An uncontested divorce always seem to me contrary to the spirit of divorce.”

“That is true,” I said, “I have had the same feeling myself, not infrequently.”

After the divorce the child was born. We named him A. F. of L. Davis and sent him to that part of Russia where people live to be one hundred and ten years old. He is living there still, probably, growing in wisdom and beauty. Then we shook hands, Mrs. Davis and I, and she set out Ralphward, and I, Maudeward, the glow of hope not yet extinguished, the fear of pall not yet triumphant, standby generators ensuring the flow of grace to all of God's creatures at the end of the mechanical age.

The joining of hands here signals separation, whereas in the opening paragraph it meant a new joining. Viewed as “generators,” the characters are perfect metaphors for the period of transformation from the mechanical to the post-mechanical age, while the modifier “standby” reduces them to the realm of the superfluous. And the mixture of moods, the hope and fear, mimics the similar balance achieved in the famous last lines to Paradise Lost. In the largest terms, the story parodies the themes of fin-de-siècle melancholy and the uncertain hopes of the dawning of a new age, both classic literary subjects.

There are at least two ways to formulate the ideological implications of this story's structure. The first is implied in what has been said, namely, an impotent narrator confronts issues beyond his powers, though not his comprehension, and the story leaves him as immobilized by choice as it found him. His is O'Connor's “lonely voice,” he is kin to Gogol's clerk, brought up to date with references to contemporarily fashionable details such as casual divorces, ethnic food, and mid-cult versions of historical theories. The second way is to see the structural play in the story as an ideological matrix, in which various versions of historical development and individual responsibility are intermingled.

Viewed in this way, the story's structure becomes a complex of impulses, some of which the author cannot make fully known, since they are so deeply inscribed in not only the original genres but also in their present layering. Take the hymns of praise each partner sings to the other. At one level they are built on the separation of gender and the stability of marriage as an institution that controls otherwise unlimited instincts. Yet the parody of the form suggests that such social controls are no longer effective. The narrator's song to Mrs. Davis paints a portrait of a man “right in the mud with the rest of us,” though his mate “will be fainting with glee at the simple touch of his grave immense hand.” As for Mrs. Davis's song, she presents a woman with “inhuman sagacity,” Adamic powers, the ability to bestow names on things; the irony is that the song uses as its examples of such originating nomenclature a list of tools, including the needle-nose pliers, the rat-tail file, the ball-peen hammer, and so forth. Clearly the gender stereotypes are being reversed: the woman knows all about tools, while the man is charmingly ineffective in practical matters. (Barthelme is also alluding to the biblical notion of fallen man needing to earn his bread through work; at the same time he is mocking the irrelevance of such tools for the coming age.) An analogous irony is generated by the juxtaposition of the historical patterns the story presents, in which a potentially new era is shown to be no more than a repeated moment of transition, so the hope of social and cultural renewal is offset by the dislocations and ennui of the beginning of yet another epoch. The creation myth and epithalamion structures are canceled, as it were, by those of the woman's magazine story, with its emphasis on the normalization, even the rationalization, of matters of desire and self-fulfillment. The spirit of divorce (seen in so many Barthelme stories that it may be his single most recurrent subject) demands contest, and of course the rational-legal systems are meant to control this contest, though their actual function is often to prolong it.

As for the closure of the story, we have already seen how it hovers over the end of one age and the beginning of another. But other details are at issue: the child, for example, is both a symbol of stylized competition, his first name being the initials of the national federation of labor unions, while his place of exile is simultaneously suggestive of conflict (Russia) and serenity (a life expectancy of more than a century). (Recall how the balloon, in the story of that title, is stored in West Virginia. Place is always loaded with cultural significance for Barthelme, having spent much of his time in what was a cultural periphery, Houston, and the last two decades or so at the center, New York City.) Thus the surprise ending of the short-story genre is both enacted and dismissed, as the child's bizarre name and fate erupt in the story's narrative line and at the same time benignly close it. As a totally enclosing structure the story implicitly says that nothing will happen, or to put it more accurately, many different, disruptive events will occur, but the end result will be a sense of stasis. There will be recurrent modes of apocalyptic yearning, to be sure, and some actual historical and social changes will foster anxiety and ennui. But finally, whether the metaphor consists of divinely given grace or humanly engineered electricity, there can be “no exception to general ebb/flow of world juice and its concomitant psychological effects,” as Mrs. Davis's explanation of marriage puts it.

Seeing the story as a dismissal of older narrative forms is to see it only from one perspective. The alternative perspective would suggest that by salvaging earlier forms, Barthelme is in fact paying homage to earlier visions. The story, after all, does have a visionary subject matter in the case of the songs of great expectations, although the vision is in no way offered as a ready or even legitimate possibility. Still, old forms are the residue of old dreams. And we might see Barthelme's surreal juxtapositions as attempts to go beyond (or beneath, or outside) the everyday superficial flux of consciousness. Because of his irony, his suspension between or among various opposing stances, at least two governing contexts are possible. First, his method of recycling is “merely” a reflection of the fragmented, disoriented, leveling value systems operating in today's society. Second, his recycling constantly offers to contemporary consciousness the detritus of the past (even the immediate past) on the assumption that the half-remembered visions will serve to keep alive some glimmer of a transcendent belief.

The first of these possibilities is perhaps the more acceptable. By his constant use of fragments, Barthelme would seem to defeat any sense of a transforming or totalizing artistic vision. To say this, however, may mean little more than that Barthelme is no Dante or Tolstoy and doesn't aspire to be. The use of fragments can be defended by saying that the contemporary writer of fiction mistrusts any attempt to totalize. Furthermore, it was the hunger of the modern masters, such as Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner, to create a total vision that drove them into the recesses of myth and interior consciousness. To deal exclusively with surfaces in the contemporary world is to deal with fragments. And to deal with surfaces in fact constitutes an achievement of sorts, for it means the writer rejects the attractions of transcendent, totalizing systems as versions of mystification. In an interview3 Barthelme has, however, turned the tables on any assumption that his art is built solely on fragments. The interviewer asks if Barthelme's earlier statement, “Fragments are the only form I trust,” represents his aesthetic. The negative answer takes the form of a playful “public recantation” that Barthelme casts in the form of a mock newspaper item in Women's Wear Daily, complete with headlines, subheads, datelines. But even without this witty authorial disclaimer, I think the stories do present a vision that is not exclusively one of fragments, although the process of fragmentation—aesthetic, as well as social and psychological—is certainly a significant part of Barthelme's work.

The second alternative, that the recycling of generic matter, even in fragmented or allusive form, consciously offers a set of flawed utopian visions, must be considered. Of course, to offer visions that the containing structure implicitly identifies as partial and hence ineffective, might strike readers as aggressively antiutopian. Here we arrive at an impasse, an impasse that will separate the admirers of Barthelme from those who find his work superficial or affected. In a larger sense, it depends on how we read. Perhaps we use something like Northrop Frye's scheme of literature as always speaking to a vision of a classless society, an ideal community, which the species must always remember and yearn for. In this case, Barthelme will be a truly comic writer whose centripetal structures are an enactment, although one often perversely presented, of the “archetypal function of literature in visualizing the world of desire,” as Frye puts it in Anatomy of Criticism. But if we come to stories more for a reflection of how we live now, or even more seriously as a criticism of life, Barthelme's playful use of fragments will strike us as irresponsible and ludicrous.

To put the best possible case for Barthelme would be to make something like the following argument. Any artist today, who accepts the demystified sense of a humanist vision that turns away from the comfort of a transcendent system of beliefs and values, must acknowledge the irrational and fragmented social structures that dominate our lives. But such acknowledgment need not turn into a maelstrom of existential angst. In fact, we can take some comfort,—albeit limited,—in knowing that humans have at least conceived transcendent schemes as part of their cultural legacy. The problem now is to create an art that disentangles those past visionary schemes from their elements of self-delusion and self-aggrandizement. At the same time, such heroic cultural ideals are not to be achieved easily, no matter if now we feel we are in a privileged position regarding our past illusions. In short, man is most human when he neither ceases to dream, nor takes his dreams at their own valuation.

Any moral formulation can have at least two differing tonal casts to it. Both Hamlet and Falstaff know that desire always outstrips capacity, though one is defeated by this awareness while the other laughs at it. For absurdists, such as Beckett, the formulation might go like this: man deludes himself with both appetite and consciousness, since neither is fully consistent in apprehending the world, and all systematic explanations will eventually fail. Yet man cannot simply stop trying to explain the world systematically, since such a longing for consistency is as inextinguishable as our appetite and our need to know. Barthelme sees this, or something like it, but sees it from a comic vantage point. For him, man, especially mass man, or little man, continuously creates forms that will rationalize his existence. These forms return to defeat him, in large part because they exclude and curtail and delimit his desires and consciousness. But rather than reject these forms as simple encumbrances, man recalls and repeats them because they reassure him that his littleness, his mass identity, is not all he has. Here Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle is obviously relevant, with its notion that the “repetition compulsion” is based on a desire to return to an earlier, simpler form of existence. I will deal with this notion later on when I discuss Barthelme's irony, especially as his sense of parody involves repetition.

But there is an ideological scheme that illumines Barthelme's comic sense of form as that which must be clung to and yet fought against. This is the sense of seriality that has been formulated by Sartre.4 Put simply, Sartre's scheme says that men enter the social contract and surrender their individuality in order to achieve a social and historical goal. In modern history especially, this grouping eventually provides each individual with considerable freedom and self-definition. Then, however, as each individual becomes increasingly self-defining, he also tends to lose the earlier sense of collective identity. But instead of thousands, or millions, of distinct individuals, society produces men who are in effect isolated by their very individuation, so that each can no longer see the other as like himself. However, each suffers this same limitation of vision and so in fact does resemble the other; this is serialization, where everyone's longing for a distinct identity has the paradoxical effect of making all men virtual strangers and yet interchangeable. The group identity has been atomized, as it were, and the principles of cohesion and fraternity are dissolved. It is the phenomenon of mass man, but its development is given special clarity by Sartre's explanation of its dialectical formulation.

This strikes me as pertinent in the case of Barthelme, because of his emphasis on social forms that are intended to bridge the gap between individuals but actually only serve to exacerbate the sense of impotence caused by social atomization. Sometimes this ideology is thematically explicit. For example, in stories like “The Indian Uprising,” “Marie, Marie, Hold On Tight,” and “The Rise of Capitalism,” social unrest has become part of the very fabric of modern urban life. But the unhappiness and longing that fuel this unrest are drained off into individualized psychological distortions. And at this level, the unrest becomes reshaped as mere personal quirks and so lacking in any real social import. Take a brief passage from “The Rise of Capitalism,” in which the narrator tries to comprehend how social forces and individual identity are related:

Darkness falls. My neighbor continues to commit suicide, once a fortnight. I have his suicides geared into my schedule because my role is to save him; once I was late and he spent two days unconscious on the floor. But now that I have understood that I have not understood capitalism, perhaps a less equivocal position toward it can be “hammered out.” My daughter demands more Mr. Bubble for her bath. The shrimp boats lower their nets. A book called Humorists of the 18th Century is published.

The self-conscious and even self-correcting political awareness dribbles away into cliché, mundane demands, routine actions. Even suicide, paradoxically a very self-defining act, has been submitted to a scheduled containment, a rational-legal form that both defuses and prolongs it. It is possible to read the clause “continues to commit suicide, once a fortnight” as simply an exaggerated way of representing someone who contemplates or discusses his suicide often, but who never performs it, so that it has become a “regular occurrence.” This is true, and many of Barthelme's bizarre formulations can be traced back to some recognizable, even plausible, mimetic referent. But we are still left with the narrator's “distortion,” and it is in this matter-of-fact presentation of otherwise desperate situations that we can see the ideological implications of Barthelme's vision.

The ambiguity I have been describing—the embedding of past forms in the short story as either a submission to fragmented reality or the attempt partially to overcome it at least with the memory of some ideal—can be seen as the dramatization of the serial identity Sartre describes. In Barthelme, the individual longs for some earlier, lost cultural wholeness that is inscribed in older narrative and literary forms, with their idealizations of desire. But the inescapably fragmented social order offers only degraded forms, such as the newspaper, the advertisement, the slogan, the brand name, with which to mediate our longings and anxieties. So by using collage Barthelme can turn to the “form” that contemporary consciousness has developed for itself, and he can as an author suspend his own “affirmation” between sardonic rejection and naive nostalgia.

A digression here. What happens on the larger scale of forms such as older genres and various fictional structures also occurs on the level of the individual sentence. This is part of the very texture of Barthelme's irony; here, a few examples will suffice. Often in Barthelme's stories we run across cliché expressions of the sort that serve readers as an affirmation of shared values. To show what I mean, let me list several sentences, drawn from the pages of five different stories in Great Days:

—“Yes, success is everything.”

—“Genuine sorrow is gold.”

—“Set an example. Be clear.”

—“… Cortes declines because he knows the small pieces of meat are human fingers.”

—“… the unforgiving logic of this art demands we bow to Truth, when we hear it.”

Each of these sentences is a cliché, a predictable, recognizable formulation, often of a piece of common wisdom. Even the fourth example, the one least clearly related to what I'm describing, has a very stylized sense to it: the knowing conquistador is obviously wary enough to spot the hideous “native practice,” though he must appear insouciant in the face of barbarity. This particular cliché suggests an origin in the movies rather than in spoken axioms, but the effect is the same. This sense of formulaic sentences is counterpointed in Barthelme by the use of surreal and collagist elements, to be sure. But one of the effects of the texture in a Barthelme story comes from this recycling of clichés and common wisdom.5

In these local phrases and sentences we get a distinctive mixture of tones, sardonic and naive. Clearly the author is not offering such axioms or “home truths” with the same straightforwardness we would find in a nineteenth-century author. Yet very often the character who utters such axioms is doing so out of a genuine need or belief. And so an ironic resonance is established, whereby some previous, but now clearly outdated, faith—one that used to be called a touching, simple faith—is embedded in a story where it not only doesn't avail the speaker of any immediate or practical result, but also serves to remind us how such faith is now inoperative. By falling back on such axioms, Barthelme's characters show how they desire an ethical, normative measure that will allow them to comprehend their experience. But such axioms are also part of the Weberian sense of rationalization, that cautious desire to enunciate some meaning for life as a whole that will lend credibility to specific actions. Thus, though these axioms are often uttered to cover moments of an individual's distress or ineptitude, they call up grander schemes of meaning in which vindication on a social or historical scale is at least implicitly invoked. The wisdom, the grand, shared truth has become no more than chatter.

So the irony of the sentence is analogous to that operating on the level of structure. And in each case, the irony is generated by the resonance of the two tones, sardonic rejection and naive nostalgia. But in the stories this particular blend of attitudes produces a language that is virtually toneless. If the short story in Barthelme's hands is best seen as an empty form that encases the fragments of other forms, the same is also true for the “voice” that tells the stories. Another way of putting this is to see Barthelme's style as a pastiche of other styles, most of them “popular,” but some more recondite. What we hear then in Barthelme is something like an anonymous voice, or to use a figure from one of the media, that amalgam of voices that confronts us as we turn the selector dial on our radio. This is how such a style is characterized by the Russian critic, M. Baxtin:

Direct auctorial discourse is not possible in every literary period; not every period commands a style, since style presupposes the presence of authoritative points of view and authoritative, durable social evaluations. Such styleless periods either go the way of stylization or revert to extraliterary forms of narration which command a particular manner of observing and depicting the world. When there is no adequate form for an unmediated expression of an author's intentions, it becomes necessary to refract them through another's speech.6

The “extraliterary forms of narration” for Barthelme are the mass media; these, as well as the past forms of literary structure, serve both to conceal and to contain Barthelme's own voice. Pursuing our sense of doubleness one step further, we can say that Barthelme's own voice is both without authoritative force and yet completely in control. Hannah Arendt has suggested that in a modern bureaucratic state, since what happens is a constant shifting and displacement of authority, what we get in effect is “rule by no one.” Something like this could well apply to Barthelme's style, with its curious mixture of total transparency and complete depersonalization.

Of course it is not easy to be scientifically precise about such matters, since any sense of style that would really tell us what we wanted to know would have to deal with nonquantifiable elements. Indeed, all sense of style is in large measure comparative. What I'm calling the depersonalized style in Barthelme is so only in relation to the much more affective, more emotionally charged writing of people like Norman Mailer or Joyce Carol Oates. A depersonalized prose similar to Barthelme's is found in Vonnegut or Kosinski, if by depersonalized we mean a relative absence of evaluative modifiers, emotive metaphor, and a firm sense of a subjectivized ego in either the characters or the narrative voice. What makes Barthelme's style distinctive, I would suggest, is its conjunction of a collagist technique with a relatively depersonalized texture. There is little or no intersubjective reality in Barthelme's world, at least certainly not the kind we are used to in conventional fiction. An otherwise interesting typology of fiction such as Dorrit Cohn's Transparent Minds, with its sense of fiction as characterized by the representation of states of mind, hardly applies to Barthelme at all.

At the same time we meet, in virtually every Barthelme story, situations and expressions that embody unmistakable emotions, most frequently anxiety, self-doubt, indecisiveness, and anomie. This is the result of Barthelme's carrying the modernist injunction to present rather than to interpret or to express, to “show” rather than to “tell,” to something like a reductio ad absurdum. Indeed, when looked at closely, what Barthelme's style offers is a world charged with emotion and expressiveness that is constantly undercut, or displaced, or mentioned but not dealt with. Here is the opening paragraph of “The President,” from Unspeakable Practices, which shows a typical alternation between highly subjective material and a seemingly nonconsequential set of surfaces:

I am not altogether sympathetic to the new President. He is, certainly, a strange fellow (only forty-eight inches high at the shoulder). But is strangeness alone enough? I spoke to Sylvia: “Is strangeness alone enough?” “I love you,” Sylvia said. I regarded her with my warm kind eyes. “Your thumb?” I said. One thumb was a fiasco of tiny crusted slashes. “Pop-top beer cans,” she said. “He is a strange fellow, all right. He has some magic charisma which makes people—” She stopped and began again. “When the band begins to launch into his campaign song, ‘Struttin' with Some Barbecue,’ I just … I can't …”

Clearly the scarred thumb mocks what Barthes has called “the effect of the real,” the result of small details of observation that hardly advance the narrative line, and indicate only that the contingent world is somehow behind the story, “out there” in the flow of reality. … But for now the thing to notice is how the two speaking characters here reveal everything, as it were, yet seem not to hear one another. The emotional openness and critical awareness (“Is strangeness alone enough?”) eventually modulate into confusion and aphasia. And the story, and many others like it, makes it apparent that the phrase “warm kind eyes,” which is repeated in connection with the narrator's secretary, is a hollow marker, one of those numberless clichés from other stories that Barthelme is constantly recycling. And so what might be expected to serve as certification of the story's verisimilitude (the pop-top cans and the scarred thumb) or its emotional sincerity (the warm kind eyes) creates the opposite effect.

So again there is a sense of duality in Bartheleme's fiction, in this case a sense of the hyperreal merged with the depersonalized. Another way to see this duality is to return once more to the question of genre, and ask what, if any, social compact exists in the case of the short story. I have already suggested that one goal in telling stories in a contemporary idiom may be to keep alive earlier forms of storytelling, a redemption of fictional consciousness. This conclusion has led to speculation about Barthelme's awareness of how readers might recall past visions of communal or group harmony, a nostalgia for some transcendent belief when they confront the fallen and fragmented forms of narration so common in the media. But I have also suggested a different, opposed, readerly disposition, which was built on a notion of the story as a reflection of how we live now, and even as a critique of contemporary society and its values. These two uses of the short story, or implicit understandings of how a story ought to function, when pushed to extremes can be summarized in two terms: storytelling and information. I borrow these terms from Walter Benjamin, whose essay “The Storyteller” explores how the ancient tale is transformed into the modern story. In preliterate society, but extending down to early modern times, the tale had a different epistemological status from that of the modern short story. In part the modern short story is close, in form and detail, to such “true” accounts as we find in newspapers, magazines, and so forth, while at a far remove the tale recalls obviously apocryphal forms such as fairy tales and romance legends. Here is how Benjamin states the distinction:

The intelligence that comes from afar—whether the spatial kind from foreign countries or the temporal kind of tradition—possessed an authority which gave it validity, even when it was not subject to verification. Information, however, lays claim to prompt verifiability. The prime requirement is that it appear “understandable in itself.” Often it is no more exact than the intelligence of earlier centuries was. But while the latter was inclined to borrow from the miraculous, it is indispensible for information to sound plausible. Because of this it proves incompatible with the spirit of storytelling. If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs.7

This characteristic of appearing “understandable in itself” would apply to Barthelme's use of clichés, as well as to the use of brand names and allusions to current events and bits of media consciousness. Barthelme's world is clearly one in which we confront all sorts of things that have only their very ordinariness to make them recognizable. The pop-top can, the A. F. of L., the cool Carta Blanca, all serve as raw bits of information; they tell us the story is contemporary, that we are “in touch” enough to be able to recognize such references, and they suggest the world is swamped by its own flood of contemporaneity.

On the other hand, the bizarre, surreal references, the sudden irruptions of fantasy, and the presence of older forms of consciousness all tell us that the stories are more like ancient tales. The role of the return of the repressed in Barthelme's stories is crucial in this sense. By their very structures the stories imply that the social order and the rational-legal forms are not working. The goal of total secularization has not been achieved. Some authority, not subject to verification, and certainly not localizable, can be appealed to, however faintly. However short the President is in stature, he still “has some magic charisma which makes people—” The dash is crucial here, for it indicates how the knowing Little Man, the possessor of “information,” no longer accepts the older forms of social domination and authority, yet at the same time he cannot fully dismiss them.

The stories do two things. First, they introduce us to the contemporary world, or rather reintroduce us, and so acknowledge its familiarity and make it safe. This is achieved largely by the superfluity of contemporary references. Second, they show us that the contemporary world is full of myth and fantasy, in which the structures of rationalization are constantly threatened with the irruption of unsafe and uncontainable instincts and awarenesses. This is achieved largely by the use of surreal collage and the parody of both social and aesthetic forms. This scheme of duality is reductive, however. In the actual reading of the stories at their best, these two functions overlap to such an extent that they virtually reverse themselves. It is the superfluous references to contemporary “junk” that strike us as disorienting, while the half-glimpsed bits of our cultural legacy tend to reassure us that we are, after all, only being entertained, only told a story.

I would venture a tentative bit of literary history here. The “high modernist mode” was built on at least two principles: it distrusted the positivism of the scientific world view that dominated the nineteenth century, and it also distrusted the smug moral certitude it identified with the figure of the Victorian sage. From these two principles flowed several various mediations, from Joyce's use of myth to redeem the everyday, to the rigorous phenomenalism of the imagist movement. But the disinterested Flaubertian “eye” suspended above the confusions of subjectivity, yet accurately recording the data and effects of that subjectivity, was certainly one of the dominant stylistic responses to the modernist dilemma. As Susan Sontag put it, two of the chief elements of modernism are homosexual aesthetic irony and Jewish moral seriousness. Now for Barthelme it is impossible to reduplicate the achievements of the high modernist mode. But neither can he dismiss the principles. (Barthelme speaks in his interview about growing up in the house his father, an architect in the modernist mode, designed: “It was wonderful to live in but strange to see on the Texas prairie.”) As a result the emphasis on detachment and the use of collage continue to play a large part in his style. But in the meantime the cultural dislocations of the first two decades of the twentieth century have been followed by the even greater dislocations of the Second World War, the atomic bomb, the Cold War, and so forth. In brief, dislocation has become the order of the day. What had seemed at first like a total decay of cultural and social values had, by 1960, begun to be recontained in a new mode of consciousness. Instead of the leveling of values being perceived as a threat, it is enshrined by Pop Art. Instead of psychological fragmentation being treated as an affliction, it becomes commodified, with the help of the mass media, as a series of new “life styles.” Instead of the new status of women, for example, being felt as a social upheaval, it becomes grist for the mills of the media.

But all this change, this sense of “the tradition of the new,” has by now settled into a duality of its own, built out of change and integration, and hence a stable duality. From the vulgarization of a work like Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, to the redoubled, circuitized consciousness of McLuhan's Understanding Media to the sense of crisis in writers such as Norman O. Brown, what emerges is an awareness that some new consciousness is awaiting its answering form to give it full artistic life. Whatever else this form will express, it must be prepared to accept change, even accelerating change, as just another component of our cultural matrix, without special value or moment. Here the interest in such things as video, conceptual art, environmental art, as well as the quick commodification and exhaustion of these forms, is germane. The answering form that is sometimes suggested—as in the widespread acceptance of the poetry of John Ashbery, for instance (a writer Barthelme praises highly), and the drama of Robert Wilson—is a form that perfectly balances, and hence effectively overcomes, the twin demands of total empathy and total control. And Barthelme can be seen as part of this new sensibility, with his modernist use of collage and his post-modern sense of parody. And I would suggest that it is his use of generic awareness, simultaneously to acknowledge the death of genre and to point the way to its recreation in new terms, that makes him such a successful innovator.


  1. Writing Degree Zero, trans., Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968), p. 16.

  2. O'Connor's essay can be found in Short Story Theories, ed. Charles May (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1976). This collection includes many of the standard essays on the topic, including Poe's, and the ones by Bowen and Jarrell that I also cite.

  3. In The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, by Joe David Bellamy (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1974).

  4. For a useful exposition, see Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. 247-50. Sartre's analysis itself appears in Critique of Dialectical Reason.

  5. Such wisdom and proverbs are part of what Barthes calls the “cultural code.” See S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), p. 205. Such wisdom is to be imagined as coming from “an anonymous Book whose best model is doubtless the School Manual.”

  6. From “Discourse Typology in Prose,” in Readings in Russian Poetics, ed. A. Matejka and Z. Pomorska (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1971), pp. 183-84.

  7. Illuminations, ed. with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 89.

Wayne B. Stengel (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14477

SOURCE: Stengel, Wayne B. “The Art Stories.” In The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme, pp. 163-202. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Stengel discusses Barthelme's twelve art stories, which evaluate the role of art and of the artist in contemporary life.]

[This essay] examines Barthelme stories that describe the place of art in contemporary life. All the stories interpreted here examine the role of the artist and the reaction of the audience when art becomes a massive object in the landscape, a museum piece, or an insurmountable obstacle. Though all twelve stories appear unconcerned about what their art works mean, some ask from what materials contemporary art can be formed; others question whether human beings are the proper subject matter for art, what should be the goals of art, or how the artist may create in a restless, exhausted world. The highly whimsical art objects created raise still other questions about the function and utility of art in a pragmatic world frequently indifferent or hostile to aesthetic considerations.

Art in these stories hardly constitutes mimesis. Rather, as long as an audience believes in their art, the artists represented here seem free to create people or human abstractions that could not in all likelihood exist. The stories imply that the effort to know another human being may well be futile and art as representation of facets of the personality may be a sham. All art in these stories is a poor likeness, a stand-in, or a bodyguard for reality. Yet the stories also acknowledge that the only means to make art in their cynical, confused worlds is through painstaking, repetitive destruction of reality's fallacious signs and symbols. Thus each tale forms its own artistic vision by denying that it is creating art, by redefining the symbolic nature of reality so that the artistic and the symbolic include elements of life that lie within the range of common experience. The narrators of these stories attempt to make art no less exciting but less privileged and exclusive than conventional concepts have allowed. Ironically disdaining all claims for aestheticism, Barthelme's creators insist on a different, more meaningful vision of art than the art objects around them provide. They transcend this art with an art of their own.

To assure this creativity, the artistic narrators encountered in this [essay] regard art as a self-contained object without necessary meaning beyond its surface appearance or assumed reference to a world outside itself. The narrators of these stories construct original, inventive works because they are acutely aware that the modern audience for their works has grown jaded with conventional, predictable artistic experiences and the traditional responses that most works want to elicit. Accordingly, these stories sometimes attempt to involve the reader in the very processes by which they are created.

Turning to the major story in the first block of art stories, “The Balloon,” from City Life (1970), we discover a story that directly asks what the materials of modern art should be. As critic Richard Schickel has observed, the balloon that suddenly appears over forty-five blocks of Manhattan in this story serves as a metaphor for the problems of modern art and the public's reaction to it.1 Imitating the style of environmental and conceptual art seen in New York art galleries in the sixties and seventies, the story presents readers with a superficially meaningless, self-referential object, which offers a variety of interpretations to its public. The narrator of the story shapes a work of art rich in sense of play. This playfulness exists in the childlike whim that prompts him to inflate the airy fabric of the balloon over many city blocks, the joyous spontaneity that a seemingly purposeless object produces in spectators who leave the streets and climb onto the balloon, and the comic tension between the obvious form of this enormous toy and its ambiguous content and meaning.

“The Balloon” has no plot and shows no intensification of theme or language as it progresses. The story becomes merely a catalog of public responses to the presence of this huge, rubbery plaything. The clash between the soft, undifferentiated form of the balloon and the hard-edged contours of the city buildings and skyscrapers on which it rests illustrates another of the many conflicts between fluid content and solidified form that appear throughout the story. Similarly, critic Tony Tanner sees Barthelme's balloon as representing a contemporary, abstract art object and its contradictions as embodying the dominance of its form over its content: “But take it as a kind of free-form artistic product, flexible, plastic and ephemeral, and it exemplifies the sort of art which Barthelme and many other American writers are increasingly interested in. It represents an invitation to play, a gesture against patterning, a sportive fantasy floating free above the rigidities of environment; and the invitation and the gesture are more important than the actual material of which the balloon is composed.”2 If the invitations and gestures which the form of the balloon induce in an audience are more important than its content or material, the persona of the story has been canny nonetheless in shaping an art work whose flexibility encourages a wide range of speculation about its contents. This malleability leads Jerome Klinkowitz to a somewhat different view of “The Balloon” from Tanner's: “Barthelme appreciates form, but he never allows it to define content.”3

Not only does the balloon suggest endless play between its form and content, but it prompts a return to a childish sense of play among those who watch it. Realizing that the balloon can never suggest meaning in the limited terms that more respectable works of art do, the narrator describes the sense of gaiety and freedom the balloon generates among members of its audience:

There was a certain amount of initial argumentation about the “meaning” of the balloon; this subsided, because we have learned not to insist on meanings, and they are rarely even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomena. It was agreed that since the meaning of the balloon could never be known absolutely, extended discussion was pointless, or at least less purposeful than the activities of those who, for example, hung green and blue paper lanterns from the warm gray underside, in certain streets, or seized the occasion to write messages on the surface, announcing their availability for the performance of unnatural acts, or the availability of acquaintances.4

For the narrator, art must be a source of play as well as inspiring play in those who experience it, and such art defies exact interpretation. Yet the narrator does not explain until near the end of the story the mysterious hold an object of pure, purposeless speculation has on many observers below: “This ability of the balloon to shift its shape, to change was very pleasing, especially to people whose lives were rather rigidly patterned, persons to whom change, although desired, was not available. The balloon, for the twenty-two days of its existence, offered the possibility, in its randomness, of mislocation of the self, in contradistinction to the grid of precise, rectangular pathways under our feet” (“B,” 21). Thus the narrator offers his view that the appeal of the balloon lies in its perpetual indeterminacy, its ability to lose and consume those individuals who examine it. By extension, the story offers a theory of the appeal of much modern art: its elusiveness and random qualities allow the casual visitor to the gallery as well as the knowledgeable art student to forget momentarily the utilitarian regularity of his own life.

Just as suddenly as the narrator first had the balloon inflated over Manhattan, he turns off its supply of helium, the balloon expires, and the story ends. As in many Barthelme stories developed through play, the protagonist is a mischievous, hiding man who withholds his motives or identity from the reader. Only in the last paragraph of the story does one learn that the narrator has used the balloon to forget his loneliness and his sexual longing for his lover while she was out of the country. With her return he no longer needs his sublimatory toy. Just as this story, an example of modern art in its own right, reaches an arbitrary conclusion, so does the balloon; yet the demise of neither story nor balloon supplies a satisfactory meaning for the tale. The story suggests that though contemporary art may evolve out of a state of longing or deprivation, these specific, documented emotions fail to explain the work or the audience's fascination with it.

This droll tale argues that in a utilitarian world, frequently suspicious of art, many modern art works do not evoke reducible meaning. Rather, the balloon encourages the individual to lose the self in its surfaces, to relish a work's refusal to be interpreted, and to experience not only a continuing sensation of change and process but also an uninhibited sense of play that the intellectual demands of other forms preclude. “The Balloon” demonstrates that modern art, germinating in an incidental emotion of the artist, can be constructed from any object, toy, or plaything as long as it causes an audience to participate in a full array of its possibilities.

Critic Jerome Klinkowitz understands the force of the balloon as an art object. In his discussion of Barthelme's early essay, “The Case of the Vanishing Product,” in which Barthelme contends that much modern advertising gives “not so much as a clue as to what is being advertised,” Klinkowitz concurs that the “very novelty of presentation effaces the product itself.”5 In “The Balloon,” the narrator creates an artful advertisement that is total wish fulfillment, a complete Rorschach for each observer's fantasies and desires. Like a Goodyear blimp without a message written on its side, the balloon nurtures frustration, awe, and imaginative wonder in its audience because of the advertising slogans it omits. As the narrator slyly acknowledges: “The apparent purposelessness of the balloon was vexing (as was the fact that it was ‘there’ at all). Had we painted, in great letters, ‘LABORATORY TESTS PROVE’ or ‘18٪ MORE EFFECTIVE’ on the sides of the balloon, this difficulty would have been circumvented. But I could not bear to do so” (“B,” 18).

Nor does Barthelme add a label to “The Police Band,” the first auxiliary story in this category. Here the quality of play remains intact, and the tale does not yield to easy interpretation. In “The Police Band,” from Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), the narrator, a former Detroit mailman and jazz musician, is sent to New York as part of the mayor's special police band. The mayor believes that whenever the rage of the city spills into the streets, the police band will go into the conflict and the soothing sound of its jazz will quell the disturbance. In practice, the mayor's plan proves a disaster. The rage of the city remains much too strong for the police band's music to tame. The mayor and his police commissioner are not reelected, and the city's rage remains unchecked by his artistic antidote.

For all its whimsicality, the parable of “The Police Band” raises interesting questions not only about the obvious inadequacy of music to appease urban turmoil but also about the impossibility of any art form to conquer the ugliness of reality. The story's playful juxtaposition of anguish and art, of policemen turned into artists, and of force used to beautify, illustrates the jocular intermingling of form and content that these three playful stories see as one of the functions of the contemporary art object.

“The Police Band” is also play because it is narrated by an amusing, unnamed critic of society, who joins the band believing that art can briefly transform the despair of reality. Unlike the balloon, however, the police band fails to claim its ghetto audience with the surface of its sounds, to convince them their lives can change or even that the playing of its music can momentarily transcend their cramped existence. The other art object on view, however, the Barthelme story itself, does succeed in reaching a quite different audience. First published in the New Yorker, “The Police Band” forced its audience of largely affluent, self-consciously sophisticated readers to question what it meant or even if it had meaning.6 That question defines these stories' concept of the modern art object. “The Police Band” exists as an object of endless play, and its audience can well wonder whether the sardonic band member who narrates the story believes his own description of these musicians as representing “a triumph of art over good sense.”7 Art here does thrive on emotion, however, and has little use for good sense. The despondent narrator laments that the city dwellers, like the members of his band, remain angry. Sublimation frequently generates art in these stories, but the tales also demonstrate that one must have a balloon or music to quell one's longing or anger before art will emerge. The police band, though an object of play, differs from the balloon in failing to sublimate the desires of either its maker or its audience. It shares this dual sense of frustrated play with “The Policemen's Ball,” the second auxiliary story in this grouping.

“The Policemen's Ball,” from City Life (1970), depicts forceful, authoritarian policemen attempting to relax at an elaborate dance hall decorated with the theme of Camelot. The art object presented here, a ludicrously prettified social gathering of men and women dedicated to law and order, gives the form of their party an absurdly incongruous content because it contradicts the highly rigid form of these policemen's daily lives. These officers and their wives consistently adapt all their activities to some form of coercion and control. The men turn sex into compliance and submission to their will, and the women see their acquiescence as instrumental in keeping their men fit to protect them from the violence and lawlessness lurking in the streets. Even forms of reason acquire the content of force in this tale. The Pendragon, leader of all the policemen, makes a speech during the ball urging caution in pursuing those who wish to disrupt the law and incite the police: “But I must ask you in the name of force itself to be restrained.”8 Yet long before his words are spoken, whatever pleasure and exuberance the ball might possess have taken on the regimented, military bearing of its dancers.

The minimalist plot of “The Policemen's Ball” concerns the efforts of Horace, a young policeman, to use the sexual overtones of this sumptuous event to entice his girl friend, Margot, into his bed. Sex represents protection and control to both Horace and Margot, yet the story insists on the uncertainty and vulnerability of modern life and modern art. The tale most resembles its matched stories on the typology in its reliance on the mysterious, subversive voice that describes the ball and injects its own opinions on it into the narrative. As in “The Balloon,” the voice of this hiding man brings the story to an abrupt, artificial conclusion. Consummating their relationship after the ball, Horace and Margot are locked safely in Horace's apartment. Yet as the narrator asserts in the absurdly melodramatic final sentence of the story: “The horrors had moved outside Horace's apartment. Not even policemen and their ladies are safe, the horrors thought. No one is safe. Safety does not exist. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!”9

The failure of the policemen and their ladies to escape their fears in the festivities of this beautiful, completely unmilitary ball or its aftermath parallels the failure of the ghetto residents to be cajoled by the police band. Both reactions show the hostility of the contemporary audience to purely playful art forms and the inability of this art to overcome the tensions of modern life. Yet both tales as examples of modern prose art exert just the sense of play, of the continual flux between form and content, that the police band and the policemen's ball fail to exert on their audiences. Nonetheless, the narrator's laughter at the conclusion of “The Policemen's Ball” contains a final irony. The reader can ask if these stories suggest interpretations beyond their sense of play; or, perhaps the nervous, theatrical laughter signifies that the narrator and the horrors themselves are pursued by similar goblins. Regardless, in a world of constant change and process nothing remains inviolable. Yet these stories about enormous sublimatory toys—balloon, band, and ball—provide ways to return art to pleasure while in each case suggesting the fear with which such pleasure is frequently viewed.

If these three stories developed through the process of play ask what forms innovative art might take in the contemporary world, the three tales of knowing or of desiring to know ask why famous human beings or the glorification of humanity have become objects of art. The three tales analyzed here, “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” “The Genius,” and “On Angels,” examine in exacting detail a charismatic political hero, a famous media-conscious intellectual, and the concept of angels as instruments of God and man, respectively. Each story's technique divides the qualities of its man or idea into specific properties and elements. In each case the resulting assessment forms a collage of contradictory poses and impressions which reveal that even highly public human beings remain unknowable.

However rigorously one attempts to investigate the enigma of the human personality, these tales demonstrate the futility of conclusively defining an individual temperament. Yet the stories that evolve from the effort have the quality of modern art in the jarring, contradictory impressions they render of the surfaces they superficially explore. Art emerges from the effort to know in these portraits of a modern politician, a contemporary intellectual, and a humanized religious image because their sense of incompletion and ellipsis allows the observer to participate in the visions formed. The reader can bring his limited knowledge and imaginative resources to shape a sense of unity and coherence in these pictures where none may actually exist.

The central art story developed through the effort to know, “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” from Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), resembles the central art story developed through play, “The Balloon.” Both stories take familiar objects, a balloon and the external, well-publicized behavior of Robert Kennedy, and inflate them to grotesque proportions. Through the irregularities and flexibility of the surfaces of the balloon and Kennedy the stories offer these objects as works of art. But whereas “The Balloon” asserts that play rather than interpretation should be the fruit of art, “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” suggests that a desire to understand the art object might be the goal. “The Balloon” consists of the catalog of an audience's spontaneous responses to a huge air-filled toy, while “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” seeks to construct a collage of Robert Kennedy's contradictory traits, impulses, and reactions in his role as a political figure. The audience for “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” contains all those readers of the story who attempt to do as the narrator does in the last of the story's many short, disconnected segments. There the narrator tries to rescue Kennedy from the sea of publicity that always threatens to submerge him. Throughout the tale he uses his artistic invention to unify as best he can all these discordant snapshots of this awesome man into a complex portrait of a three-dimensional hero.

Simultaneously the story gives the reader all the evidence necessary to pronounce Kennedy a great, selfless humanitarian or to condemn him as a sham, a totally shallow political charlatan. Yet, deferring to the endless mystery of the human personality and the power of modern art to create a wide range of responses in its audience, the story never commits itself to either point of view. The reader sees Kennedy's role as a husband and father and his relations with an administrative assistant, an old friend, a secretary, a former teacher, and the young people who make up a significant part of his growing constituency. Some of these individuals speak of his warmth and compassion, while others emphasize his impulsiveness and sudden unpredictability. We hear Kennedy's own words describing his massive work load, his views on urban transportation, his feelings about the immense crowds that continually follow him, and his responsibilities as a political leader. These hollow, stereotypical responses could be the stock phrases of an insincere fraud trying to give the electorate what it wants to hear. Or they could represent the efforts of a guileless, striving statesman attempting to break free of the clichés of the political jargon expected by the media and the public.

In the twenty-four separate fragments of this story, Kennedy resembles nothing so much as a huge collage, a mosaic of all the paradoxical characteristics that a contemporary leader must possess to succeed. Robert Kennedy embodies so many perspectives and facets that the story suggests even the famous photographer, Karsh of Ottawa, can never find the right pose, the key shot that will capture the real Robert Francis Kennedy. Kennedy emerges as the ultimate art object, and one segment of the story entitled “Gallery-going” describes Kennedy, the politician as art object, visiting a modern art gallery.


K. enters a large gallery on Fifty-seventh Street, in the Fuller Building. His entourage includes several ladies and gentlemen. Works by a geometrist are on show. K. looks at the immense, rather theoretical paintings.

“Well, at least we know he has a ruler.”

The group dissolves in laughter. People repeat the remark to one another, laughing.

The artist, who has been standing behind a dealer, regards K. with hatred.10

The ironic effect produced here juxtaposes Kennedy, a living, three-dimensional political art object, against a superficially more severe two-dimensional one, the geometrical painting. Since his function as a politician is to draw a satisfied response from his audience, Kennedy jokes about the rigidity of the other art object on view. As expected, his audience approves, establishing that they understand and appreciate his political art. Yet Kennedy, in a different sense from the angry artist standing behind him, frequently uses a hard edge. Conditioned to make sardonic quips to further his image, he disregards taste and sensitivity to please his followers.

As becomes a skilled contemporary politician, the Robert Kennedy of this story reaches for an intellectual element within the voting public. In a concluding segment Kennedy discusses a 1949 study by the French writer Georges Poulet of a character type Poulet identifies in the drama of eighteenth-century French writer Pierre Marivaux.11 This personality obviously represents Kennedy's own ideal of the totally adaptable political chameleon. As Kennedy relates Poulet's vision of the Marivaudian man:

The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless, futureless man, born anew at every instant. The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line. The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history. Nothing follows from what has gone before. He is constantly surprised. He cannot predict his own reaction to events. He is constantly being overtaken by events. A condition of breathlessness and dazzlement surrounds him. In consequence he exists in a certain freshness which seems, if I may say so, very desirable.12

In choosing the condition of the Marivaudian being as his own goal, Kennedy again invites comparison with works of art. He resembles a pointillist painting, but one in which the arrangement of dots forming the picture becomes less important than the markings themselves. Kennedy's comments suggest that the reader might see each of the twenty-four points of reference of this story as existing without continuum or totality but still having fascination as isolated elements in their own right. In the final fragment of the story, Kennedy nearly drowns in the flood of so many discontinuous points of view. At just this moment the narrator intervenes. Attempting to know Kennedy in some immediate, human, and nonpolitical way, he slips a rope around his waist and throws it into the ocean to save Kennedy from inundation. Kennedy eventually grasps the narrator's rope, but, emerging from the water with a mask still covering his face, he offers the narrator only an impersonal “thank you.”

The story consistently presents a potentially frightening portrait of Robert Kennedy as a pastless, futureless man constantly surprised by his own reactions. This man might well be a political leader without commitment to anyone but himself or to anything but the present moment. Consequently, the tale has divided its critics into those who feel that it indicts Kennedy as a hopeless egomaniac obsessed with his own continually shifting image and those who believe that it offers an elliptical portrait of a deeper, more complex man, which emerges when the reader imaginatively connects the dots—Kennedy's contradictory traits—with other implicit, positive attributes. Critic Neil Schmitz belongs among the former commentators:

The journalistic profile which seeks to humanize the great man by revealing the trivial and the intimate succeeds only in declaring the one-dimensional enormity of the figure's self-consciousness, an ego that has rigorously stylized behavior into a series of gestures. Yet this same Kennedy, master of the stock response, humorlessly quotes Poulet at the end of the piece on the Marivaudian man “born anew” in each instant of experience constantly “overtaken by events.” It is scathing picture of the human surface.13

Although the reader may agree with Schmitz that Robert Kennedy develops into a blatantly vapid figure in this story, Schmitz's appraisal does not consider that the tale chooses to define Kennedy almost exclusively through his surface actions, however transparent their one-dimensionality. Therefore, Schmitz fails to calculate the demands of Kennedy's audience, which insists that he control and stereotype his behavior if he wishes to remain a public icon and an art object.

Balancing Schmitz's denunciation of the image of Kennedy in the story, William Stott feels that the final triumph of “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” lies ironically in its failure to produce a believable human being from so many mutually exclusive tendencies and attitudes. Stott finds the story a parody of feature article technique which reveals the limitations of journalism to explore the interior life of any human being. Kennedy emerges as a manipulative automaton because any human personality remains, at depth, unknowable, particularly one subjected to such intense scrutiny. But Stott does value the narrator's effort to rescue Kennedy, his desire to know the art object even though it refuses to lower its mask:

K. can't be explained in a news magazine: his public aspect has too little coherence. K.'s self is exactly what the mock notes and the article that will come from them must leave out—what they can't touch, treat, predict. … And Barthelme has saved K.—the K. whom Kafka taught us to recognize as Everyman—and Robert Kennedy and similar public figures, from drowning in the sea of publicity by simply insisting that the sea, though it has K.'s body, his acts, his words, even certain of his past dreams and thoughts, doesn't have the real man.14

Is Kennedy's nature then all surface or all depth? The truth probably lies somewhere between these critical extremes. Still, Schmitz and Stott do not disagree on some of the qualities that make Robert Kennedy, like the balloon, an art object. Both critics see Kennedy as a figure who refuses to explain or give meaning to the world around him. He becomes an aesthetic object because of the fascination his pliable surface has for an audience wary of conventional art, exhausted with literary interpretations and deeper significance. Comparable to the balloon's inability to have a purpose or an advertising function, Kennedy's directly opposite quality, his completely utilitarian goals as a political object, confirms for Stott the extensive interior life the man must possess. These two modern art objects may contain in abundance just those qualities they appear to lack. The seeming uselessness of the balloon disguises the need for the sense of play, spontaneity, and change it prompts, and the total pragmatism of Kennedy's external character may hide the humanity and confusions beneath. Moreover, “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” functions as an excellent modern art object itself, a short story which suggests that a famous politician acquires aesthetic force if, following the narrator of the story, the reader attempts to apprehend the collage formed from the elements of Kennedy's personality. Always ending in some degree of futility, this effort nonetheless demonstrates that a human being shares all the intricacy and contradiction of art if the reader allows his own human nature to participate in the mystery of another personality.

Two auxiliary stories, “The Genius” and “On Angels,” evoke the extreme loneliness and isolation experienced by a man or, in the case of angels, spiritual beings who have become art objects in their society. Unlike “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” these stories encompass the points of view of the genius and various angels. Consequently, both tales lack a narrator who futilely tries to know how the diverse strands of a genius's or several angels' personalities have made them art objects esteemed by their society. In each tale, however, the genius or the angels are filled with self-doubt, and the stories evolve as investigations of the means by which these figures can know themselves and explain their power as art.

Of the two tales, “The Genius,” from Sadness (1972), shows the greater similarity to the themes and structure of “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” and frequently seems merely an extension of that story. In “The Genius,” however, the Kennedy parallel appears as an intellectual resembling Marshall McLuhan or Buckminster Fuller, whose ideas, misinterpreted by the oversimplifications of the media, have moved beyond a strictly academic audience and into voguish public acceptance. Similarly, the structures of the two stories are analogous. “The Genius” consists of a series of sentences, descriptions, or anecdotal fragments, which portray the genius as a cantankerous, inconsistent man given to arbitrary, moody poses and responses. These elements of the genius's personality form the collage of his character, which makes him an art object both to those individuals who observe his public behavior and to the readers of the story. The chief difference between this story and “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” arises in the genius's troubled self-consciousness. Unlike Kennedy's impassivity, this trait causes the genius himself, and not a narrative voice, to doubt, question, and challenge his right to be regarded as a significant thinker and an art object.

Throughout the story the genius's quest for self-knowledge serves as a motif uniting its fragments and demonstrating the artistry of the tale. The elements of this collage include an aphorism from Valéry noting that every man of genius also contains a false man of genius. The genius freely acknowledges that he may be a sham, and immediately following Paul Valéry's remark, he describes the contemporary age as a time of ignorance in which no one knows what others know and no one knows enough. “The Genius” depicts a world in which men's and women's efforts to know and their fascination with increasingly higher planes of abstraction, including the concept of genius, have only increased individuals' failures to communicate. Indeed, this struggle has torn and separated people from one another and from themselves. Accordingly, in another fragment the genius speaks of his frustration in attempting to define the sources of his genius. He has no clue as to what makes him a great thinker: “The mystery remains a mystery.”15 If a genius cannot explain genius, the story suggests that the riddle of the human personality may never be solved.

Yet the futility of his task does not prevent the protagonist from seeking an answer. Reminiscent of the segment in “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” in which Kennedy, a political art object, confronts another art object in a gallery, “The Genius” reveals its hero as an intellectual art object who reads Theodore Dreiser's novel The Genius to gain self-awareness. Curious to know whether the florid descriptions of the genius in Dreiser's prose resemble his own demeanor, the genius puts the novel down and walks to a mirror. “The Genius,” like “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” functions as an endless plane of mirrors in which the popular idol sees himself reflected in the adulation of his audience. In “The Genius,” however, the intellectual savior attempts to search for the causes of his acclaim.

By the conclusion of the story the genius realizes that he will never know his meaning or significance as an artistic phenomenon. Yet in a world of monotonous conformity he understands his hold on the public. He attracts an audience by constantly questioning all the events, data, and circumstances it takes for granted. Without solutions to the problems he poses, the genius as an art object nonetheless allows his public to participate in the possibilities for thought he opens to them. Petulant, gnomic, unable to communicate with other people and frightened of other geniuses, the genius constitutes a calculated human puzzle whose pieces defy unity or coherence. By attempting to understand how his own fragments might align, this Marivaudian being saves himself from drowning and presents a picture of both his surface and his depths. In the process, the readers of “The Genius” are free to construct their own genius from this genius's personal, fragmented self-exploration.

The second auxiliary story, “On Angels,” from City Life (1970), is Barthelme's most whimsical examination of man's potential to become an art object. If the other two stories in this square demonstrate that politicians such as Robert Kennedy and intellectuals such as McLuhan and Fuller develop many of the qualities of a work of art for a contemporary audience, this tale suggests that any object of man's imaginative speculation assumes some of the qualities of art and that the intense effort to know eventually becomes an artistic endeavor. Specifically, the story investigates the fate of the angels after the presumed death of God, and it poses several questions about their threatened existence. If the omnipotence and assured presence of God have vanished from the earth, what, the tale asks, will happen to His divine messengers and servants? Moreover, if angels appear as men in perfect form, what will become of them once men stop believing in godlike perfection and omniscience? Furthermore, should anyone expect artistic perfection in a world in which men can know so little?

“On Angels” rhetorically dismisses its own doubts by quickly asserting that men will continue to believe in art, perfection, and the human possibilities for attaining these qualities regardless of the existence of God, certainty, or final knowledge. To illustrate its view, the story cites three items from the vast literature on angels. Using Emanuel Swedenborg's study of angels, Gustav Davidson's Dictionary of Angels, and “The Psychology of Angels,” a contemporary essay by Joseph Lyons, the tale demonstrates the enormous force angels have had on the human imagination.16 The news of the death of God should have made this literature meaningless, but since men and women will always wonder if they can become more perfect and more beautiful, angels will continue to offer a vision of human perfection that traditional art sometimes neglects. The narrator of this essayistic story thus concedes that much writing about angels is actually writing about human beings in angelic forms.

After surveying the literature on angels, the tale concludes by discussing the angels' attempt to find a new role for themselves following the death of God. Once various suggestions are overruled as unworthy of angelic skill and perfection, one faction of the angels proposes that their new function should be to celebrate their refusal to exist. Not only is this alternative immediately rejected by the other angels as a sign of spiritual pride, but the moral force of this story also makes it immediately unacceptable. The tale insists throughout that the human quest for perfection will never die despite the impossibility of mankind ever knowing whether angels, God, or certainty exists. Consistent with the aesthetic vision that the preceding art stories have taken, angels are perfect Barthelme art objects. Inviting an audience to know their frequently changing shapes and to attempt an understanding of their play of form and content, angels in addition serve as intellectual abstractions that may totally be a product of the artistic imagination. Paralleling angels as an art form, this short story becomes a fitting art object itself. The tale develops as a collage of references, scholarship, and angelic views on some of the human forms angels may acquire. The reader, attempting to know all possibilities for his own aesthetic expression, never discovers whether angels actually exist. Yet in this endless search he can be persuaded of his potential for spiritual perfectibility and angelic form.

Turning now to stories of stasis developed through repetition, we find three tales: the central identity story, “The Glass Mountain,” and the two auxiliary stories, “Nothing: A Preliminary Account” and “Concerning the Bodyguard.” Rather than questioning what contemporary art should be, or if men and women can achieve aesthetic perfection as the past art stories have, these tales examine the artistic process itself. They recognize it as a quest, an endless, repetitive search, which insistently tries to shape some vision or make some statement from the confusions, uncertainties, and contradictions of experience. In these tales art exists as a venture that always ends in some degree of failure because the artist realizes he has been falsely educated to regard many of the misleading signs and symbols of his world as faithfully designating reality. Accordingly, the artist in these stories acts as a translator and interpreter of reality, attempting to lessen the distance between the artistic symbol and the reality it represents, between the claims of art and its actual possibilities in an often debased, ugly world. Art in these stories becomes a catalog of all that contemporary art cannot achieve, thereby enabling the audience to understand what the contemporary artist seeks from the artistic process. These stories represent the struggle of the artist to express a reality greater than his world yet a reality that still does not exclude a pragmatic assessment of his world. Though raising more questions than they can answer, these investigations of the artistic process are never completely nihilistic because they reveal that the conflict between reality, art, and ideas will always continue even though its terms are always changing.

Turning to the typology, we find the central art story, “The Glass Mountain,” from City Life (1970), developed through Barthelme's sense of repetitive concern. Superficially, it appears to be one of his most straightforward tales. In one hundred numbered statements the story relates the quest of its artist-protagonist to climb a steep glass mountain, which has suddenly risen at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Eighth Avenue. Once again, a Barthelme story presents its readers with an enormous art object, like the balloon or Robert Kennedy. In this instance, however, the reader is encouraged neither to play with the object nor to understand it, but to conquer the mountain by slowly, painstakingly scaling it. The aesthetic goal to be gained here is not a final prize or reward but the sheer process of accomplishing a very difficult task, even if the odds against completing the climb seem formidable. Many brave knights have tried to scale the mountain, but their dying bodies, groaning in pain, circle its base. Furthermore, the mountain air is bitter cold, and the protagonist has strapped climbing irons to his feet and holds an incongruous tool, a plumber's helper, in each hand. If these physical conditions are not enough to deter the hero, the street below is full of his acquaintances shouting abusive taunts as he inches his way to the summit.

“The Glass Mountain” neatly functions as a metaphor for the plight of the modern artist. Striving to achieve an impossible task, to scale heights others have attempted and failed, the contemporary artist here is a Don Quixote figure. He represents the incurable romantic, who wants to climb the glass mountain to make the world better, not only for himself but for his society. The numbering of each sentence in this story emphasizes the static, repetitive nature of his quest while conveying the numbing despair of the lives of those in the street below. They envy this adventurer because he attempts to do what they cannot: overcome misery through art. As he crawls up the side of the mountain, the narrator describes the city he has left behind. He pictures a world full of senseless violence and fear in which alcoholic, failed artists and drugged teenagers walk on sidewalks caked with dog shit. A vandal wantonly saws down a row of elm trees on a city street as people pass by, nervously observing the incident but doing nothing to stop it.

Consequently, the narrator journeys up the mountain to find artistic values a contemporary audience can still revere. He has heard in a childhood nursery story of a castle of pure gold at the top of the glass mountain. The story says that in a room in the castle tower sits a beautiful, enchanted symbol. Several hundred feet above the city the narrator contemplates his chances for artistic transcendence of the pain and failure of city life. At this point he reconsiders his motives for undertaking this quest. He realizes that though men still need symbols, the harshness of the reality around them should force artists to disenchant the symbol, to bring it down to earth, and to make art more conversant with reality and mankind.

  1. It was cold there at 206 feet and when I looked down I was not encouraged.
  2. A heap of corpses both of horses and riders ringed the bottom of the mountain, many dying men groaning there.
  3. “A weakening of the libidinous interest in reality has recently come to a close.” (Anton Ehrenzweig)
  4. A few questions thronged into my mind.
  5. Does one climb a glass mountain, at considerable personal discomfort, simply to disenchant a symbol?
  6. Do today's stronger egos still need symbols?
  7. I decided that the answer to these questions was “yes.”
  8. Otherwise what was I doing there 206 feet above the power-sawed elms, whose white meat I could see from my height?17

In examining this passage, critic Alan Wilde sees “The Glass Mountain” as a radical effort not only to disenchant the idea of the symbol in Barthelme's storytelling but also as his challenge to the givens of much American popular culture.

The project of the story, and of others like it, is in fact precisely one of demythifying, or disenchanting—… the cultural imperatives (scientific, religious, psychological, governmental, and aesthetic) of the present and the past: of everything, in short, from Batman to the American Dream. As compared with the enchanted symbol, the narrator's acquaintances, shouting throughout the climb a volley of obscene discouragements and standing on the sidewalks below—which the narrator sees with a curiously radiant intensity as “full of dogshit in brilliant colors: ocher, umber, Mars yellow, sienna, viridian, ivory black, rose madder” (“CL,” 66)—are pure disenchanted, phenomenal reality, and, so the story implies, all the better for that.18

Though Wilde's criticism values the story's intention to deflate the authority of symbols in contemporary narrative, his assessment ignores what the passage in question clearly, unambiguously tells the reader. The narrator may climb the mountain to disenchant the symbol, but he also realizes that contemporary men and women need symbols, if not grandiose ones like the glass mountain. The problem of his quest and of contemporary art is in finding symbols that stimulate the modern imagination without completely falsifying deprived, quotidian existence. Contemporary art must somehow mediate between its former lofty perspectives and a harsh modern world, which makes idealized artistic insights ludicrous. The chorus of street people who revile the mountain climber with their discouragement does, as Wilde says, represent phenomenal reality, yet their lives are depicted as brutal and limited. Only through the eyes of the thoroughly romantic narrator, and not through any vision of the people themselves, does the dog shit lining the streets acquire the rainbow of color of the artist's palette.

Therefore, the story suggests that much of this dilemma in modern art arises in the vision of the artists themselves. Miseducated to believe their endless supply of signs and symbols will still produce the aesthetic responses in contemporary audiences this short-hand has always evoked, many contemporary artists continue to build castles of gold filled with enchanted symbols, regardless of how squalid the conditions of the contemporary world may be. Moreover, the romantic who climbs the glass mountain learns that reality destroys the efforts to discriminate made by artists, literary critics, and semiologists. Consulting A Dictionary of Literary Terms, which he carries with him as he climbs, the protagonist finds a distinction made between symbol and sign, which is immediately invalidated by the world around him. The situation explains why contemporary men and women can make so little sense of either their own battered lives or the badly outmoded terminology of literature.

  1. In the streets were people concealing their calm behind a facade of vague dread.
  2. “The conventional symbol (such as the nightingale, often associated with melancholy), even though it is recognized only through agreement, is not a sign (like the traffic light) because, again, it presumably arouses deep feelings and is regarded as possessing properties beyond what the eye alone sees.” (A Dictionary of Literary Terms.)
  3. A number of nightingales with traffic lights tied to their legs flew past me.19

At last the explorer nears the summit and the golden castle containing the enchanted symbol. He dares to disenchant the symbol, to give it new meaning for those trapped in the street below. Approaching the symbol with its many layers of interpretation, he reaches to touch it. To his disgust, his touch transforms the symbol into a beautiful princess. Furious, he throws the princess down the mountain to his vulgar, vengeful friends, who will know what to do with her.

In this conclusion the artist ironically fails both himself and his audience. Searching for an art uncontaminated by his fraudulent literary terms or his overeducated conception of what art should be, this artist wants to reach an audience whose hostile physical environment makes the ethereal symbols of traditional art ridiculous. Yet when the narrator transforms the enchanted symbol into a beautiful princess—a hopelessly commonplace symbol even for people starved for beauty—he becomes enraged at the striking unoriginality of his art. Torn by his conflicting desires to reach his audience and to achieve the high standards he sets for himself, the protagonist can be true to neither goal. Though he is an emissary of art to the people and an interpreter of their artistic reality, the protagonist's soaring standards ironically prevent him from disenchanting the symbol to satisfy his own aesthetics or theirs.

If the narrator's final anger suggests the failure of this artistic process to fulfill either the contemporary artist or his audience, as an art work itself, “The Glass Mountain” demonstrates the ability of new forms of art to transcend the limitations and worn conventions of the old. This story, as a parody of the fairy tale, actually adheres to and reveres the romance form it superficially ridicules. The repetitive, static listing of the one hundred steps necessary to disenchant the symbol finally makes the new symbol, however hackneyed, worth attaining. Moreover, this artistic quest becomes an art unto itself. As Alan Wilde states, this distinctive, numbered technique for composing a short story ultimately represents not just an unsuccessful effort to disenchant the narrative symbol but an examination of Barthelme's aesthetic motivations for writing a story in this form: “But what one senses in the best of his work is an effort to use art to overcome art (as the moderns characteristically employ consciousness to move beyond consciousness)—or, better still, an attempt parallel to that in ‘The Glass Mountain’ to disenchant the aesthetic, to make of it something not less special but less extraordinary.”20

This effort to overcome established art forms with less conventional and predictable ones appears also in “Nothing: A Preliminary Account” and “Concerning the Bodyguard,” the two auxiliary stories. These tales illustrate the power of the artistic process to shape something—some object, vision, or statement—from the nondescript character, the nothingness, a situation or concept possessed before the artist examined it. Like “The Glass Mountain,” both stories are quests that become catalogs of all the ways their particular subject cannot be defined or categorized. Developing through a static sense of repetition, both stories fail to exhaust or limit their subject, thereby suggesting the endless aesthetic possibilities of the art object or artistic conflict each explores.

Of the two stories, “Nothing: A Preliminary Account,” from Guilty Pleasures (1974), more directly questions the purpose of the artistic process. The tale consists totally of a run-on list of many objects and ideas, which, occupying space, time, or both, refuse to be merely nothing. In this tale nothing represents the emptiness or void in which all art originates and to which most imperfect art, outliving its inspiration only by a few years or decades, returns. Accordingly, the artistic process in this story becomes the effort to make something of permanence from nothing. Nothing also describes the feelings of despair and incompetence that the effort to produce art characteristically evokes in the artist who realizes that anything he makes will fall short of the complete verisimilitude he seeks to depict in it. Yet the tale functions as well as an effort to trap this destructive quality of nothingness, to exorcise and dispel it from the artist's work. Try as he might, however, nothing eludes this list maker. He decides that to capture nothing permanently and rid it from his art he must compose a compilation of everything that nothing is not. Thus this survey forms the story. Nevertheless, before the tale ends the narrator recognizes that, if given eternity to complete his catalog, he could still find items to include in it. If, miraculously, he could finish his inventory, the tabulation itself would remain, and this endless scroll would not be nothing.

Rather than causing the artist to become nihilistic, his growing awareness that nothingness can never be contained within the artistic process only renews his gleeful sense of possibility characteristic of the story's slapdash tone from the beginning. Realizing that the greatest art endures many centuries and his own life will be infinitely short, the narrator rushes through the thought of philosophers from Gorgias to Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Sartre for their views on nothingness and being. Finally perceiving that his list of contradictory opinions and data will never be finished, he chooses to see it as a constant beginning, a series of approximations that, even if he could live indefinitely, would still keep him waiting forever for its conclusion. From this perspective, all art and artistic process become a constant correction and reshaping of the partial ideas, philosophies, signs, and symbols that have encouraged men to believe in permanence, conventions, and finite truths.

The story adds to its compendium of thoughts about nothingness such works as Dylan Thomas' “Do not go gentle into that good night” and Samuel Beckett's closing words from Krapp's beckoning of death, “Burning to be gone.”21 Yet as his own storytelling time expires, the narrator understands that death is hardly nothing despite the loss it imposes and neither is that art which tries to deny or embrace the sense of death. Nothing in this story represents the void from which all art emerges and to which most art drifts, as well as the feelings of inadequacy artistic effort generates in those who attempt it. In his concluding lines the narrator makes an ecstatic discovery: nothing also signifies the impossible purity and perfection to which all art aspires and fails: “What a wonderful list! How joyous the notion that, try as we may, we cannot do other than fail and fail absolutely and that the task will remain always before us, like a meaning for our lives. Hurry. Quickly.”22 Consequently, “Nothing: A Preliminary Account” asserts the value of the failed artistic product and contends that the static, repetitive artistic process, however fruitless, gives value to the artist's vision. This story attempting to climb its own glass mountain, to disenchant the aesthetic of nothingness, finds that its own repetitive technique reveals that nothing can never be known and, hence, the denial of nothingness, like its affirmation, will always be a source of art.

The second auxiliary story, “Concerning the Bodyguard,” from Great Days (1979), which shares a box on the typology with “The Glass Mountain” and “Nothing: A Preliminary Account,” also attempts to disenchant the aesthetic of nothingness. In a series of static, repetitive, unanswered questions, the story examines the relationship of a bodyguard to the wealthy, internationally famous man he watches and protects. The bodyguard serves as a functionary whose only role is to follow, surround, and symbolize another, implicitly superior individual. Therefore, the artistic process of the story becomes the quest to make something of this human nothing, to transform the bodyguard into an art object, a symbol worthy of the esteemed man he represents. Art in this tale quickly takes the role of duplication, reproduction, and repetition. The artistic process or quest here can be likened to an act of substitution in which the bodyguard must assume many of his employer's habits and routines.

Interestingly, the artistic metaphors implicit in “Concerning the Bodyguard” develop complexity as the story proceeds. The story is concerned not just with the relationship between a human symbol and the reality he represents but with the quality of art in a repressive, class-conscious society. As the list of its insinuating questions continues, this story becomes a repetitive catalog of the indifference and subtle abuse the arrogant industrialist shows his lower-class, poorly educated bodyguard. The story insistently asks about the bodyguard's low pay, shabby clothing, and poor benefits; and these questions reveal the increasing contempt he feels for the man he follows. Consequently, the bodyguard as a symbol can have only strained relationships to his employer's world. This man's art of replication seems a poor stand-in, a contemptuous, disdainful reproduction of the realities of his society. In “The Glass Mountain” the artistic process attempts to disenchant the romantic, elevated symbol and to bring it to the level of the people in the street. In contrast, the artistic process in “Concerning the Bodyguard” questions the purpose of art in a society whose symbols must shield and honor a corrupted, callous humanity.

Eventually, “Concerning the Bodyguard” envisions a society in which art or artistic symbols can slowly transform the world that first adopted them. The tale, like “Nothing: A Preliminary Account,” demonstrates that the concept of nothingness, in its absolute aesthetic purity, can never exist. Consequently, the story and its questions are continually making something from nothing, giving distinctive, individualized life to the emptiness of the bodyguard's symbolic function as another man's double. The reader learns that the bodyguard has a wife and two children in another country far away, that he lives in a cramped efficiency apartment and enjoys pornographic films and magazines. Although the bodyguard appears largely ignorant of politics or of the ways his employer exploits workers all over the world, he grows steadily more resentful of the man's displays of personal power. He has mixed feelings of camaraderie and jealousy for the other bodyguards who surround this magnate. He hears the complaints of his fellow workers that their job is dangerous and boring, and he wonders about the loyalty and reliability of the newest bodyguard in their ranks. The story's questions end with a report that, much to the joy of the general public, the industrialist has been assassinated and presumably the bodyguard, or one of his counterparts, bears some responsibility.

All the story's unceasing, unanswered queries do not actually make us know or understand the bodyguard, but they do present the reader with the man's range of response. Totally shaping the process of the story, these interrogations demonstrate that the art of this tale is all process without results, products, or discoveries, other than the certainty that the symbolic life of narrative dies when the reality it represents becomes abusive and corrupt. The artistic process of the story supplies the goal of the bodyguard's life: to kill through static repetition and negligence the reality that is numbing his existence. With the death of this tyrant the bodyguard no longer serves as a slavish symbol, and art can search for more imaginative, liberating ways to transform reality into symbols. As “The Glass Mountain” attempts to move symbolism closer to reality and “Nothing: A Preliminary Account” makes something from nothingness, “Concerning the Bodyguard” says art will follow life indefinitely only if life shows some signs of vitality and humanity.

Approaching the final three stories on the typology, “At the Tolstoy Museum,” “The Falling Dog,” and “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace,” one can see these art stories as probing one of the central dilemmas of the modern artist: how does one create in a world in which existing works of literature and art seem to dwarf the potential for contemporary expression? These tales examine the plight of the modern artist who attempts to affirm his own creativity while acknowledging that the mastery of a writer such as Tolstoy only accentuates the limitations of his own obsessive images. Complicating his dilemma, the artist senses the flight of the contemporary audience from works that cease to titillate, shock, or amuse it. In “At the Tolstoy Museum,” the reader observes that modern art and architecture which only entomb the past. Yet the story also shows the successful effort of its lyrical, inspired narrator to create art in his own style by imaginatively retelling a story from Tolstoy. Similarly, “The Falling Dog” reveals an additional source of a sculptor's creativity after he seems to have exhausted his personal storehouse of images. Receptive to the world around him, this contemporary artist allows the objects of his immediate experience to become the objects of his art. A bizarre event in the sculptor's life serves as an object of his playful speculation and offers him limitless possibilities for a new artistic image, a wealth of materials from which it might be composed, and a variety of techniques other artists have used to develop it. His play of mind does not explain the new work of art the sculptor shapes, but it does predict similar associations that the work might elicit in the audience that discovers it. “The Falling Dog” demonstrates one means by which reality may jar the artist into new stages of creativity without giving definitive meaning or interpretation to the work that results.

The second auxiliary story, “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace,” focuses on the contemporary audience forever in search of new sensations and experiences. Bored by the traditional values and proven effects of conventional art, this audience forces the artist to turn his work into a literal circus, a freak show filled with absurd, unrelated acts. Consequently, the story consists of a collage of verbal descriptions of each of his performers paired with drawings illustrating and following each novelty he places on view. “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace” reflects the extent to which the contemporary artistic performer feels he must pander to a dwindling public to appease and satisfy it. Lacking confidence in its own skills to transcend the art of the past, the sensibility in each of these three stories crafts a mosaic of words and pictures. These collages demonstrate the powerlessness of many contemporary images, visual as well as written, to evoke an aesthetic response in an audience. Yet a considerable contradiction looms in all three stories. In its audacity and imagination each shows an artist affirming his unique creativity, and a literary artist at that, who flourishes without visualization of his materials when he controls his audience's expectations and not merely reacts to its demands.

Returning to a more complete examination of “At the Tolstoy Museum,” the central art story developed through an analysis of its narrator's creative process, the reader finds a story that blends words and drawings. The tale describes an utterly contemporary art object, a modernistic museum containing thirty thousand pictures of Tolstoy. In the story the architectural presence of the museum is juxtaposed with sketches of several pictures within it and with exhibits about Tolstoy on view there. The story serves as a parable on the modern tendency to institutionalize the art and artists of other times and to build mausoleums to honor this deification. In describing the inclination of enthusiasts of contemporary art and contemporary artists themselves to regard great works of other eras as insurmountable art objects, “At the Tolstoy Museum” becomes a museum piece itself. If the tale were nothing more than this it would be only an arid essay. But the story records the account of a Sunday visitor to the Tolstoy Museum. This narrator observes several pictures of Tolstoy, accumulates miscellaneous facts about Tolstoy's life from various displays, reads one short story and two of Tolstoy's social pamphlets on exhibit, and reacts to the grotesque architectural modernism of the museum. Above all, he attempts to dispel the sadness that permeates the museum and consumes the response of all the visitors to what they see. This viewer tries to break through the awesome, monumental grief that Tolstoy's majesty induces in writers or other artists, who feel that whatever they might create would be hopelessly inadequate by comparison. The narrator, haunted by these visions of Tolstoy, nevertheless attempts to form an art work of his own from his experience in the museum. Trapped within the aesthetic and architectural constraints of this building and this story, he can frame his art only from an awareness of Tolstoy's genius. In the most important moments of his trip to the museum, the protagonist retells a short story by Tolstoy he finds in the museum's library. Bringing his unique simplicity and feeling to the effort, he affirms his creativity in the process of recasting another man's fable. With this vignette, “At the Tolstoy Museum” becomes a metaphor for the way a contemporary artist, momentarily blinded by the brilliance of an earlier writer, nevertheless can use the author's basic materials to transcend them and claim his own art.

Before the narrator emerges from Tolstoy's shadow he describes the quality that proves so overwhelming to an artist trying to discover his own identity. This story begins with a full-page drawing of Tolstoy's grizzled beard and long face that stares imperiously at the reader and the visitors to the museum. The same sketch reappears on the next page, but this time it dwarfs the small figure of Napoleon drawn in the lower left-hand corner. This juxtaposition of images and sizes conveys the ability of the epic artist Tolstoy to overshadow even the sweeping, awesome history of Napoleonic conquest he recreates. As the story momentarily turns to prose descriptions of the museum, the narrator tries to demythologize the reverential status of Tolstoy generated by the building. He wonders whether the pictures of Tolstoy on one wall might be lowered. Furthermore, he attempts to know and understand Tolstoy by reading unrelated details about his life. Yet all the information the museum provides makes the personality of Tolstoy, like that of Robert Kennedy or the genius, seem an enigma, a series of formidable contradictions. Seeking to unearth the man this modern art museum has entombed, the narrator discovers only a multilayered, infinitely paradoxical human being. Just as the three cantilevered, tilting floors of the futuristic museum seem ready to topple on those who pass before it, so Tolstoy's enormous spiritual and political force shook his world. Yet the beauty of much of his writing suggests a man of considerable aesthetic delicacy. The narrator obviously cannot resolve this conflict between the strength of Tolstoy's social vision, dramatized in the architecture of the museum, and the poetic fragility of his style.

The entire building, viewed from the street, suggests that it is about to fall on you. This the architects relate to Tolstoy's moral authority.

In the basement of the Tolstoy Museum carpenters uncrated new pictures of Count Leo Tolstoy. The huge crates stencilled FRAGILE in red ink.23

Repeatedly, the narrator notes that artists who visit the museum weep profusely at its Tolstoy pictures, exhibits, pamphlets, and stories. Sensing the immense burden this great artist has placed on their own creative powers, they feel Tolstoy's gaze resting on them, like the scrutiny of their fathers or that of any older authority figure. Yet Tolstoy's magnificent artistry, despite its grandeur, has considerable emotional distance from our age and less and less to teach an aspiring contemporary writer. Ironically, the revelatory truth of Tolstoy's social pamphlet proclaiming that children would be better teachers of their elders than the old men who instruct the young is completely lost on these observers of Tolstoy, who are paralyzed by their own grief.

The guards at the Tolstoy Museum carry buckets in which there are stacks of clean white pocket handkerchiefs. More than any other museum, the Tolstoy Museum induces weeping. Even the bare title of a Tolstoy work, with its burden of love, can induce weeping—for example, the article titled “Who Should Teach Whom to Write, We the Peasant Children or the Peasant Children Us?” Many people stand before this article, weeping. Too, those who are caught by Tolstoy's eyes, in the various portraits, room after room after room, are not unaffected by the experience. It is like, people say, committing a small crime and being discovered at it by your father, who stands in four doorways, looking at you.

(“TM,” 45)

Implicit in the misery that an art object like the Tolstoy Museum causes the contemporary imagination lies some respite from its very claustrophobia. Tolstoy relates in another of his social pamphlets on view how men stupefy and sadden themselves when, lionizing past art and artists, they forget that their own opportunities for creativity exist only in the present. Demonstrating Tolstoy's view, the narrator contrasts a single musician playing a trumpet before two children in the plaza of the museum with the 640,086-page Jubilee edition of Tolstoy's collected works for inspection in the building. This musician's skill, though largely unheard and unappreciated, constitutes a means by which a man, creating his own art, frees himself of the past. By contrast, the edition of Tolstoy represents a source of inertia for all potential artists chained to the past, particularly those who would read Tolstoy to charge their own imaginative energies. Thus this museumgoer observes that men sadden and stupefy themselves by looking to the past for their art rather than relying on their own resources for creativity, however modest their talents.

At the Tolstoy Museum, sadness grasped the 741 Sunday visitors. The Museum was offering a series of lectures on the text “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” The visitors were made sad by these eloquent speakers, who were probably right.

People stared at tiny pictures of Turgenev, Nekrasov, and Fet. These and other small pictures hung alongside extremely large pictures of Count Leo Tolstoy.

In the plaza, a sinister musician played a wood trumpet while two children watched.

We considered the 640,086 pages (Jubilee Edition) of the author's published work. Some people wanted him to go away, but other people were glad we had him. “He has been a lifelong source of inspiration to me,” one said.

(“TM,” 49)

As acknowledged, the chief lessons that the Tolstoy Museum has to teach a modern audience are exemplified in the narrator's own version of a simple Tolstoy folk tale, which he reads in the museum. The narrator quickly recounts the story of a bishop who discovers three hermits on a desert island. By substituting the Lord's Prayer for their primitive prayer, the bishop believes he has taught these men greater communion with God. The same evening the bishop sees the hermits floating over the ocean. They tell him they have already forgotten his prayer. Aghast at their miracle and his own ignorance, the bishop says that he has nothing to teach them, that their own message reaches God. Concisely and artfully, this story within “At the Tolstoy Museum” epitomizes and summarizes the themes of the tale. The hermits in this fable stand in the same relationship to the bishop as the writers who come to his museum stand to Tolstoy, or as the narrator stands in his moving reworking of this parable to Tolstoy's skill in the original. Only by breaking free of the restraints, conventions, and revered teachers of the past and using them or rejecting them as needed can an artist affirm a unique sense of creativity and identity. The agony of influence is endurable if an artist knows when to stop agonizing and how to start reinventing.

In this story the Tolstoy Museum, like the balloon, the gargantuan Robert Kennedy mannequin, or the glass mountain in the other central art stories, represents a huge object, which dominates the landscape and the perceptions of the audience and artists who view it. In certain respects the Tolstoy Museum is the most complete and self-referential art object Barthelme has created because it contains other art objects and comments on relationships between the artifacts housed within. Barthelme critic Jerome Klinkowitz sees a story like “At the Tolstoy Museum” as representing Barthelme's effort to develop a new plane of vision for contemporary fiction. Using Barthelme's theory from his 1964 essay “After Joyce,”24 Klinkowitz recognizes the author's desire to make the short story an environmental, participatory art form, which, like the Tolstoy Museum, envelops the reader's world just as do the rooms in which the reader lives and works:

“Art is not about something but is something. … The reader is not listening to an authoritative account of the world delivered by an expert (Faulkner on Mississippi, Hemingway on the corrida) but bumping into something that is there, like a rock or a refrigerator.” More actively, “the reader reconstitutes the work by his active participation, by approaching the object, tapping it, shaking it, holding it to his ear to hear the roaring within. It is characteristic of the object that it does not declare itself all at once, in a rush of pleasant naivete. Joyce enforces the way in which Finnegans Wake is to be read. He conceived the reading to be a lifetime project, the book remaining always there, like the landscape surrounding the reader's home or the building bounding the reader's apartment.25

Unquestionably, the Tolstoy Museum that the narrator explores in this tale is just such an environment. Though Barthelme may hope the reader returns to this story periodically to puzzle the meanings that its unlimited associations suggest, this story, unlike “The Balloon,” does offer certain explicit interpretations or at least definite directives. In “The Falling Dog,” however, the first auxiliary story to occupy the final square on the typology with “At the Tolstoy Museum,” a sculptor creates an art object that resembles Barthelme's artistic ideal in that it resists meaning or interpretation. Although hardly absorbing his entire physical environment, the dog of the title falls literally into the sculptor's life, and he quickly seizes on this grotesque chance encounter to transform the dog into the latest image for this sculpture. “The Falling Dog” addresses itself to the same problem that vexed the narrator of “At the Tolstoy Museum,” but it takes the point of view not of an artist so awed by great writers of the past that he inhibits his own capabilities for creativity but of a productive craftsman who has momentarily depleted his mind of images for his art and waits in limbo for an intruding force to stir his creative spirit.

Watching an artist gather images for his own art rather than observing an artist trapped by the images and architecture of other artists produces a unique investigation of the creative process. In “The Falling Dog” the sculptor freely adapts the events of his collision with the dog, all he knows about dogs and their roles in past art, and his reservations about sculpting a statue of the falling dog in a verbal collage of the artistic possibilities that his clash with the animal affords. As a carefully composed artifact, “The Falling Dog” even more closely resembles Jerome Klinkowitz's view of Barthelme's intention for the perfect art object than does “At the Tolstoy Museum”: “The key to Barthelme's new aesthetic for fiction is that the work may stand for itself, that it need not yield to complete explication of something else in the world but may exist as an individual object, something beautiful and surprising and deep. … Not just a juggler of fragments, Barthelme is an assembler and constructor of objects.”26

Accordingly, what little plot “The Falling Dog” contains involves the efforts of its protagonist to make an art object from the senseless fall of the dog from a third-story window onto his back. The sculptor tries to yoke all his knowledge and information about dogs and dogs in art into a sculpted aesthetic whole. The story that results explores the confusions, anger, and cunning in this artist's mind and creative process as he sits on the sidewalk, dusts the concrete from his chin, and watches the dog that has quickly jumped off his back and moved several feet down the street. The story captures the extravagant play of mind by which a skillful creator transposes a fantastic moment in his life into potential art. “The Falling Dog” thus becomes a story about the creative act of writing its story, and its sculptor, attempting to unify all its pieces into one cohesive falling dog, assembles and constructs a surreal variety of objects before his audience. This assemblage includes lists of puns, clichés, and adages involving dogs, all the artists the sculptor can remember who have painted or made dogs, and all the forms and materials in which they have worked. The resulting montage of phrases, jokes, vignettes, and anecdotes is a collage of variously sculpted language that makes “The Falling Dog” a wildly amusing, self-referential art object in which the narrator affirms his unique identity and creativity.

In the process of choosing his images and rejecting those that falsify and distort his intentions, the sculptor invites the reader to participate not in a finished work but in the shaping of his artistic perspective. Unlike “At the Tolstoy Museum,” “The Falling Dog” uses no pictures to tell its story. Though always searching for the right image, the sculptor discovers that words, used creatively, supply the audience with all the vision necessary to see the falling dog and to appreciate this aesthetic situation. In the final lines of the story, he rushes up to his canine assailant and, clutching the dog in his arms, takes it back to his studio. The sculptor admits that he wonders what the entire episode means. Yet as long as he and his audience respond to the same image, they both can worry about meaning later.

The final auxiliary story sharing a box on the typology with “At the Tolstoy Museum” and “The Falling Dog,” “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace,” from Sadness (1972), concerns the fate of the contemporary creative process, not at the hands of past art or at an artist's own imaginative standards but at the mercy of an easily bored, fickle audience. The tale views traditional art forms and conventional aesthetic effects as elitist, outmoded palace art, which no longer delights the restless contemporary audience. Therefore, like the adventurer climbing the glass mountain, the narrator attempts to disenchant and dethrone the aesthetic of art, to please and excite the pigeons who are rapidly fleeing the palace.

The narrator thus recounts his elaborate devices for reclaiming the dilapidated palazzo, clearing the weeds that have grown around it, and making the art displayed there palatable to a general audience. Before our eyes, the protagonist of the tale turns this amphitheater into cheap summer stock, a continual sideshow that caters to the most obvious vaudeville attractions. He brings onto its stage the Amazing Numbered Man, who exhibits thirty-five demarked, completely movable parts. He hires fools to mumble and wander across the footlights, and he even auditions an enormous explosion. All these performances are described in the narrator's prose and illustrated in witty, detailed ink drawings that only heighten the ridiculousness of the artist's attempt to sate the masses. Once again, a Barthelme story achieves collage effects, juxtaposing words and pictures and suggesting the inability of contemporary language to sustain a modern audience without visual parallels.

Though the narrator believes he must appeal to the lowest common denominator of the contemporary audience for his theatrical tent show to survive, the story also shows him needlessly pandering to his spectators' basest feelings about controversial issues. His vaudeville includes scenes of blatant male chauvinism and, to please all factions, an episode in which a woman murders her husband. In his effort to stay a diminishing audience, the modern artist too often sees his role as combining elements of the burlesque comedian, the carnival barker, and the flimflam man. Frequently, his circus becomes merely an effort to shock or titillate those who watch. Yet despite his audience's demand for the grotesque and the lurid and his willingness to supply these commodities, the show does not succeed. The audience feels so manipulated by this bevy of sensations and sees their own desires so constantly exploited in these vignettes that they give the show only the faintest applause.

The force of this tale rests in its ability to be both joyous and sad, to show the tireless exuberance of this contemporary artist attempting to entice the modern audience back to art with vulgar routines that defy most senses of artistry. The tale portrays the modern artist as a cynical magician, who ironically comes to believe in his own bogus tricks. Yet the real skill of the story emerges in the ability of its collage to ridicule these misguided efforts at a new art form and yet, paradoxically, to produce through its startling juxtapositions and acute self-awareness a new art form all the same. The narrator of “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace” concludes his dilemma with the recognition that the show must and—as long as human invention prevails—will go on:

It is difficult to keep the public interested.

The public demands new wonders piled on new wonders. Often we don't know where our next marvel is coming from.

The supply of strange ideas is not endless. … Some things appear to be wonders in the beginning, but when you become familiar with them, are not wonderful at all. … Some of us have even thought of folding the show—closing it down. That thought has been gliding through the hallways and rehearsal rooms of the show.

The new volcano we have just placed under contract seems very promising.

[Drawing of an active volcano.]27

A fascinating tension exists in these Barthelme stories about art and the creative process. The protagonist of each attempts to return his art to its sources of wonder before the contemporary audience, massive social discontent, and the eminence of other artists convinced him to experiment with the play of form and content or collages of pictures and words. Ironically, the narrator of “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace,” though hardly averse to these techniques, uses them to stimulate his own resilient imagination. Critic Jerome Klinkowitz recognizes that the outlandish formal innovation in this and other Barthelme tales, however futuristic in appearance, actually represents the effort of the artist in each to attain a sense of perspective, proportion, and control in his art: “Barthelme's vignettes are, then, not conventional arguments in the dialectics of form, but imaginative volcanoes, radical stopgap measures to save experiences which might otherwise be eroded with our loss of traditional standards. In this sense he is a counterrevolutionary, opposing the new language of technology and manipulation with pleas for old-fashioned interest and imagination.”28

As Klinkowitz's comments indicate, “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace” shows Barthelme at his most revealing and most contradictory. Forever the juggler of fragments, fully committed to experimentation with the short-story form, Barthelme is also an entertainer and a New Yorker writer who inverts, revises, and rearranges our conceptions of art to show us how much we lose by demanding to be entertained, shocked, and amused. Beneath his surreal trappings and collage structures lies a classically conservative sensibility that insists that the world, however torn apart, can be artfully and responsibly put back together again. The artists in “At the Tolstoy Museum,” “The Falling Dog,” and “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace” affirm unique creativities by giving fragmented worlds surprising aesthetic harmony.

This [essay] logically concludes with the outlines of a theory of art emerging in the twelve stories examined within it. These tales see their works of art as enormous aesthetic objects, which dramatize the endless play of form and content. For an audience to appreciate this art, it must participate in these objects not by examining their internalized meaning but by exploring their contradictory, surprising surfaces. This theory of art divorces the art work from a specific meaning or interpretation. In these stories art is not about something but is something—a toy, object, person, event, performance, landscape, or environment. Freed to be abstract, art can reflect the contours of the world around it and the varied shapes of experience of the audience whose world intersects its own.

Moreover, art in these tales resists the force of the past. Incorporating the immense vision of a writer like Tolstoy or the magnetism of a political leader like Robert Kennedy, these stories attempt to transcend the limitations these figures impose on their narrator's creative possibilities. Thus these tales consciously strive to disenchant the preeminent symbols, to demythologize the totems of past and present. In so doing, the stories transform our previous conceptions of art with an art of their own. This artistry envisions worlds that partake of the imperfections and uncertainties of contemporary life. This art can still be a romantic quest, however, as exemplified by a story like “The Glass Mountain,” in which an idealistic knight ascends a treacherous mountain to bring art to the suffering urbanites below. Often, however, these quests become catalogs and lists of all the ways in which conventional art fails the people it seeks to inspire. These tales contend that for too long art has been obsessed with a grandeur of life which seems incongruous with the debilitating quality of much modern experience or with the chaos of events and circumstances that mirrors reality without illuminating it.

Consequently, these tales seek to disenchant this aesthetic of nihilism, to dissect the confusions of contemporary existence without offering final conclusions or interpretations. These stories eventually realize that art substitutes aesthetic effects for the reality it purports to capture; art offers a surrogate life in place of the phenomena it attempts to record. Therefore, contemporary art becomes a ceaseless search for the legitimate, the genuine, and the creative, which yields no definite products or results. Nonetheless, these stories collectively assert that art should be the effort to bring the symbol closer to reality, to make something from nothingness, and to serve and embody that vision of reality which offers a sense of emotional or spiritual transcendence to its audience.

Rather than projecting a sense of defeat or despair, these stories' view of the fallibility of all art instills a sense of joyous determination in their narrators and artists. Art in these tales functions as the unattainable yet perpetually exhilarating object of life, and the four central art stories in this [essay] delight in dramatizing ways by which art may be fleetingly grasped. In “The Balloon” the narrator forgets his personal pain by shaping a huge sublimatory toy, which intrigues and frightens its audience with its lack of constructive meaning. Similarly, in “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” the narrator as audience rescues Kennedy's personality from submerging in a sea of contradictions. At the same time, this story suggests that men's and women's failures to know themselves or others, coupled with their drive for perfection, have transformed artistic and political celebrities into contemporary art objects. Attempting to question the authority of an accepted artistic symbol, the mountain climber of “The Glass Mountain” ironically discovers, not the many-layered symbol he desires but a beautiful princess, whom he throws to the foot of the mountain. This frustration of modern art, torn between the mechanistic symbols of the past and the effort to create an art that functions organically in the present, is vividly illustrated in “At the Tolstoy Museum.” Here the narrator destroys the anxiety of much contemporary art by realizing he must accept the past. Acting on his conviction, he immediately uses one of Tolstoy's fables to create a lyrical fable of his own.

The balloon, Robert Kennedy, the glass mountain, and the Tolstoy Museum loom awesomely in the landscapes of the artists in each of these stories. Yet by making their environments endless fields of play, each of these artists shapes a new concept of art. Lacking the purity of a Grecian urn or the authority of a scarlet letter, these tales nonetheless form a vision of art less interested in the object itself than in an audience's perceptions of it. In these stories the art work's environment becomes a huge art object designed for the restless, fickle modern audience encouraged to touch, know, scale, and inhabit a world alive to discovery and change.


  1. Richard Schickel, “Freaked Out on Barthelme,” New York Times Magazine, August 16, 1970, p. 15.

  2. Tanner, City of Words, 405.

  3. Klinkowitz and Behrens, Life, 73.

  4. Barthelme, “The Balloon,” in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 16-17, hereinafter cited parenthetically in the text as “B.”

  5. Klinkowitz and Behrens, Life, 73-74.

  6. Klinkowitz, “Barthelme: A Checklist,” 52.

  7. Donald Barthelme, “The Police Band,” in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 75.

  8. Donald Barthelme, “The Policeman's Ball,” in City Life, 55.

  9. Ibid., 56.

  10. Donald Barthelme, “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 41.

  11. James R. Giles, “The ‘Marivaudian Being’ Drowns His Children: Dehumanization in Donald Barthelme's ‘Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning’ and Joyce Carol Oates' Wonderland,Southern Humanities Review, IX (Winter, 1975), 63.

  12. Barthelme, “Robert Kennedy,” 46.

  13. Schmitz, “Satire,” 112.

  14. Stott, “Donald Barthelme and the Death of Fiction,” 385.

  15. Donald Barthelme, “The Genius,” in Sadness, 27.

  16. Donald Barthelme, “On Angels,” in City Life, 127-28.

  17. Donald Barthelme, “The Glass Mountain,” in City Life, 61-62.

  18. Wilde, “Barthelme Unfair to Kierkegaard,” 57.

  19. Barthelme, “Mountain,” 63.

  20. Wilde, “Barthelme Unfair to Kierkegaard,” 60.

  21. Donald Barthelme, “Nothing: A Preliminary Account,” in Guilty Pleasures (New York, 1974), 165.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Barthelme, “At the Tolstoy Museum,” in City Life, 45, hereinafter cited parenthetically in the text as “TM.”

  24. Barthelme, “After Joyce,” 15.

  25. Klinkowitz and Behrens, Life, 77.

  26. Ibid., 80, 76.

  27. Donald Barthelme, “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace,” in Sadness, 139.

  28. Klinkowitz and Behrens, Life, 76.

John Domini (essay date winter 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6986

SOURCE: Domini, John. “Donald Barthelme: The Modernist Uprising.” Southwest Review 75, no. 1 (winter 1990): 95-112.

[In the following essay, Domini explores Barthelme's modern consciousness through an examination of his short stories.]

“Barthelme has managed to place himself,” William Gass once declared, “in the center of modern consciousness.” Gass of course meant “modern” in the sense of “up to the minute”; he was praising Donald Barthelme for what always strikes one first about this author's highly imaginative and wickedly ironic fiction, namely, its free-wheeling use of contemporary culture in all its kitschy largesse. The majority of his closer critics—Tony Tanner, Wayne B. Stengel, and Larry McCaffery, to name three—have since seconded Gass's judgment, emphasizing what that early reviewer called the author's “need for the new.” In general the criticism has stressed how Barthelme revels in the dreck of contemporary culture—how he delights in our brokeback and hopelessly modish contemporary language—using the very elements of a civilization mad for superficial values in order to deride it. Robert A. Morace praises the author's “critique of the reductive linguistic democracy of the contemporary American mass culture,” (in Critique), and Larry McCaffery adds: “Barthelme's stories can thus be viewed as allegorical presentations of the writer attempting to make fictions in an age of literary and linguistic suspicion” (in The Journal of Aesthetic Education). By now the point has been developed at book length more than once, perhaps best by Stengel's The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme.

Yet Gass had the original insight some twenty years ago. His essay, “The Leading Edge of the Trash Phenomenon,” was a review of Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, a collection published in 1968. More to the point, what he had to say pertained to work that must be counted as three Barthelme styles ago. The complexly written and showily strange prose of that book and the previous two (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964, and Snow White, 1966) was supplanted by the simpler address and less rococo imaginings of City Life (1970) and Sadness (1972), a simplification reflected in the differences between the later titles and the earlier. Indeed the directness of the writing and the explosive abruptness of the visions may make the two early-seventies collections the peak of Barthelme's career to date. But the writer has since moved on, first to the dialogue format originally explored in his novel The Dead Father (1975) and dominant in his 1979 collection, Great Days. These dialogues, often between nameless protagonists, and never between anything remotely like two developed characters, carry the stories further from the satisfactions of narrative than ever before—indeed, further than in the decade since. His 1981 career retrospective, 60 Stories, offers occasional revisions of his earlier work, and those revisions, though slight, without exception smooth out the prose and clarify story purpose. His latest efforts demonstrate an amalgam of previous styles, most effective in the scrupulously arranged Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983), but his 1986 novel Paradise is by and large a return to accessibility (to hearty sexuality, for that matter) and to storyline.

This brief overview of his career and its changes, then, indicates that Barthelme's “modern consciousness” is in fact chameleonic, and by no means limited to the cultural choices or linguistic bric-a-brac of any one period. On closer examination—in Sixty Stories, which stands as the authoritative edition—the contemporanea in the texts seems even less reportage, more art.

In the best of Barthelme's dialogue-stories, “The New Music,” for instance, the partners in the colloquoy start by discussing the question, What did you do today?

—Talked to Happy on the telephone saw the 7 o'clock news did not wash the dishes want to clean up some of this mess?

(Sixty Stories)

All nicely late-twentieth century. But the second speaker replies:

—If one does nothing but listen to the new music, everything else drifts, goes away, frays. Did Odysseus feel this way when he and Diomedes decided to steal Athene's statue from the Trojans, so that they would become dejected and lose the war? I don't think so, but who is to know what effect the new music of that remote time had on its hearers?

The exchange continues likewise contrapuntally:

—Or how it compares to the new music of this time?

—One can only conjecture.

Clearly “The New Music” is concerned with more than just what we did today. Yet it seems a likely “conjecture” that the story refers not only to Homeric poetry, and to all that its ancient music implies of death and renewal in eternal cycles, but also to an artistic movement much closer to our own time. Barthelme refers, that is, to a central work of twentieth-century Modernism, itself inspired in part by the Greek classics. In the 1979 story, the two speakers spend most of their time discussing their mother, who has recently died. They speak of her familiarly but edgily; they dwell on her repressiveness—on all the things “Momma didn't 'low”—and yet insofar as two faceless voices can show emotion, these two show us something very like guilt (“Yes, I remember Momma, jerking the old nervous system about with her electric diktats”). Thus with the early references to Odysseus, and with the characters' ambivalence about hidebound but much-missed Momma, a quiet pattern of allusion emerges. Elsewhere one of the men describes a lit-up theater as “glowing like a coal against the hubris of the city”—a faint but clear echo of Stephen Dedalus, characterizing the moment of catharsis or epiphany (and himself borrowing from Shelley): that moment when “the mind is like a fading coal.” Yet another Joycean note is sounded when the two speakers discuss a rather grotesque cemetery, one in which the recorded voices of the dead are played from their graves. Yet this boneyard has been imagined before, by Leopold Bloom at Paddy Dignam's funeral. As Bloom puts it, early on in Ulysses: “Have a gramophone at every grave or keep in the house.” Talking graves, reinforcing a son's unquiet guilt over a dead mother—we have heard this music before as well.

The references are often this subtle. Yet though he may be quiet about it, Barthelme repeatedly complements his up-to-dateness by similar allusive games, rooted in literary history. The glances backward are not to Joyce exclusively, but nearly always to the great Irish author's peers: to the European Modernist movement of the first third of the century.

Undeniably there's a good deal else going on in his work. As John Barth has suggested, literary conventions may wear out, but the best artists in any mode remain inexhaustible. Yet despite the increasing critical attention given his fiction, Barthelme's reliance on the Modernists—his “modern consciousness” of another sort—remains largely undiscussed. Now and again, writers have noted the more obvious references. Even Gore Vidal makes mention of one, as part of his well-known attack on Barthelme and his peers (“American Plastic,” from Matters of Fact and Fiction). But no one I've read has seen just how pervasive the allusions are. No one has seen that they operate in stories from every stage of his career, or seen, especially, how the Modernist canon provides emotional resonance and internal coherence for “The Indian Uprising,” the 1968 story that may still rank as his greatest. Finally, his echoes from the first third of this century inform the larger purposes of his work, and help define his place in contemporary letters.

In one of the earliest stories, “For I'm the Boy,” the author refers more or less explicitly to three Modernist masters. Their purpose, too, seems fairly clear. Barthelme wishes to enhance the drama's essential reticence: to increase—though sportively—what it costs his main character when he has to put his high feelings into words. The story takes place during a drive back from an airport. There the protagonist, Bloomsbury, has bid goodbye once and for all to his ex-wife, Martha. These names alone call to mind a major author and primary text of the earlier period, specifically, Virginia Woolf and Ulysses again (indeed, coincidentally or not, in Joyce's novel Bloom exchanges dirty letters with a woman named Martha). And two “friends of the family” are along for Bloomsbury's farewell trip. In the course of the tale's eight pages these friends grill the protagonist more and more closely about how he's feeling. “I may not know about marriage,” one says, “but I know about words” (Sixty Stories). Meanwhile Bloomsbury suffers flashbacks to the growing coldness between his wife and him, and to his adultery. These flashbacks are done in a shameless parody of Irish brogue, lightly demonstrating the impoverishment of storytelling. Even a race that once lived by blarney is now subject to withering irony:

Ah Martha coom now to bed there's a darlin' gul. Hump off blatherer I've no yet read me Mallarmé for this evenin'. Ooo Martha dear canna we nooo let the dear lad rest this night? when the telly's already shut doon an' th' man o' the hoose 'as a 'ard on? … Martha dear where is yer love for me that we talked about in 19 and 38? in the cemetery by the sea?

Thus murmurs of Valéry—disciple of Mallarmé, author of the signal Modernist poem, “A Cemetery By the Sea”—are added to the Joycean echoes and the blush of Woolf.

Soon after the flashbacks begin, it becomes clear that Bloomsbury's “friends,” themselves both separated, expect their companion to share his pain with them. They treat it as their due, they all but demand he open up. “So now …,” one friend declares, “give us the feeling.” Stranger still, Bloomsbury has actually invited these two along, in part to armor himself for the leavetaking, but also—so it begins to seem—as if he wanted their interrogation, their drawing him out. The friends' avidity about seeing Bloomsbury's bruises is a low emotion but certainly familiar. Bloomsbury's own motives however are more complex, rather like an urge to give penance. At story's end Barthelme delivers just such a ritual cleansing, with typical startling exaggeration. The friends stop the car and work Bloomsbury over, “first with the brandy bottle, then with the tire iron, until at length the hidden feeling emerged, in the form of salt from his eyes and black blood from his ears, and from his mouth, all sorts of words.”

In this story the Modern canon, for all the author's joviality, functions nonetheless as a part of the characters' emotional blockage. Even the Woolf reference, though of tertiary relevance, makes the protagonist seem stuffy, on a last-name basis—more aloof than is good for him. And the wife chooses Mallarmé ahead of making love, and our Bloom's Irish Rose now lies buried in cemetery by the sea. The piece may be said to cut these mighty works down to size, as part of a young author's gamely joshing struggle with the tyranny of a previous literary generation; in the story's original version (in Come Back, Dr. Caligari), Barthelme toyed with Joyce and Valéry even more extensively. The Moderns, like poor Bloomsbury, at times prized intricate games or rules of decorum over “the hidden feeling.”

The great period of City Life and Sadness produced several stories with Modernist underpinnings. Rather than rummage through several sample references, however, it may be more useful here to point out that this author, a former gallery critic, provides references to the period in all the arts. The title story from the first of these two collections, for instance, features a trombone player named Hector Guimard—not coincidentally, the architect who designed the flowery lamps and Metro stops of fin de siècle Paris. Likewise Barthelme's own work is shoved towards the visual. He has claimed in more than one interview that “Bone Bubbles,” from City Life, is his own addition to the verbal-plastic experiments of Gertrude Stein. And these two books are the only ones in which his more serious collage stories appear (the picture-pieces in his 1974 omnibus, Guilty Pleasures, are intended solely for laughs). These intriguing hybrids feature reproductions of etchings and woodcuts, generally nineteenth-century and earlier, alongside whatever drama the author has imagined as a companion. The most provocative was “Brain Damage,” also from City Life; one wonders why Barthelme didn't include it among the few collages he selected for Forty Stories, in 1987.

But in “Daumier,” the last piece in Sadness, the references are again literary, again to Valéry, and merit closer examination. The story, as Daumier himself cheerfully admits, “maunders”; our narrator wanders into and out of the surreally cowboyish adventures of his imaginary “surrogate,” a creature also named Daumier. The purpose is somehow to “distract,” somehow to “slay and bother … the original, authentic self, which is a dirty great villian.” Along the way, the twinned Daumier dramas are saturated with French art and literature, from the eponymous cartoonist and painter to the cracked Dumas plot in which the puppet-self frolics. So this heady surrogate, designed to free us from self-consciousness, soon comes to suggest another such stand-in made for the same reason, namely, M. Teste.

One recalls that Valéry (in discussing Mallarmé), claimed that the contemplation of the self was the root of alienation. Moreover, self-absorption and the subsequent loss of contact with others seemed to Valéry a vexing and paradoxical offshoot of his love for literature, because any thoughts of self first arise from reading, and yet thereafter leave a reader alienated even from his books, lost in solipsism. This conviction led the author to create his M. Teste, at once a paradigm of pure thought and a proof of thought's helplessness. And Barthelme, replacing Valéry's complex and high-flown prose with plain Americanese, has his Daumier create a second surrogate for an interesting reason: “Two are necessary,” he explains, “so that no individual surrogate gets the big head.” Indeed. Daumier's second dybbuk, moreover, sounds very much like the original Big Head: “I see him as a quiet, thoughtful chap who leads a contemplative-type life.” A single page-long paragraph then gives this surrogate its “trial run”—and provides this maundering tale with its essential declarations: “There are always openings, if you can find them. There is always something to do.” The sentences are repeated at the story's close.

Here Valéry functions differently, substantially so, from how he and his peers did in “For I'm the Boy.” The invention of a new Teste-ing device offers escape, discovery, possibility. At one point “Daumier” lightly filches the French poet's most famous opening, “The Marquise went out at five o'clock,” and the result is a small festival of city life:

Description of Three O'Clock in the Afternoon

I left Amelia's place and entered the October afternoon. … [S]ome amount of sunglow still warmed the cunning-wrought cobbles of the street. Many citizens both male and female were hurrying hither and thither on errands of importance, each agitato step compromising slightly the sheen of the gray fine-troweled side-walk. Immature citizens in several sizes … were engaged in ludic agon with basketballs, the same being hurled against passing vehicles producing an unpredictable rebound.

Here for once the language is toney enough, the insight elaborate enough, to suggest the Gallic. Yet it's Gallic “ludic agon,” Gallic play, that Barthelme emphasizes. One recalls too—since in this passage the narrator is leaving the apartment of his lover—that M. Teste had a wife, a woman indispensable to him despite all his ratiocinations. This wife had a humanizing effect on Valéry's surrogate, an effect neatly summarized by Edmund Wilson, who explains in Axel's Castle that the husband would come to Madame Teste “with relief, appetite, and surprise”—and Madame's first name was Emilie, a close enough approximation of Daumier's Amelia. This woman's amorous ameliorative attentions provide Barthelme's narrator with his own best reliefs and surprises.

Since Sadness the Modernist play has continued. The Dead Father, a grim and skeletal exercise, succeeds best in those sections that snitch a whiskey or two from Finnegans Wake. “A Manual for Sons,” the book-within-the-book, slips in and out of colloquial voices, Biblical voices, and essay rhetoric; it equates the Oedipal urge finally with Wake's central theme, original sin: “There is one jealousy that is useful and important, the original jealousy” (“A Manual” is reprinted in Sixty Stories). Likewise the author of “A Manual” has a name with several working parts, Peter Scatterpatter, and towards the novel's end we enter the mind of the soon-to-be-dead father, where the stream of consciousness is choked by weedy Wakeish punning. Then four years after Dead Father, “The New Music” offered its syncopation of Greek mythology and Joycean mother-worship. As for Barthelme's most recent major work, the excellent novel Paradise, while the book certainly has Modernist references, in scope and direction it offers a break from the shadows of the century's first third. As such, its consideration may wait till after we are done with “The Indian Uprising.”

William Gass judged this story the best in its collection, thus granting an imprimatur of sorts. The piece is probably Barthelme's most widely anthologized, and it's often discussed in the criticism. Stengel uses the story as a cornerstone of his concluding insights, and Frederick Karl, in his mammoth American Fictions: 1940-1980, devotes as much space to “Uprising” as to novels many times its length. In its density, its speed (“I accelerate,” a character explains near the start, “and ignore the time signature”), and its tragic yet open-ended resolution, the story stands out in this author's madcap but generally looser oeuvre.

At some level at least the story is indeed about an Indian uprising, a Commanche attack on a late-twentieth-century city. By means of this comic juxtaposition Barthelme surreally fixes the story's moment, the Vietnam era, when the urban chic were fascinated particularly with the primitive and disenfranchised. But from the start he enriches this understanding of the society—of the new and now—by using the same native assault as a metaphor for an affair that's breaking up. “The sickness of the quarrel,” the narrator confesses, “lay thick in the bed.” Our protagonist is older than his beloved, more experienced in romance, but his girlfriend is a willful youngster, an Indian sympathizer. She affects bear-claw necklaces and has an apt name: Sylvia. The uprising in other words refers to an outbreak in the culture, a time when passionate young women strung themselves in sylvan finery, and also suggests a rise of a more intimate kind—stiff and engorged with need—in the love-bed. In the process Barthelme, subtly but with accumulative clout, opposes two views of the good life. He sets the romantic, artistic sensibility, forever on the point of battle or breakdown, against the stodgy but more livable quietude that most of us eventually settle for. All this is done in frantic collage. The protagonist expresses now the romantic view, now the domestic, and in the same way he functions at times as the narrator, and at other times as just another benumbed reader of the latest bulletin from the front. Barthelme may change tone or subject in mid-sentence, folding together B movie clichés (“And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love”) and anguished poetic effects.

With these thematic elements in mind—a diseased and self-devouring social order; an affair between an older man and a freer spirit; and the struggle between dangerous self-expression and unsatisfying sanity—one thinks soon enough of the early T. S. Eliot. And so, the story's opening lines: “We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Commanches came in clouds. The war clubs of the Commanches clattered on the soft, yellow pavement.” Prufrock's yellow fog, turned deadly. Note too that this time the seepage separates at once into the story's two opposed ideologies: the coulds freeflying yet dangerous, the pavement restful yet cloying.

Prufrock is trapped by the cups, the marmelade, the tea, by “the dooryards and the sprinkled streets.” In Barthelme's city the streets are sprinkled more dangerously—hedgehogged with barricades. But these fortifications, described early in the story, contain precisely the sort of thing Eliot's narrator complains about. Here one finds cups and plates, can openers and ashtrays, empty bottles of scotch, wine, cognac, vodka, gin … (though it's not a Modernist reference, one thinks as well of the drinker's slang, “dead soldiers”). In his 1981 Paris Review interview, Barthelme described this passage about the barricade as “an archeological slice,” but the digging here is not simply into Vietnam-era arcana. It's a strip of the narrator's own past, the detritus of his own bereft living room perhaps—his own nerves, as Prufrock would have it, thrown in patterns on a screen. And yet the barricade is archeology, it takes in the culture at large, and the story never stops shuttling between private trash and the trashing of a society. Thus the most explicit echo of Prufrock fuses the narrator's biological decay with that of his town:

There was a sort of muck running in the gutters, yellowish filthy stream suggesting excrement or nervousness, a city that does not know what it has done to deserve baldness, errors, infidelity.

It is not only the narrator's hair that is growing thin, but the tissue of lies by which his city convinces itself that the life it has is worthwhile. With these mournful catalogues, Barthelme is doing precisely what most critics say he is: he's calling attention to the stink that our mass culture prefers to ignore. He's a Jeremiah, brandishing plastic instead of prophecy. But in this case he lays on the post-Modern cool not by means of New-&-Improved media babble, but rather by acknowledging that another complainant was there first. In the same paragraph, his desire for the girl is chilled by still more Prufrockian trash—including some bits and pieces very like the erections of his adversaries:

But it is you I want now, here in the middle of this Uprising, with the streets yellow and threatening, short, ugly lances with fur at the throat [clearly these invaders have the narrator outnumbered] and inexplicable shell money lying in the grass.

“Son of man / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images. …” So The Waste Land (itself echoing another angry prophet, Ezekiel) comes to have a place in this Uprising as well, as a compatibly heartsore investigation of urban diaspora. References to Eliot's second great work are as lightly handled as those to “Prufrock,” but they squeeze self and society into still more savage shapes.

Hurt by Sylvia's change of heart, about mid-story the narrator goes to a “teacher” named Miss R., yet the only help she can give him is the same reproof as the queenly Chess Player of Waste Land II: “You know nothing,” Miss R. declares, “you feel nothing, you are locked in a most savage and terrible ignorance. …” And as love turns to insults, gestures of oppression are confused with those of love. When the people of the city's ghetto join the Commanche attack instead of resisting, the narrator's forces make two wildly disparate defenses. “We sent more heroin into the ghetto,” he explains, “and hyacinths, ordering another hundred thousand of the pale, delicate flowers.” Here again the political and personal collide. The passage condenses widely held assumptions of late-sixties urban studies—namely, that those in the black ghetto were the natural allies of revolution, and that therefore the white power structure looked the other way when ghettoites fell prey to drugs—and in so doing combines those assumptions with the love-gift in Waste Land's “Burial of the Dead”: “‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / They called me the hyacinth girl.” The lovers' attempt at a reconciliation, immediately following, comes off likewise folded and spindled. The narrator points to the section of the battle map held by the Commanches—by those with whom his own hyacinth girl sides—and he says, “Your parts are green.” That is, punning on the color, he acknowledges Sylvia's youth and relative sexual inexperience (his own parts, not insignificantly, are blue). Her reply? “You gave me heroin first a year ago!” In the wasteland of an unbalanced love, even gentle gestures make us think only of power politics.

The Commanches' ultimate triumph combines both poems, adding to the narrator's loss the resonances of those twinned deaths by water. At story's end, the blue player is taken before the Clemency Committee, whose spokesperson is the ambiguous Miss R.—a triumph of the mermaid, as in “Prufrock,” or of the witch, as in Waste Land. Facing her, Barthelme's lover also confronts a strange double vision. Outside he sees “rain shattering from a great height the prospects of silence and clear, neat rows of houses in the subdivisions”; inside, he sees only “their savage black eyes, paint, feathers, beads.” One recalls of course the apocalyptic rainstorm that ends The Waste Land. “Prufrock,” however, seems here inverted, for Eliot's man drowns in the waters of a repressive society, very like those neat rows of houses visible outside the Committee Room. Barthelme's narrator, on the other hand, glimpses those houses as a “prospect,” something to be longed for when confronted with the painted savagery that his love affair has become.

Such a domestic yearning is rare in this writer's work, which (like his Daumier) generally strives to create new possibilities. Yet this momentary yen for the hearth is part of what makes “Uprising” a cultural benchmark, and at the same time spiritual kin to early Eliot. Naked before the Clemency Committee, Barthelme's story confronts its essential duality: freedom versus government, passion versus clarity. Miss R. may be Miss Reality, demanding that all lovers face up—though the suggestion of misery certainly seems pertinent as well. Understood in this way, the story's close doesn't invert Prufrock's tragedy but rather carries it forward forty years. As in the poem, Barthelme's narrator must balance private desires against public uproar. In both cases, a man's uprising comes to nothing, powerless against what the story describes as the world's “rushing, ribald whole.” Or consider the first word Sylvia speaks, in the opening paragraph. The narrator puts the question that underlies Prufrock's meditations, and that drives every wanderer in The Waste Land: “Is this a good life?” The girl responds: “No.”

So much for smaller samples, a few exemplary instances of allusion at work. What does this detail reveal of the larger picture? How can we apply it to this author and his place?

Barthelme himself explains a crucial aspect of the fascination that the Modernists have for him in his Paris Review interview, an exchange that the interviewer (the critic J. D. O'Hara) claims was carefully edited and reworked. Recalling his father's career as an architect, the author says: “I was exposed to an almost religious crusade, the Modern movement in architecture.” And he adds: “we were enveloped in Modernism. The house we lived in, which he'd designed, was Modern and the pictures were Modern and the books were Modern.”

Though he goes on to note, judiciously, that the movement didn't amount to much, the crusade image seems telling. The best art made between, say, 1896 (“La Soirée avec M. Teste”) and 1939 (Finnegans Wake) by and large represents a moral reckoning point for this author. Just as he can rarely handle emotion without first wrapping it in deprecatory wit, so his essential ideas are often cloaked in the priestly robes of our century's most demanding littérateurs. That these allusions are often subtle only increases that arcane priestliness. It should be pointed out, for instance, that “The Indian Uprising” also contains two explicit references, each quite serious despite their bizarre placement. The first is to Valéry, whom Miss R. names and quotes: “The ardor aroused in men by the beauty of women can only be satisfied by God.” The second is made by a Commanche under torture, who adopts the major role from Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (“His name, he said, was Gustave Aschenbach”). Thus the story's twinning of love and war takes on two more suggestions of the search for something better, something beyond the world of compromise and decay: a crusade. Modernism offers Barthelme a bedrock ideological seriousness which, while it may be applied in different ways for different stories, cannot be robbed of its ethical force, not even by his otherwise devastating irony.

This grounding in transatlantic artistic values is of course in keeping with Frederick Karl's thesis, who argues in American Fictions that American literature in general has been “Europeanized” over the last half-century. Barthelme's particular heros in that older cultural canon, we can here add, helps to situate him more precisely in contemporary letters. His commonality with Eliot or Valéry or Joyce, that is, helps clarify what he shares not only with experts in the short form, like Robert Coover, but also with a lover of excess like William Gaddis; it allows us to see that he has some more unlikely cohorts, names that might not occur to us were it not for the Modernist connection—Cynthia Ozick, for one. Indeed the best theorist of the bunch, William Gass, has claimed: “My view is very old-fashioned, of course; it's just the Symbolist position, really.” (Gass was speaking at a 1975 symposium on contemporary fiction, later transcribed in Shenandoah.) That position unites these authors, more than tics of style or coincidences of close publication. The larger question, then, is whether Barthelme and his peers must forever play second fiddle to their European forerunners. In their defense, I would point out that a century and a half ago a homegrown group of late-arriving Romantics, beginning with Emerson, went on to earn their own considerable place in literary history.

The Modernist connection also provides a better sense of Barthelme himself, as distinct from his contemporaries. Here the key figure is Samuel Beckett, and the most revealing book is the latest novel, Paradise.

Beckett may or may not be a Modernist; critics are divided and after Murphy at least his books are stubbornly sui generis. Undeniably however he is essential to Donald Barthelme, mentioned time and again as his single greatest inspiration. Of course the younger author has wanted to take his chosen medium beyond the work of his master, as Malone Dies took it beyond Ulysses, but Barthelme's means have been in large degree precisely the opposite of Beckett's. The expatriate Irishman attempts to rid his work of cultural flotsam and jetsam; he wants nothing that would interfere with isolating the unnameable. Barthelme on the other hand heaps up barricades of sheer stuff. For all the brevity of his individual pieces, they are far more full of color and circumstance, of names and tastes and tidbits, than the older author's grim parings. Those bits, as we've seen, include the breakage and shards left behind by Beckett's own forebears, and thus Barthelme may be seen as more the restorer, the preservationist, than he appears at first glance. If he has gone beyond, he has done so in part by digging back. For all his speed and shocking combinations, his “need for the new,” this is an artist with respect for the artifacts of the old, and a restraint about how he handles them.

Yet that would suggest that Barthelme is some sort of museum keeper, that whatever flash he has is secondhand. The latest novel proves otherwise, turning retrospection to rediscovery. The protagonist is Simon, a fiftyish architect recently divorced, who enjoys what one character calls a “male fantasy.” For a few months, Simon shares his apartment and bedroom with three young women he met at a lingerie show. Yet the man's good luck generally causes him to think back on his daughter, his marriage, and his vocation. The architect's introspection under the circumstances is in fact something like his creator's response to the possibilities of fiction after 1945: faced with the sundering of old narrative promises, he's gone back to where the breakup began. And this book too has its over-the-shoulder glances, mostly to Kafka. The opening dream sequence suggests “In the Penal Colony,” the later dream passages other of the Czech master's fictional nightmares, and the overall situation recalls The Trial—a similar urban jungle, in which worldly women throw themselves at a protagonist who's trying to figure out where they've all gone wrong. Yet the book is something new for this author. In particular, the sex is like nothing he's done, the scenes briefly scorching, full of flesh and unabashedly perverse. The novel begins by presenting the menage as something Simon has already outgrown (“After the women had gone …”) and it ends with the laissez-faire spirit of the weekend (“It does feel a bit like Saturday …”). Exploring their complex new freedoms, both Simon and one of the women have outside affairs, which he refers to as “frolic and detour,” and repeatedly his lovers admit, in one way or another, that their situation doesn't “fit the pattern” of “suppression and domination of female-kind.”

It would be a misrepresentation, a bad one, to suggest that the book is a mere soulless romp. Simon starts from heartbreak and his story generates enormous sympathy for the women—powerless and uneducated “pure skin,” as one of them says. Yet just as the architect emerges reborn from his brief burial in flesh and economic constraints, so in this novel Barthelme himself may have at last gotten that demanding Modernist monkey off his back. He challenges us to find the harm in sabbatical pleasures (“Everybody always wants somebody to be sorry. Fuck that”); his Trial is paradise.

“You're not a father-figure,” one of Simon's lovers tell him, more or less defiantly. “That surprise you?” Not at all: bright youth has always had to deny its forebears. For the upstart Barthelme as well, the father remains a stubborn image, in spite of all the times the author has denied the old man or left him in fragments. Likewise the intractable seriousness of Modernism, as it lurks in the novels and stories, is to some extent the ineradicable whisper of Dad. There are personal implications here, considering what Barthelme has said about his own father's training and career. But Paradise makes clear he wants no part of surrendering, all Oedipally, to fate. His art exists not to prove us the pawns of Freudian theory, nor of any other uprising put down long before we were born, but rather to sift and reshape the debris of those earlier struggles, scotching this piece of law to that emblem of freedom, this nose off the Emperor's bust to that foldout from the latest issue. Any bedrock moral seriousness, after all, is only so much dirt if lacks application to contemporary surfaces. John Barth has called his brand of Post-modernism “the literature of replenishment”—that is, an attempt to reinvigorate narrative fiction despite the exhaustion of certain conventions and approaches. Donald Barthelme should be understood as, among other things, our replenisher of Modernism. Whatever he has achieved, he's done it not merely by reference and mimicry but by a more vital connection: by his passion for the new in the old, by his insistence that Stephen Dedalus wasn't the last to have an epiphany at seeing a woman's bared thighs. Barthelme by no means stands with the “old artificer” of Dedalus, but he has the genius to recognize the ancient figure, and he has the courage to stay with our resurgent contradictions at every unexpected glimpse.


The above was finished before Donald Barthelme's death this past summer. The facts of a person's passing are, in themselves, generally beside the point; date and disease shrivel to nothing in the face of permanent loss. But there are exceptions, in which the data borrow significance from the man. To begin with, Barthelme was young yet, fifty-eight. Indeed, his forthcoming novel, The King, proves that he never lost his invigorating uneasiness with the form; he never cooled his rambunctious relationship with his masters. Secondly, the writer passed away in Houston, and the place too feels appropriate. A cloverleaf'd sprawl, a place of twang and toxins, Houston is just the sort of impossible contemporary city to which this writer dedicated a career. Barthelme's jittery urban vignettes were perfect, absolutely on the money for all their outlandishness. Finally, he succumbed to cancer, his second bout with the disease within the last five years. During that time he completed two novels and a number of short stories; he continued to teach, give readings, and maintain his efforts on behalf of P.E.N. International and other organizations. His last years suggest virtues more old-fashioned than his body of work would lead one to expect.

The King, to be published in the spring of 1990, seems a throwback to the early work. It juggles archaisms like “God wot” with Americanisms like “plumb wore out,” and recalls Snow White's dizzying mix of fairytale and feminism. The king of the title is Arthur, the Arthur of Malory, but the book resets the famous disturbances of his reign during the Second World War. It lays classic on classic, the legends of a thousand years ago looming larger and stranger against the “finest hour” of twentieth-century Britain. To be sure, such a setting also allows room for allusion. By and large Barthelme continues to jibe at his fathers: the text interpolates a few half-mad excerpts from Ezra Pound's fascist diatribes.

Arthur himself is another father, firm about regulations no matter how nonsensical. He hasn't made love to his still-young Guinevere in twelve years, because “twenty-four is my absolute upper limit. Always was and always will be.” And yet his neglected wife is a “surpassing beauty,” a freewheeling outdoorswoman, and a stiletto wit—a worthy Barthelme femme fatale. Indeed, the novel offers a small catalogue of this author's star-crossed romantics. The central relationship decays in the midst of general upheaval, and yet Guinevere's succession of knightly lovers offers her little by way of alternative. Sir Launcelot, though something of the book's artist-hero, puts scruples ahead of satisfaction. “I am a foul unworshipful caitiff,” he tells Guinevere at one point, “and I must go away now to pray your forgiveness.” The queen replies, “You must go away to pray my forgiveness?”

The abiding difficulty for men like Launcelot is that they're thinking of other things, of the war or the rules of proper conduct. Such larger concerns, as always with this author, come round eventually to the question of art. When Arthur lectures on “leadership,” he uses the metaphor of craftsmen and their tools: “The king's sceptre, the marshal's baton, the conductor's baton, the physician's caduceus, the magician's wand—a stick of some kind, with which one must animate a mass.” Not surprisingly, the next sentence mentions a pencil. Yet it's another tool which most animates The King—the “stick” that men are born with. Barthelme's portrayals of la vie passionée retain the lively ambivalence that has distinguished them from the first, an uncertainty rooted in his twinned perceptions of making art and making love.

Despite these familiarities, however, The King lacks an element crucial to nearly everything else the author produced, namely, an urban setting. The new book's anachronisms in general feel bucolic, pastoral: “Music carpets the forest floor … !” The rest of Barthelme, on the other hand, carries on what Simon calls, in Paradise, “a great argument for cities.” Of course the author preferred to make his points by indirection and understatement, but this very restraint allowed Barthelme to concentrate on what was less obvious and more telling. Other excellent talents have described contemporary urban excess, certainly, but most writers tend to emphasize the externals, the neon and the crime statistics. Barthelme on the other hand brought his streets and kitchens to life by heaping on the internals. The first slow moment in “The Indian Uprising” is the compendium of the barricade's materials, all household goods and manmade colors: internals, right down to the orange blur at an ashtray's lip. The author's aesthetic exists here in microcosm, in the list's freedom from narrative mechanics and its piquant blush of fading emotion. Nor were these catalogues limited to hard goods; as his dialog-stories proved, Barthelme had the audacity to concoct drama out of unseen internals. The interlocutors of “The New Music,” for instance, are constructions of pure thought. Their talk purveys much hand-me-down give and take, pitting borrowed irony against nightmares from bygone cultures.

The worst traffic jam a contemporary urbanite has to deal with is the glut between the ears. After a few years of MTV, indeed, anyone might start to think that a woman's over the hill once she turns twenty-five. In this new Babel, the so-called information age, Barthelme's stories offer a workable flow chart; his turning points are those moments when the media-made must somehow bend to fit bedrock humanity. It's an art of accommodation, in which instead of rejecting the matter in which he finds himself, the artist attempts to identify the few noises that might be lived with comfortably. The process implies a critique, certainly. Yet it's also a philosopher's puzzle, and now and again a dry-eyed intimation that there is yet reason for joy: an argument for.

In the still uncollected “Brain Damage,” the narrator and an unknown woman on the street for a moment escape “the terrible thing that was about to happen,” the brain damage. For a moment, they hum together the cigarette-company jingle, “Me and My Winstons.” Is this truly an escape? Truly interpersonal communication—by means of an advertising slogan? Donald Barthelme's brief and energetic career would suggest so. The self doesn't exist, it suggests, unless it's of the moment. The flash and idiocy of the age, moreover, may clothe the artist as easily as suffocate him. At a time when culture could seem beyond the reach of words, when the only modes of discourse could seem either IBM or ICBM, he turned those same hard choices to something witty, well-made, and profound.

Charles Baxter (essay date autumn 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5279

SOURCE: Baxter, Charles. “The Donald Barthelme Blues.” Gettysburg Review 3, no. 4 (autumn 1990): 713-23.

[In the following essay, Baxter traces Barthelme's literary development, focusing on his utilization of characters and language.]

The same day that a friend called with the news that Donald Barthelme had died, a freight train derailed outside Freeland, Michigan. Among the cars that went off the tracks were several chemical tankers, some of which spilled and caught fire. Dow Chemical was (and still is) reluctant to name these chemicals, but one of them was identified as chlorosilene. When chlorosilene catches fire, as it did in this case, it turns into hydrochloric acid. Upon being asked about the physical hazards to neighbors and on-lookers near the fire, a company representative, interviewed on Michigan Public Radio, said, “Well, there's been some physical reactions, yes, certainly. Especially in the area of nausea, vomiting-type thing.”

The area of nausea, vomiting-type thing: this area, familiar to us all, where bad taste, hilarity, fake authority, and cliché seem to collide, was Donald Barthelme's special kingdom. “I have a few new marvels here I'd like to discuss with you just briefly,” says the chief engineer in “Report.” “Consider for instance the area of realtime online computer-controlled wish evaporation.” Like his creation Hokie Mokie, the King of Jazz, no one could top Barthelme at deadpan riffs like these—these collages built from castoff verbal junk—and imitation was beside the point, because the work was not a compendium of stylistic tics but grew out of—has anyone bothered to say this?—a spiritual enterprise owned up to in the work, a last stay against the forces of wish evaporation. Comedy is partly the art of collage, of planned incongruity—the Three Stooges as brain surgeons, King Kong as an adjunct professor of art history—and Barthelme was a master tailor of these ill-fitting suits in which our culture likes to dress itself. A yoking of the virtuosic-articulate with the flat banal; an effort to preserve wishes, and certain kinds of longings, in the face of clichés; not innocence, but a watchful clarity, even an effort to preserve the monstrousness of Being itself: all these difficult ambitions seemed to be part of the project. The work was a comfort, in the way the blues are a comfort, in its refusal to buy stock in the official Happiness Project, in its loyalty to “inappropriate longings,” a phrase whose ironic positive side he particularly valued.

As an undergraduate I was taught that when a writer starts a story, he or she must begin with a character, an active, preferably vivid, ideally sympathetic, character. It takes a bit of time to see that stories don't in fact begin with characters, not from here, at least, not from behind this keyboard. They begin with words, one word after another. It seems doltish to point this out, but in Donald Barthelme's fiction, that's where the project begins: with the stress first on the language, the medium, and then on the problem of who owns it. Who does own language? I can evade the question by saying that no one does; it is just out there, part of the culture. But Barthelme did not practice this evasion. In his stories, all kinds of disreputable people claim to own both language and its means of distribution. They invent instant clichés that they want you to buy and use; they want you to join and submit to their formulas. Invariably, they are selling something that can only be sold if they trash up the language first. They are lively practitioners of a black art, these commodifiers, and Barthelme's stories don't mind saying so.

Barthelme's characters inhabit not the prison-house of language, but the prison-house of official cliché—which is not the same thing as saying “Fine” when someone asks how you are but is more a processing of statements into the professional formulas usually called jargon, like the analyst's transformation of Susan's statement (in “The Sandman”) that she wants to buy a piano into, “She wishes to terminate the analysis and escape into the piano.” The narrator, Susan's boyfriend and a slightly irritable opponent of normative psychotherapy, observes that the analyst is methodologically horse-blindered: “The one thing you cannot consider, by the nature of your training and of the discipline itself, is that she really might want to terminate the analysis and buy a piano.”

What are the conditions under which we lose the ability to know what we want? And what are the exact words for longing? Most of the words we have are not the words for what we really want. “What we really want in this world, we can't have” (“The Ed Sullivan Show”). There is a certain stranded quality to the Barthelme protagonist, sitting in an easy chair at twilight with eleven martinis lined up in soldierly array. A fastidiousness, this is, and a humor about the shipwrecked condition, the orphaned longings, and something like an investigation of the possibilities inherent in melancholy. The heroes and heroines in this fiction are the not-joiners, the non serviam types, like Cecelia in “A City of Churches,” who has come to Prester to open a car-rental office. Mr. Phillips guides her around. It turns out that in Prester everyone lives in a church of one kind or another, “the church of their choice.” Mr. Phillips asks Cecelia what denomination she is: “Cecelia was silent. The truth was, she wasn't anything.” She tells him, however, that she can will her dreams. What dreams? “‘Mostly sexual things,’ she said. She was not afraid of him.” Mr. Phillips admits to a certain discontent with Prester, despite the town's perfection. “I'll dream the Secret,” Cecelia says. “You'll be sorry.”

Notice the capitalization of the word secret. Our secrets might be the last places where we have hidden ourselves away, where we are still upper-case. Susan wants her piano; Cecelia wants her dreams; and the Phantom of the Opera resists the operation that would, as we might say now, renormalize him. All any of these heroes would have to do to be renormalized is trade in their desires for rooms furnished with comfortable clichés: nice wing chairs, plastic slipcovers. The Phantom's friend waits, patiently, “until the hot meat of romance is cooled by the dull gravy of common sense once more.” That's a long time, if you're loyal to your desires.

The price one pays for being loyal to certain kinds of anomalies is typically melancholy or acedia: more of this later. What Barthelme's fiction asserts is that one of the first loyalties serious people give up in the theater of adulthood is a claim upon what they actually want. Of course, other desires are available, and can be acquired, but they are curious grafts, what other people want you to want—not desires so much as temptations, desires-of-convenience. Barthelme's stories are obviously and constantly about such temptations, which might itself be called the temptation to become unconscious and let others program your yearnings. The stories exude an almost religious seriousness about this subject; although they are not pious, they do move obsessively around ethical-theological quandaries. A good deal of reading about religion is made visible in them. The Barthelmean character is tempted not by ordinary sins but by the ordinary itself. Does God care about adultery? Sins generally? “You think about this staggering concept, the mind of God, and then you think He's sitting around worrying about this guy and this woman at the Beechnut Travelodge? I think not” (Paradise).

It wasn't activities like adultery that caught Barthelme's attention, but the inclination to disown one's wishes and to give in to the omnipresence of the Universal Banal. Barthelme was not a snob in this respect; plain common pleasures—food, sex, Fleetwood Mac, John Ford movies, dull days at home—find themselves celebrated (however mildly) in his pages; ordinary pleasures are all right if that is what you really want. But no, the problem is not the banal as such but banality's hope that you will dumbfoundedly join in its program, spend yourself in it: that's the problem. In Barthelme a saint is tempted not by sin but by life in the suburbs: “St. Anthony's major temptation, in terms of his living here, was maybe this: ordinary life” (“The Temptation of St. Anthony”). People want to see his apartment; they want to look at the carpet from Kaufman's, and the bedroom. How might a Saint resist the ordinary?

A simple question, calling forth slyly complicated answers. One begins by talking about deserts (where the Saint goes), grottos, the stony home of the grotesque. In a catalogue commentary on a Sherrie Levine exhibit, Barthelme put it this way:

Where does desire go? Always a traveling salesperson, desire goes hounding off into the trees, frequently, without direction from its putative master or mistress. This is tragic and comic at the same time. I should, in a well-ordered world, marry the intellectual hero my wicked uncle has selected for me. Instead I run off with William of Ockham or Daffy Duck.

William of Ockham or Daffy Duck: yes, the true object of your desire quite often looks and sounds a bit, well, bizarre, and hard to introduce to your wicked uncle. The more bizarre the object, the more Barthelme seems to like it. There is a pleasant sideshow quality, a circus element, to the spectacle of desire. It generates dwarves and witches (Snow White), a son manqué (eight feet tall and wearing “a serape woven out of two hundred transistor radios” in “The Dolt”), monsters, and impossibly beautiful women. It's as if longing generates out of itself, as Susan Stewart has argued in her book on the subject, narratives of the gigantic and tiny, narratives of altered proportion: there is the dead father, that huge living corpse of origination, being dragged around by the bickering sons; there are the zombies, spouting their death-in-life clichés; there is King Kong, already alluded to, the adjunct professor of art history at Rutgers. Big and little: figures of all sizes and shapes have their moment in the most highly invented sentences grammar and sense permit. This sideshow resides very comfortably, too, in the short story form, a haven, as Frank O'Connor has claimed, for the otherwise disappeared, all the everyone-elses who fall between the cracks of the more official forms, such as the novel and the sonnet.

Sometimes behind this cultivation of the beautiful grotesque, this show-and-tell of the alien wish, a certain weariness is sometimes apparent. One is after all confronted by the banal in the midst of the weird; there is also that terrible moment familiar to all members of the avant-garde when the weird becomes the banal. “Some things appear to be wonders in the beginning, but when you become familiar with them, are not wonderful at all. Sometimes a seventy-five-foot highly paid cacodemon will raise only the tiniest frisson. Some of us have even thought of folding the show—closing it down” (“The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace”).

What is the secret name of this weariness? At first it is called irony, and then acedia.

Under the powerful microscope of post-structuralist Neo-Marxist semiotically-based hyphen-using critical theory, Barthelme's fiction at first seems to be all about cultural junk, verbal junk, “the leading edge of the trash phenomenon,” and about the way structures of meaning, let loose from the objects they're supposed to represent, are pasted onto something else (the Campbell's Pork-and-Beans labels on my necktie; Elvis's Jailhouse Rock on dinner plates from the Franklin Mint; the Batman label on sandwiches). Words go wild. They are set free from the house of correction and have a party (“Bone Bubbles”) or, freed up like a chatty aunt off her medication, go on and on (“Sentence”). For a time in the early seventies, Barthelme and John Ashbery seemed to be operating similar circuses in different parts of town. This period included the moment of greatest academic interest in Barthelme's work; critics had much to say about the mechanisms of meaning in the fiction, about the arbitrariness of the sign and the problems of language. The defamiliarization in the work matched the defamiliarization of American social life. But semiotics and fragments are not the essential subjects of these stories. I'm not sure how often it has been noticed that Barthelme's imagery, cast of characters, and preoccupations are drawn from religious sources. Who is the dead father in The Dead Father? The father and The Father. In “City Life,” Ramona gives birth to Sam; it's a virgin birth. Angels, in their current earthly diminished lives, have their say in “On Angels.” Kierkegaard is invoked several times. Such maneuvering has an element of travesty in it, a playing-around with the broken relics of religious iconography and meaning-creation; but religion appears so often and with such odd sideways intensity that it signals a persistent curiosity about the Absolute and such of its elements as authenticity (in post-structuralist thinking, a completely discredited category).

In Barthelme's early stories, modern culture is gleefully and relentlessly unmasked: engineers, doctors, politicians, newspapers, television quiz shows, and the plastic assembled-with-glue language they use. There is a certain violence in the ripping off of the masks here, a ferocity that produces a prose poetry (Barthelme probably would have hated the term) of rage and clarity. Lines often-quoted from the first paragraph of “The Indian Uprising” hit this note and sustain it: “People were trying to understand. I spoke to Sylvia. ‘Do you think this is a good life?’ The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. ‘No.’”

These early stories sometimes seem to demonstrate that the serious world is about as well-constructed as a puppet show; it is certainly no more real. All experience gives way to representation. You pull back the pretense: another pretense. Pictures give way to pictures, acts to acts. It's unhinging, the metaphysics of the onion-skin giving way to nothing: the wisps and whiffs of frenzy I hear in Come Back, Dr. Caligari, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, and City Life strike me as sounds made by someone reaching for the irreducibly real but coming up with fistfuls of sand—or an empire of signs, themselves nauseating and revealing of nothing. Knowing—as the Barthelmean narrative knows so well—that this reaching, this frenzy, and this sand are commonplaces in the history of twentieth century spiritual-critical life is no solace. What good is it to know that your metaphysical nausea, which you suffer from daily, has been experienced before and expressed very well by Mallarmé, Sartre, and the others? As the stories themselves say, “No good at all!”

Starting with “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” in City Life and then intermittently throughout the other books, Barthelme seemed to be setting himself a challenge to go beyond this unmasking process—a process that would, if continued indefinitely, have yielded up wacky but tedious self-repeating satires, or exercises in dry malice. The nature of this challenge is not easy to state discursively, but it may be at the center of any life which is simultaneously mindful and bourgeois (if in fact those two categories can be placed next to each other). We can call it, in honor of one of its first diagnosticians, the Chekhov problem, which goes something like this: what does one do, do actively, with one's honest revulsion and disgust with the cruelties, lies, and deceptions of middle-class life? Chekhov's response to this challenge—this is a gross oversimplication—is to show that, hidden under the outward mimes of character there lies the substance of real character, a kind of essence. Something genuine sooner or later will show itself; all we need do is wait, observe, and hold onto those moments when they arrive. In this way, weariness and cynicism are kept at arm's length. Because no character can be wholly co-opted by any system, some particle of the genuine will emerge at some point.

This solution, if one can call it that, was closed to Barthelme almost from the beginning. Either he did not believe in character in this sense (one cannot imagine him using so square a phrase as “real character underneath”), or he had no feel for it as a writer. As a result his characters tend toward allegory and stylization. Exceptions exist, notably in the Bishop stories, but they are few. It is not so much that the characters in Barthelme's fiction are unreal but that they seem more to have been constructed out of pre-existing emotions than out of motivations, a more common writerly starting-point. In any case, without the solution of character, we are back at the original problem of what to do after all the lies have been exposed. And of course we are still enjoying the unreflecting privileges of middle-class life.

This far from trivial problem exists only if you assume that middle-class American life does carry with it a gnawing burden of guilt. I think I could argue that a significant number of the strategies of contemporary American “serious” fiction are maneuvers for dealing with the issue of middle-class guilt. One possibility is to handle it more or less as Chekhov did. Another, also very common, is the strategy of cynicism, enjoying the benefits of middle-class life while holding oneself slightly above it. A third response, almost always characterized as “toughness,” has been a part of American culture for at least a century. Toughness is the obverse side of sentimentality, fighting against and reflecting it all at the same time. It is the poetry of denial. What it refuses to give to character it lavishes on its prose, which typically is highly stylized and self-regarding. The idea is to withhold expressions of human sympathy—because they seem “weak” and because they capitulate to a false order of experience. Hemingway is the great bard of this mode, saying in effect I-may-be-here-but-I'm-not-really-part-of-this-scene. Obviously, cynicism and toughness may be easily combined as strategies. They carry with them a certain feeling for hermit life, for withholding, and for clipped sentences, oracular statements, and derailed ordinary language. However, the toughness mode is crabbed and repetitious, qualities that Barthelme never sought. He invented situations and sentences: I'd like to quote page after page of them, hair-raising for their sheer sound, their surprises and elaborations. Their shine. No: toughness, the metaphysics of the hermit crab, was not enough.

Which returns us to the problem of cynicism, which does not seem an adequate response to the problem of being located inside conflicting desires, of being the very person one does not want to be. Cynicism and its spiritual second-cousin, irony, are regular combatants in Barthelme's stories, but there is something wrong with both of them; the stories work hard to disclose what it is. For one thing, cynicism is hypocritical: it enjoys what it claims to despise. It is happy in its unhappy consciousness. It understands the destructiveness of its own pleasures but does nothing to stop it. It is enlightened about its own moral condition. It will agree to any accusation made against it. World-weariness is its poetry. Growing out of snobbery, its only pleasure is manipulation. Cynicism is irony that has moved into a condition of institutional power; cynicism and power have a tendency to breed each other. But Barthelme's stories—especially the early ones and the novel Snow White—typically struggle against institutional cynicism and the language employed in its cause. To use a phrase by the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, employed in another context, these are “études in the higher banalities.” Far from being an exercise in cynicism, the narrative voice in Barthelme consistently attacks cynicism—the cynicism of official institutional spokespersons. But the weapon that comes most readily to hand is irony, which creates the (as Barthelme might say) interesting struggle and tension in his writing.

The nature of the problem, if you simultaneously feel guilty and disgusted by the progress of modern culture, is the temptation to become a snob, to join a like-minded coterie of people with good taste who define themselves by an awareness of all the vulgarities they do not perform. Or you can become a hermit like Saint Anthony, benefiting from the culture while pretending not to live in it. Viewed unsympathetically, this is a central impulse in Modernism, one of its worst errors. Barthelme's fiction never makes this error: it challenges readers but never insults them or pretends to instruct them from an angle higher than their own. It disclaims righteousness. “The Party” concludes by asking: “Is it really important to know that this movie is fine, and that one terrible, and to talk intelligently about the difference? Wonderful elegance! No good at all!”

At this point, the really astonishing difficulties of Barthelme's project start to become apparent: exiled from character-drawing, and in the midst of (one might almost say “drowning in”) cultural sign-systems, most of which are duplicitous, the Barthelmean narrator must struggle simply in order to find a location, a place to stand and speak that is not so far inside the culture that it replicates its falseness and lies, and not so far outside that it becomes cold, snobby, or self-righteous. This is a problem not just for writers but for anyone who lives in a powerful and culturally dominant country. And it is not an issue that anyone finally “solves.” Writers must devise strategies for dealing with it, some of which are more effective than others. Some are distracting—and Barthelme's work is very high, one might almost say intoxicated, with distractions—while also presenting roads and avenues, certain kinds of metaphorical paths for action. And they do so, it has always seemed to me, with a good deal of warmth—as in the ending of “Daumier,” where Celeste is in the kitchen, making a daube, and the narrator says he will go in to watch her. The story ends with two sentences that, in their quietness, modesty, and precision, have always moved me. “The self cannot be escaped, but it can be, with ingenuity and hard work, distracted. There are always openings, if you can find them, there is always something to do.”

One word for this technique is forbearance. Starting with the stories in City Life, we move onto a thematic ground governed by a feeling where piano music instead of analysis might be possible, where “little dances of suggestion and fear” might be staged: “These dances constitute an invitation of unmistakable import—an invitation which, if accepted, leads down many muddy roads. I accepted. What was the alternative?” (“City Life”). Odd, the fastidious articulation of these feelings, their insistence on the possibility of continued action. And beautiful, the playing with children, the turning to childhood, in two late stories, “Chablis” and “The Baby.”

As for religion: can one discard its content and still admire its interest in, perhaps its necessary commitment to, the issue of where one places oneself in relation to one's own experiences? This is exactly the question that arises in two of Barthelme's most interesting stories, “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” and “January” (the last story in Forty Stories and therefore something of a curtain-speech). In both stories we are in the presence of a ghostly sort of interview, considerably more ghostly in the Kierkegaard story, that gives the sense of an internal quarrel or an interview between two spirit entities.

Characters named Q. and A., question and answer, argue in “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” with Q. being particularly annoyed by A.'s inability to get enthusiastic about “our machines”: “You've withheld your enthusiasm, that's damaging …” Something like the problem of cynicism arises here, the question of spiritual snobbery. A. answers by discussing irony, which he uses in conjunction with political activism:

I participate. I make demands, sign newspaper advertisements, vote. I make small campaign contributions to the candidate of my choice and turn my irony against the others. But I accomplish nothing. I march, it's ludicrous.

This sense of self-irony leads into a discussion of Kierkegaard and his analysis of irony as a magical power that confers upon its user a “negative freedom.” When irony is directed against the whole of existence, the result, says Kierkegaard, is “estrangement and poetry”—a poetry that “opens up a higher actuality, expands and transfigures the imperfect into the perfect, and thereby softens and mitigates the deep pain which would darken and obscure all things.” Thus Kierkegaard. Unfortunately, this variety of poetry does not reconcile one to the world but produces an animosity to the world:

A. But I love my irony.

Q. Does it give you pleasure?

A. A poor … a rather unsatisfactory. …

Q. The unavoidable tendency of everything particular to emphasize its own particularity.

A. Yes.

If Barthelme were the kind of ironist described by Kierkegaard, the sort who turns his irony upon the “whole of existence,” then he would be tracking Beckett in pursuit of an absolute negativity, thinking directed against being itself. Or he would be following William Gass into a principality built out of the toothpicks and straw of words. But though this irony has the virtue of purity, it can in no way account for the pleasures we consciously enjoy in Barthelme's fiction. What is their ultimate source?

Answering this question seems to me the task Barthelme set himself in his novel Paradise, published in 1986. If it is about anything, this book is about pleasures, even beatitude: the pleasure of sex and the friendship it can produce; the pleasure of making and building (its protagonist, Simon, is an architect); the pleasure—unbelievable to imagine this in the early books—of improving the world. The tone of this book, in its mixture of fantasy, high comedy, and caring, is close to blessedness. Barthelme of course gives his usual warnings about stupid optimism:

Simon wanted very much to be a hearty, optimistic American, like the President, but on the other hand did not trust hearty, optimistic Americans, like the President. He had considered the possibility that the President … was not really hearty and optimistic but rather a gloomy, obsessed man.

Because the fantasy in this story—a single man living with three beautiful women—is so stylized, the imaginative force seems to move from the specific situation to the nature of the lineaments of gratified desire. The book is therefore about happiness. It is as if Barthelme were saying that we must try to imagine happiness. This book is one version of it. Happiness, in these times, may be the last frontier of the imagination, the most difficult challenge of all. But if happiness cannot be imagined, if alienation cannot be balmed at the source, then truly one might as well do nothing, or simply drift toward death. Near the end of Paradise, Barthelme argues that our desires inhabit and inspirit us:

Simon flew to North Carolina to inspect a job he'd done in Winston-Salem, a hospital. The construction was quite good and he found little to complain of. He admired the fenestration, done by his own hand. He spent an agreeable night in a Ramada Inn and flew back the next day. His seatmate was a young German woman on her way to Frankfurt. She was six months pregnant, she said, and her husband, an Army sergeant in Chemical Warfare, had found a new girl friend, was divorcing her. She had spent two years at Benning, loved America, spoke with what seemed to Simon a Texas accent. Her father was dead and her mother operated a candy store in Frankfurt. They talked about pregnancy and delivery, about how much wine she allowed herself, whether aspirin was in fact a danger to the baby, and how both of her brothers-in-law had been born in taxis. She was amazingly cheerful given the circumstances and told him that the Russians were going to attempt to take over Mexico next. We had neglected Mexico, she said.

Over the Atlantic on the long approach to Kennedy Simon saw a hundred miles of garbage in the water, from the air white floating scruff. The water became agitated at points as fish attacked the garbage and Simon turned his mind to compaction. When they landed he kissed the German woman goodbye and told her that although she probably didn't feel very lucky at the moment, she was very lucky.

That's beautiful. The balance is miraculous: everything that is—including abandonment, garbage, ecological decay—is held in equilibrium with what is possible: delivery, compaction. There is always something to do. The style is also beautiful, because of all the hurricanes Barthelme has traveled through in order to formulate this difficult calm. The book ends up radiating not a sense of peacefulness but a sense of high intellectual and spiritual comedy, a form of art characteristic of late middle and old age.

“January” concludes Barthelme's final collection, Forty Stories. The first month. This piece (is it a story? of what sort?) presents an interview with theologian Thomas Brecker, whose dissertation was written in the forties on the subject of acedia:

The thesis was that acedia is a turning toward something rather than, as it's commonly conceived of, a turning away from something. I argued that acedia is a positive reaction to extraordinary demand, for example, the demand that one embrace the good news and become one with the mystical body of Christ. … Acedia is often conceived of as a kind of sullenness in the face of existence; I tried to locate its positive features. For example, it precludes certain kinds of madness, crowd mania, it precludes a certain kind of error. You're not an enthusiast and therefore you don't go out and join a lynch mob—rather you languish on a couch with your head in your hands.

Brecker goes on to talk about the healing power of absolution, its ability to create new directions. He thinks about his own death, “I hate to abandon my children,” and concludes the story this way:

The point of my career is perhaps how little I achieved. We speak of someone as having had “a long career” and that's usually taken to be admiring, but what if it's thirty-five years of persistence in error? I don't know what value to place on what I've done, perhaps none at all is right. If I'd done something with soybeans, been able to increase the yield of an acre of soybeans, then I'd know I'd done something. I can't say that.

Barthelme's last collection of stories ends here, in a perfectly serious tone of modesty, not to say humility. “I was trying,” Brecker says, “to stake out a position for the uncommitted which still, at the same time, had something to do with religion.” It would be incorrect to say that Barthelme, the chronicler of word-nausea, had mellowed into the drabness of total sincerity. What actually seems to have emerged toward the end is both more interesting and more complicated: a kind of tenderness toward existence, isolated from the junk of culture through which it is commonly viewed. Though still surrounded by intellectual defenses, and therefore still enveloped and distracted, these later stories are generous; almost miraculously they transform metaphysical irony into caring watchfulness. Giving up finally does turn into giving over. Though it is not typically American to have a second act in one's career, and then a third, and even a fourth, Barthelme had them. And despite what was sometimes said against him, he did not repeat himself, did not endlessly replay the old tricks. He found new tricks, and then, toward the end, discarded most of them. How rare, also, in America, to see writing develop into such variety and generosity! Almost unheard-of. Almost unseen.

Ewing Campbell (essay date fall 1990)

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SOURCE: Campbell, Ewing. “Dark Matter: Barthelme's Fantastic, Freudian Subtext in ‘The Sandman’.” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no. 4 (fall 1990): 517-24.

[In the following essay, Campbell considers the connection between Barthelme's “The Sandman,” E. T. A. Hoffmann's tale “The Sandman,” and Sigmund Freud's essay “The ‘Uncanny.’”]

In its farewell to Donald Barthelme The New Yorker reminded readers that he had been variously defined “as an avant-gardist, a collagist, a minimalist, a Dadaist, an existentialist, and a postmodernist” (22). It is an extensive, but incomplete list, for Rosemary Jackson in her Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion places him among the literary fantasists (164). As the embodiment of a literary period—American postmodernism—he was all of the above and more. Responses to his work were intense and often at variance. It was daunting to some, nonsense to others, abstract, concrete, irreverent, wonderful, trivial, each qualifier depending on the humor and sensibilities of those making the judgment, but his fiction was always rich enough and elusive enough to bear the weight of serious inquiry. “The Sandman,” an epistolary fiction abounding in arcane references, is no exception. Although its surface text seems simple enough, appropriated and concealed subtexts complicate any detailed discussion to the point of confusion, creating a situation that justifies a compass for keeping us on course. The four points of that compass are the following:

  • •First, the primary text is a story by Donald Barthelme called “The Sandman,” which takes the form of a letter to a lover's psychiatrist. As such it possesses an internal writer, the correspondent, and an internal reader, Dr. Hodder.
  • •Second, the title of the story recalls E. T. A. Hoffmann's fantastic tale “The Sandman,” although the correspondent disingenuously claims he has the sandman of nursery rhyme in mind.
  • •Third, Hoffmann's tale was interpreted by Sigmund Freud in his essay “The ‘Uncanny’” as an Oedipal struggle in which a father-castrator figure destroys the son. This figure appears as two different men with the names of Coppelius and Coppola in different parts of the tale.
  • •Fourth, Dr. Hodder, as a psychiatrist, would have known Freud's essay, and the correspondent's arcane references reveal his own knowledge of psychological literature, making his awareness of Freud's sandman-castrator equation evident to Hodder, which in turn explains the doctor's annoyance at being called a sandman. It also subjects the letter writer's protestation of innocence to irony.

The invisible presence of Hoffmann's tale and Freud's interpretation addresses Dr. Hodder and us in a dialogue of texts. As Mikhail Bakhtin insists the word, “permeated with the interpretations of others,” is never innocent (202).1 Some, however, are less innocent than others, and Barthelme's fiction is the least innocent of all. In the absence of innocence an elucidation of the story by means of other texts is justifiable because it takes into account the literary space of prior voices, a space analogous to the dark matter of galaxies—present, measurable, but unseen.

In a confrontational voice the letter writer assails psychiatry and indirectly portrays the doctor as a modern extension of Hoffmann's sandman even though the two stories are superficially different. One conveys well-motivated hostility toward a lover's psychiatrist; the other is a tale about a young man's obsessive fear of losing his eyes to the sandman. One of the effects of approaching this story contextually is that such a method reveals the similarity of the two as Oedipal struggles while exposing the complex layers of an assault that uses Freudian interpretation against itself.

Hoffman's tale begins with a series of letters, the first recounting Nathaniel's childhood memories of being sent to bed with a warning that the sandman is coming, a warning always accompanied by the heavy tread of a visitor. Hoffmann's use of folklore occurs when Nathaniel's nurse explains that the sandman throws sand into children's eyes, making those organs jump from their sockets to be gathered up by the sandman and carried away. On occasion after occasion of grotesque fantasy one encounters the severed part as a defining feature of the genre. So it is not surprising to see it in a tale that depends on tradition for much of its effect.

This is significant in the context of Freud's analysis of the tale, which asserts that psychoanalytic experience teaches us fear for one's eyes is a childhood anxiety often retained by adults and morbid concerns about eyes and blindness are manifest fears of castration: “In blinding himself, Oedipus, that mythical law-breaker, was simply carrying out a mitigated form of the punishment of castration—the only punishment that according to the lex talionis was fitted for him” (137).

Freud goes on to contend that, in spite of all arguments to the contrary, dreams, myths, and fantasies establish a substitutive relation between the eye and the reproductive organs. Without offering examples other than Oedipus, he writes, “All further doubts are removed when we get the details of their ‘castration-complex’ from the analyses of neurotic patients, and realize its immense importance in their mental life” (138).

One literary example supporting this contention in graphically violent and sexual scenes is Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye. Juxtaposing an eye and a bull testis Bataille explicitly equates the two in the following passage from that novel:

Thus, two globes of equal size and consistency had suddenly been propelled in opposite directions at once. One, the white ball of the bull, had been thrust into the “pink and dark” cunt that Simone had bared to the crowd; the other, a human eye, had spurted from Granero's head with the same force as a bundle of innards from a belly. This coincidence, tied to death and to a sort of urinary liquefaction of the sky, first brought us back to …


The ghastly sight of Granero's dangling eye produces a monorchid image as he is borne away. Another example less esoteric than Bataille's novel is the familiar story of Samson's emasculation and blinding, which lends conviction to the idea.

Nathaniel's childhood fear is powerfully felt, but not enough to negate his voyeuristic attraction to the threat. Resolving to see the sandman the child hides in his father's study and sees Coppelius the lawyer, who calls out while working at the hearth, “Eyes here! Eyes here!” (Hoffmann 6). Nathaniel reveals himself involuntarily and is seized by Coppelius. The father's plea saves the boy's eyes from the glowing coals Coppelius is about to deliver to them, but does not save him from a thorough shaking at the hands of his tormentor or prevent a long illness.

At a later, similar visit from Coppelius the father is killed by an explosion. Freud stresses the intimate connection between the student's anxiety about his eyes and his father's death and Hoffmann is clear about linking Nathaniel's father and Coppelius:

Good God! as my old father bent down over the fire, how different he looked! His gentle and venerable features seemed to be drawn up by some dreadful convulsive pain into an ugly, repulsive Satanic mask. He looked like Coppelius.


The father-Coppelius figures represent the two opposites created by the child's ambivalence toward his father: one threatens to blind (castrate) him, the other saves his eyes.

Years later while away at school Nathaniel receives in his room Coppola, an itinerant optician in whom the student sees his old nemesis, now saying, “What! Nee weatherglasses? Nee weatherglasses? 've got foine oyes as well—foine oyes!” (20). He offers spectacles for sale and a telescope, which Nathaniel purchases. The motivation for this act is unclear until we see that it allows him to look across into Professor Spalanzani's house, a second manifestation of voyeurism, to see the professor's strange daughter, Olympia. Obsession follows; his love for Clara at home is forgotten; but he soon discovers the professor and the optician struggling over Olympia, the wooden doll they have contrived to give life to, shaking her eyes out of her head as Coppola carries her off. Spalanzani snatches up her eyeballs from the floor and throws them at Nathaniel, claiming Coppola has stolen them from the student.

Freud proceeds to identify Olympia as the personification of Nathaniel's narcissism so that the struggle between Coppola and Spalanzani over Olympia can be seen as a doubling of the earlier struggle over Nathaniel's eyes by the father-Coppelius figures.

As might be expected, the susceptible Nathaniel enters his second long illness, going mad, crying out, “Fire wheel—fire wheel! Spin round, fire wheel! merrily, merrily! Aha! wooden doll! spin round, pretty wooden doll!” (31). In this condition he attempts to strangle the authority figure of the professor, but the murder is prevented by neighbors.

The second illness is followed by apparent recovery and plans for Clara and Nathaniel to marry. Walking with his betrothed, he agrees to mount the tower of the town hall. She draws his attention to a curious figure coming along the street. Unable to resist the voyeuristic impulse in spite of all that has occurred, Nathaniel gazes through his telescope at the figure. One look through the glass reveals Coppelius and is enough to trigger the third illness of the tale, a new madness in which he attempts to fling his fiancée from the tower as he shouts, “Spin round, wooden doll!” (34). Her brother saves her, leaving the raving man above, shrieking, “Spin round, fire wheel! Spin round, fire wheel!” (34). When the people want to go up and overpower the lunatic, Coppelius laughs and says, “Wait a bit; he'll come down of his own accord” (34). And he is right. Catching sight of the lawyer, Nathaniel suddenly shrieks, “Ha! foine oyes! foine oyes!” (34) and throws himself down to the pavement.

According to Freud, the child's repressed death wish against the father finds expression in the father's death, but the full responsibility for the death of the father shifts to Coppelius, thus if not exonerating Nathaniel of all complicity in the death, at least transferring the guilt and providing an object for his hostility, which he actively directs against the authority figure of the lawyer Coppelius and his double, the optician Coppola. “I am resolved to enter the lists against him and revenge my father's death, let the consequences be what they may” (9). However, the solution—which is only a displacement of culpability—is no solution at all, for in the end Nathaniel succumbs to the will of authority. The very presence of Coppelius is sufficient to compel his self-destruction.

Although the three instances of spying seem to invite Freudian attention to voyeurism, to its built-in tensions of attraction and the need to keep a careful distance, and to their roles of introducing the three illnesses, which parallel Coppelius's function of interrupting sexual fulfillment, Freud passes up the opportunity to avail himself of that material and topic.

Before we finish reading the first paragraph of Barthelme's story, we see a request from the letter writer: “Please consider this an ‘eyes only’ letter’ (191). It is the sort of expression—a commonplace of confidential notes, reports, and memoranda and a category of governmental secrecy—we might expect from a correspondent who is writing his lover's psychiatrist, an act that is itself transgressive and a power play. By virtue of the phrase's naturalness it slips through unless we remember it is addressed to the individual most likely to understand the sexual connotations of visual organs in a Freudian context. Still early on—in the second paragraph of the letter—Barthelme's correspondent admits he knows Hodder is irked by his little nickname for him, but insists he means nothing malicious by it:

I know, for example, that my habit of referring to you as “the sandman” annoys you but let me assure you that I mean nothing unpleasant by it. It is simply a nickname. The reference is to the old rhyme: “Sea-sand does the sandman bring / Sleep to end the day / He dusts the children's eyes with sand / And steals their dreams away.” (This is a variant; there are other versions, but this is the one I prefer.)


Some who read the reference to the sandman of rhyme may wish to take this assurance as a reliable disclaimer. However to accept it at face value is to be misled by the correspondent's partial concealment of the appropriated text. He wants the doctor to know what he meant while being able to deny it. Concealing his source, rather than depriving it of interest, works to increase the density and force of that interest through its multivalence. If we frame our reading of the story with Hoffmann's tale and Freud's psychoanalytic text, we can see the letter writer's words are not innocent. They have been inhabited and conditioned by others. This prior conditioning reveals the letter writer's intention of going beyond, or behind, his utterance by means of context. His words would have a meaning quite different from their ironic content were he not writing to a psychiatrist who shares his lover's favors.

For someone initiated into the specialized reading of Freud's “The ‘Uncanny’” sandman could never be simply a nickname; for Dr. Hodder it would be an accusation of castrator. The sinister effect of an apparently innocent term depends on the correspondent's ability to convey to the doctor his knowledge of standard psychological texts. Hence the references to Percy's “Toward a Triadic Theory of Meaning,” Straus's “Shame as a Historiological Problem,” and Ehrenzweig's The Hidden Order of Art. They support his arguments, but they also ensure Dr. Hodder's recognition that the allusions are intentional, the denials insincere. Toward that end the letter writer enrolls the chastening trope of irony and the sharp edge of wit to undermine his rival's position.

Barthelme's correspondent locates the origin of his hostility toward the authority of psychiatry in his earlier trusting visits to a Dr. Behring, who blusters indignantly about a civil rights injustice, but fails to act in any way to correct it, demanding instead to know what the writer is going to do about the situation. Barthelme's reworking of this hostility from the Hoffmann text seems clear enough once it is recognized. However his narrator is so convincingly motivated that we may not read Doctors Behring and Hodder as extensions of father/Coppėlius and Spalanzani/Coppola, those projections of Nathaniel's ambivalence toward his father.

Although Freud avoids voyeurism as a topic the letter writer explicitly reminds Dr. Hodder that he has diagnosed Susan's openness as voyeurism, “an eroticized expression of curiosity whose chief phenomenological characteristic is the distance maintained between the voyeur and the object” (195). According to this position the tension created by opposing emotions—the desire to draw near and the need to maintain distance—is what the voyeur seeks. Unavoidably we are reminded of Nathaniel's fear of losing his eyes, while at the same time unable to resist the desire to see the very sandman who would steal his eyes away. The correspondent first denies that distance is one of Susan's needs, then suggests that the doctor is actually attempting behavioral modification which will interfere with her sexuality. And interfering with sexual fulfillment is exactly the function of Hoffmann's sandman each time he appears in one of his guises, as Freud points out—separating Nathaniel from his betrothed, destroying Olympia, and compelling madness and suicide just as the lovers are reconciled and about to marry.

At the end of the epistle Barthelme's correspondent returns to this theme with a telling anecdote after alluding to the doctor's attempts to undermine his relation with Susan by saying he is not supportive enough during her depressions:

One night we were at her place, about three a.m., and this man called, another lover, quite a well-known musician who is very good, very fast—a good man. He asked Susan “Is he there?” meaning me, and she said “Yes,” and he said “What are you doing?” and she said, “What do you think?” and he said, “When will you be finished?” and she said, “Never.” Are you, Doctor dear, in a position to appreciate the beauty of this reply, in this context?


In this context he drops all pretense of innocence, turning to the immediacy of sexuality in his relations with Susan, and declares his commitment to that sexuality without the repression we see in Hoffmann's tale. Unlike Nathaniel he will not yield to authority and self-destruction. The ringing taunt hurled at the psychiatrist is clear: No sandman—neither the good, fast musician, nor Dr. Hodder—is going to interfere with his love and steal his dreams away.

To a crucial extent Barthelme's letter writer is an agent of transformation, attempting to subvert the authority of Dr. Hodder, and a conserver of the status quo, seeking to maintain his relationship with Susan. The contradiction parallels Barthelme's successful attempt to conceal superficially his appropriated text, rendering it invisible, while at the same time making it possible to measure its dark presence. The other texts function for the letter writer as commentaries on Dr. Hodder and are useful in his attack on psychiatry, an attack that is not itself completely free from the Freudian myth. For we can hear a little too much protest in the correspondent's defiance to be thoroughly convinced he has thrown off the bonds of the father. This dependence on subtexts is the dialogic imperative insisted on by the principle of prior voices, and in this instance it is essential for a full appreciation of Barthelme's “The Sandman.”


  1. For additional discussions of the role prior voices play in narrative see also M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Barthelme, Donald. “The Sandman.” Sixty Stories. New York: Putnam's, 1981. 191-98.

Bataille, Georges. Story of the Eye. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. New York: Urizen, 1977.

Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.’” On Creativity and the Unconscious. Trans. Alix Strachey. New York: Harper Torchbooks-Harper, 1958. 122-61.

Hoffmann, E. T. A. “The Sandman.” The Tales of Hoffmann. Trans. J. T. Bealby. New York: Heritage, 1943.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen, 1981.

“The Talk of the Town.” The New Yorker, 14 August 1989: 22-24.

Stanley Trachtenberg (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Trachtenberg, Stanley. “Barthelme the Scrivener.” In Understanding Donald Barthelme, pp. 102-64. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Trachtenberg provides a thematic overview of Barthelme's short fiction.]

Art, Barthelme insists, cannot not think of the world.1 Accordingly, in his fiction, the function of art and the situation of the artist provides an enabling metaphor by which it becomes possible to come to terms with a resistant and often opaque reality, whose disappointment and confusions are not so much dispelled by language as mediated, or, in the best case, perhaps even confronted by it in such a way as to change, if not the world, then at least the reader's awareness of its possibilities. The stories about art seldom interrogate either its meanings or its effect, other than on the artists themselves and the difficulties they experience in creating it. As an object in the fictive landscape, then, art as art, like the urban settings or the figures that inhabit them in much of Barthelme's fiction, emerges more in outline than in any realized depth.

Calling attention to the situation of Barthelme's artistic narrators, Wayne Stengel points to their insistence on a more meaningful reality than one provided by the art itself. At the same time, Stengel notes, they “regard art as a self-contained object without necessary meaning beyond its surface appearance or assumed reference to a world outside itself.”2 The lack of a recognizable environment does not, as Stengel argues that it does, ask the reader to become involved in the process of the story. Rather, as part of that process, it resists interpretation in favor of reimagining ordinary reality. In “How I Write My Songs,” another of the previously uncollected stories which appeared in Sixty Stories, the parody of the creative process revolves around the simplistic explanations the narrator provides of his method and the naïvete of his imitative approach. Despite the copybook account which reduces the art of songwriting to a commercial formula, despite the misspellings (“When I lost my baby / I almost lost my mine”) which suggest the writer has little understanding of the sense and no authentic idea of the feeling behind his traditional lyrics, despite the clichéd sentiment with which he concludes, the elemental force of the lyrics confirms the narrator's conviction that “what may appear to be rather plain or dull on paper becomes quite different when it is a song.”3

The blankness or opacity, the discontinuities, interruptions, digressions, hesitations, incompleted thoughts, elliptical structure, and uncertain reference of language, all subject the narrative to a compression that both invests it with an intensity and places it seemingly beyond the reach of thematic focus. Just such a focus is given, however, by a comic perspective that, in American fiction at least, reaches back to the nineteenth century example of Herman Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Built around the metaphor of a writer and the public, Melville's elusive parable describes the conflict between an eccentric law copyist and his seemingly obtuse employer. The specific circumstances of the tale are left pretty much untold. Almost childlike, even petulant in his stony refusal to accept either instruction or request, Bartleby offers nothing to account for his behavior. About his past, the lawyer admits, “nothing is ascertainable except from original sources, and in his case, those are very small.”4 In fact, original sources prove inaccessible. This lack of origins does not serve as the animating force of the story by prompting Bartleby to go in search of them. Rather it is a condition deliberately imposed by the scrivener, who will tell the lawyer nothing about himself or even indicate any reasonable objections he might have to such disclosure.

Bartleby's negation, in fact, appears so comprehensive as to convert his protest against meaninglessness into a statement of it. Indifferent as an inanimate object to any claims upon him, Bartleby is, at the same time, immovable as any natural force. His refusal of every suggestion the lawyer makes about employment while continuing to insist that he is not particular (a term which in context thus has significant resonance) suggests the joke with which the appeals for reason are uniformly greeted throughout Melville's fiction. In ironic counterpoint to the bust of Cicero at which he stares and mirroring its vacant, eyeless sockets, Bartleby's eloquent silence is, in fact, universal. His ultimately infectious habit of using the term “prefer” gives the illusion of choice to what proves an insistent if not immiscible condition. His opposition to fate, then, becomes itself the judgment of fate—equally cold and inflexible, ubiquitous, finally imprisoning no less than silently imprisoned. Bartleby, in short, changes from a victim of an indifferent universe to a symbol of its negation.

As with so much else in this puzzling tale, Melville leaves uncertain the lawyer's relation to his clerk; yet this, too, becomes somewhat less intimidating when it is seen in the context of a joke. If Bartleby is unwilling to perform the functions of a scrivener, the lawyer, a self-acknowledged storyteller takes delight in the sound of words and is able to find an element of beauty even in the blankness of walls. Neither in his legal nor his literary manner does the lawyer evidence any interest in originality. He describes himself as a “conveyancer and title hunter” and, in fact, becomes himself a copyist, not only imitating even the characteristic expression Bartleby employs but also echoing for a time the scrivener's withdrawal into self-imposed isolation. In an effort to elude those who, like the landlord of his former offices or the current tenants who persist in holding him accountable for Bartleby's continued occupancy, he reduces his lifestyle to a minimum, consisting chiefly of fugitive visits to the suburbs and, in what can only be the last stages of desperation, to Jersey City and Hoboken.

Despite his smug boast of safety, then, a boast which, it turns out, is mistaken, his pride in his prudence and method, above all, his overblown rhetoric, the lawyer is able, as Bartleby is not, to displace a “doctrine of assumptions” with an awareness of the “noise and heat and joy of the roaring thoroughfares at noon” (128). It is, in fact, precisely this intermingling of classical and commonplace, the punctuation of exaggerated narrative formality with sly hints of self-awareness, deliberately concealed backgrounds, and abruptly transformed characters, that caution against too great a preoccupation with interpreting life and a consequent loss of its more substantial immediacy, even within the framework of literary construction, perhaps within that framework most of all. The resistance of rhetoric to interpretation allows the lawyer elegiacally to commiserate not only with humanity but even with the principle of emptiness that opposes it.5 Recognizing the inescapability of that confrontation, the lawyer shows as well the tragi-comic possibilities with which, as scrivener, he can mediate with reality. And in telling the story, he settles for a rueful acceptance of the fact that there is no way to make sense of it and that no answers, now or in future, will be forthcoming.

For Barthelme, as for Melville, these limited possibilities remain centered in the object of representation and, in particular, in its distinctive verbal quality rather than in the formal unity of its disparate elements, perhaps most prominent among them, the unnamed but isolating horror and the “domestic associations” without whose humanizing influence, the lawyer is convinced, one is led even to acts of murder, or, more poignantly, in whose absence the indifferent scrivener is seen to waste away. Sadness, Barthelme's fourth collection of short stories, seems to mark a shift in emphasis in his work that recognizes in the presence of the commonplace a necessary balance to the nihilistic horrors accompanied in such earlier stories as “The Policeman's Ball” (City Life) by a hooting chorus of melodramatic laughter. And while maintaining their emotional detachment, the stories additionally seem to find the dilemmas of modern existence less a subject for bemused indifference, or even playful hilarity, than for tense recognition and for exploration of the often parallel difficulties faced by the artist. The sadness of the title, accordingly, refers to the largely domestic anxieties prompted by the exaggerated expectations generated in literary forms and the consequent inability to satisfy those expectations. Such disappointment leads to the separation of the couple in “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,” which, Barthelme has acknowledged, was salvaged from an earlier attempt at a novel.6 The narrator and his wife, Wanda, struggle unsuccessfully to cope with the banalities of everyday life and, in particular, with the demands of child-rearing. The results are discouraging. “The world in the evening seems fraught with the absence of promise,” the narrator complains, “if you are a married man.”7 The qualification which opposes evening and romance to the daily routine of marriage is crucial and points to an unwillingness to deal with limits. The consequence of such childish self-absorption (the wife sucks her thumb while the narrator yells at their child; he retreats from the marriage in alcoholism and hostility), is envy of the extravagant displays of wealth in their society, mutual antagonism, and a general state of boredom. When the couple is confronted with the limits of mortality by death-masks their child has learned to make at school, the father demands to know the meaning of the knowing look with which the child displays them. “You'll find out,” he is warned. The refusal to heed that warning leads to a divorce, whose appearance of civility breaks down into mutual recrimination and an attempt by the wife to shoot her ex-husband. Not even this dramatic expression of buried feeling marks a change in their lives. Following the divorce, Wanda immerses herself in the study of esoteric subjects, the narrator attempts to soothe his own fear of death with the anticipation of a limitless supply of scotch whiskey, and the child is placed, significantly, in an experimental nursery.

The same exhaustion, preoccupation with the trivial, and self-absorption in contemporary culture informs “The Party,” which begins with the admission by the narrator that “I went to a party and corrected a pronounciation” (S 57). Unable to distinguish between significant variations of art and influenced by movie cliché expressions of anxiety (“Drums, drums, drums, outside the windows”), the guests are indifferent even to the arrival at the party of the sudden towering figure of King Kong (“Giant hands, black, thick with fur, reaching in through the windows” (S 57), a pop-culture icon of brute passion combined with sentimentality. Kong's menace, it turns out, has been acculturated; the ape now teaches art history at a public university, where his interest is in seduction rather than primitive expression of desire.

Like the others in the room, the narrator remains largely passive and pessimistic about his chances to break out of the torpor which envelops his generation with its “emphasis on emotional cost control as well as its insistent, almost annoying lucidity.” The annoyance stems from the refusal to confront the problems inherent in ordinary life. “What made us think,” the narrator asks rhetorically, “that we would escape things like bankruptcy, alcoholism, being disappointed, having children?” (S 62). Though uncomfortable in this environment, in which ambitious people desperate for entertainment reduce experience to word games and in which literary fashion substitutes for felt response (“Now that you have joined us in finding Kafka, and Kleist, too, the awesome figures that we have agreed that they are”), he can only appeal to his companion, Francesca, to take some decisive action which will enable them to leave (S 62). Her refusal to leave the party does not indicate contentment with her situation or even a fundamental difference with the narrator's philosophy. In a kind of helpless self-justification that is often exchanged by a couple regretfully agreeing to the necessity of a divorce, he insists, “Of course we did everything right, insofar as we were able to imagine what ‘right’ was” (S 62). In the social climate that continues to make extravagant demands for fulfillment, such efforts prove resistant even to the compelling power of words. “When one has spoken a lot,” the narrator is persuaded, “one has already used up all of the ideas one has. You must change the people you are speaking to so that you appear, to yourself, to be still alive” (S 61).

Change mistaken for the appearance of vitality also marks the manner in which the narrator attempts to deal with his inability either to understand or meaningfully affect his circumstances and leads to a final appeal to Francesca to reject him so that he may try something else. In the absence of any response from her, the narrator is unable to make one of his own or even to believe any longer that discriminations of value are necessary. “Is it really important to know that this movie is fine, and that one terrible,” he concludes hopelessly, “and to talk intelligently about the difference? Wonderful elegance! No good at all!” (S 62).

The self-doubt which leads to that final dispiriting assessment is more hopefully resolved in “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” by the assertion of value in the sheer phenomenal quality of existence. The story is narrated by one of the members of a local community in which St. Anthony takes up residence. In contrast to his neighbors for whom, he notes waspishly, “everything is hard enough without having to deal with something that is not tangible and clear” (S 151), and who consequently find the higher orders of abstraction to be a nuisance, the narrator claims to find them interesting. What he admires chiefly is the marvelous or ineffable which, he contends, in a world of mundanity allows the saint to shine. His sense of decency, to some extent self-congratulatory, misses the point. St. Anthony unexpectedly reveals a fondness for such banal delights as fried foods and department store carpeting and diplomatically adopts an offhand manner designed to make his presence less disturbing to the community. It is these temptations of the commonplace—the attractive quality of things—that he must struggle with. His ascetic refusal to give in to them finally prevents his ability to choose, and, toward the end of his residence in the community, he is heard to say only the word “Or.”

When Camilla, an unconventional if provocative young woman of the town, accuses him of attempting some physical intimacy, this lack of definition rather than any truth to the accusation leads St. Anthony to return to the desert. But not without a final, unsettling revelation. Less an escape from the alternatives of ordinary life than an exclusion from them, the saint amusingly confesses to the narrator in the last line of the story that he regarded the temptations as “entertainment.”

The refusal to take the whole thing seriously hints at the attitude Barthelme encourages the reader to adopt as well. Though the narrator's response to the saint is sympathetic, his folksy tone and gossipy manner, at odds with his use of sophisticated diction, his pretentious moralizing, and his fondness for the abstract, work against his authority as an authorial surrogate. He is narrowly judgmental about Camilla who, he points out, “went to the Sorbonne and studied some kind of philosophy called ‘structure’ with somebody named Levy who is supposed to be very famous” (S 158). Overly insistent on his indifference to the possibility of the saint's having given in to sexual temptation, and seemingly unaware of the implied condescension in his boast of periodic visits to the saint when he is not vacationing with his wife in Florida, he ironically (and, for the purposes of the story, unknowingly) condemns those people who resent St. Anthony's indifference to the material world and wish he would “go out and get a job, like everybody else.” Thus the narrator values St. Anthony for the very qualities of withdrawal the story works to resist. In a deeply human if ambiguous sense, he cannot accept the idea of the ordinary as itself exceptional and yet recognizes that “you have to keep the ordinary motors of life running in the meantime” (S 153).

In “The Sandman,” the narrator reaches something of the same conclusion. “The best thing to do,” he advises, “is just to do ordinary things, read the newspaper, for example, or watch basketball, or wash the dishes” (S 95). Sometimes taken as a defense of imagination or art, the story takes the form of a letter to Dr. Hodder, a psychiatrist, who regards the desire of his patient Susan to terminate analysis and buy a piano instead as symptomatic of her illness and so of her need to continue analysis. Normative and aberrant behavior quickly become reversed. Written by Susan's boyfriend, who, like St. Anthony, is confronted by the prospect of seemingly limitless alternatives, the letter acknowledges the hidden impulses that may account for behavior but sees in them an accurate reflection of conditions that may respond more to neglect than to treatment. “What do you do with a patient who finds the world unsatisfactory?” he asks, “The world is unsatisfactory; only a fool would deny it” (S 95). In contrast, then, to the utopian impulse to which he drily alludes in the repeated song refrain, “The world is waiting for the sunrise,” the narrator insists that he is content with Susan “as is,” an acceptance of the ability to affect experience, not merely the way we think about it, that is as equally distant from Ramona's reluctant acknowledgment of the world's throbbing sexuality as it is from the psychiatrist's attempt at normative manipulation.

This reductive concern for the ordinary projected in a “muted series of irritation, frustrations, and bafflements” rather than in the more dramatic emotions of existential dread has led the critic Alan Wilde to find in Barthelme's fiction the possibilities for a more dynamic response than that promised solely by the modernist escape to a vision of fictive order.8 Life in Barthelme's fiction, Wilde concludes, has become less mysterious but more puzzling, by which I take him to mean that it has lost not only its belief in the supernatural but in the ability and even the desire of fiction to convincingly represent that belief. As a result, it preempts the struggle of characters to search for meaning within the text and moves instead from a self-contained world which circumscribes their existence toward an enveloping one that accounts for their reality, in other words, moves from the interior to the surface of a work.

That movement is facilitated by the illustrations which, as in “At the Tolstoy Museum,” once again reduce the text to the status of a caption in “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace.” The story addresses the ever-increasing demands of the public for sensational performance by the artist and consequently conceives of art as a collection of sideshow exhibits at a circus or an old-fashioned theater bill. “It is difficult to keep the public interested,” the narrator explains, and lists among the promised attractions The Prime Rate, Edgar Allan Poe, and The Sale of the Public Library, before concluding with the announcement of a new volcano, pictured with suitable irony in the middle of an eruption. The illustrations include numbered drawings from an anatomy text, statues, groupings of figures in different styles and from different historical eras, as well as mock Renaissance-style perspective drawings which, as R. E. Johnson points out, flatten the illusion by projecting the lines which are superimposed on the central image off the drawing into some infinite point beyond where the picture can be seen to begin or end.9 What is perhaps most significant about these illustrations, however, is the contrast between the accuracy of the descriptions and the tortured interpretations which the narrator draws from them. Literal representation, Barthelme appears to suggest, is not by itself either immune to or a refuge against the distortions of the imagination.

Art seems to consent to its own destruction in “Supoena,” which indirectly addresses the framing conditions that link the narrative to the world in which it exists. The narrator is sent a tax notice from the obscurely sinister “Bureau of Compliance” on a robot or surrogate called Charles he has built to, among other things, “instruct him in complacency.” Like the audience demands in “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace,” the tax seems greater than the narrator's ability to pay and forces him to disassemble the robot. The consequences remain ambivalent. Charles's detachment from social conditions and the obligation to take some action to alleviate them serve as an example for the narrator's own posture. Looking at him, the narrator confesses, “I said to myself, ‘See, it is possible to live in the world and not change the world’” (S 116). Charles thus functions a surrogate not only for the narrator but for fiction itself. In this regard, he suggests a role which balances impersonal objectivity with the need for immersion in the everyday. “Without Charles,” the narrator realizes with alarm, “without his example, his exemplary quietude, I run the risk of acting, the risk of risk. I must participate. I must leave the house and walk about” (S 116). Displacing to fiction his obligation to become involved in reality, the narrator not only evades that responsibility but reduces fictive possibilities as well. His desperate cry, then, is not exclusively an expression of repressed emotion or even an appeal for involvement in experience. It is a statement of the ambivalence with which fiction must address the often conflicting requirements of actuality and imagination, the opposing claims of didactic and aesthetic impulses, the demands of form and those of feeling.

The artist-hero of “Engineer-Private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916” provides an indication of how Barthelme hopes to reconcile those demands in his struggle with both his art and the Secret Police. Drafted into the army, Klee has been assigned to escort a train transporting aircraft to various bases across Germany but takes more interest in the life around him. His interior monologues alternate with those of the police, who watch closely to discover what he is doing and learn, as they reveal, his secret, really the secret of his art. This proves to be Klee's concern with the ordinary course of his life: the sale of his drawings, the meaninglessness of the war, the arrangements he makes to meet his lover. In a statement that echoes the process of art described in “City Life,” he points out, “There are always unexpected delays, reroutings, backtrackings” (S 65), but while concentrating on its details—“He is reading a book of Chinese short stories.” “He has removed his boots. His feet rest twenty-six centimeters from the baggage-car stove.”—the police are unable to see their significance (S 66). Klee is more concerned with the quality of experience. “These Chinese short stories are slight and lovely,” he thinks (S 66). When he notices one of the planes unaccountably missing, he decides to alter the manifest (the artist, he observes, is not so different from the forger) and to replace the plane with a drawing. The drawing, however, is not of the plane but of its absence, and it is this absence-as-presence which allows the police to accept, if not fully appreciate, the contradictions they have attempted to monitor. The association of the police with critics is suggested in their final assessment of Klee's achievement:

We would like to embrace him as a comrade and brother but unfortunately we are not embraceable. We are secret, we exist in the shadows, the pleasure of the comradely/brotherly embrace is one of the pleasures we are denied, in our dismal service.

(S 70)

But if criticism is short, art, Klee is aware, like chocolate, meltingly sweet, at once temporary and eternal, goes on forever.

In “The Catechist,” art out of the machine emerges in the confession of a 40-year-old priest who has fallen in love with a married woman and who responds to the incantatory and comic catalog of the way hatred of Sundays is expressed in various countries with a contrasting specificity of detail. The strategy of naming and, in particular, of naming absences thus serves as a means not only of calling them into being but of acknowledging their magical existence. It is this existence in all its variousness which prompted the priest's sense of vocation. Asked by the catechist if he initially heard a call, he replies “I heard many things. Screams. Suites for unaccompanied cello” (S 125).

In contrast to a postage-sized Old Testament the catechist produces and almost at once replaces in favor of a button on which is printed the word “Love,” the priest remembers the picture on a stamp he used to mail a letter to his lover and responds to his superior's dry textbook formula for dealing with apathy with the following recognition: “I think: Analysis terminable and interminable. I think: Then she will leave the park looking backward over her shoulder” (S 125). As opposed to the interpretation, it is the perceived instant that stirs the emotion (of the catechist as well as the sinful priest) so that what endures, paradoxically, is the perishable human gesture, whose meaning rests entirely in its transience and its preservation solely in the repetitive form of memory.

“Daumier,” the concluding story in Sadness, reinforces the need to connect the imaginative with the everyday world by examining the attempt to escape not from an unsympathetic public but from the desire, at once limitless and limited, which is to say the authentic configuration of the self. Daumier, the central figure, whose name evokes that of the great nineteenth century French master of caricature, describes himself as a “tourist of the emotions.” He projects two fictive alter egos, or surrogates as he calls them. Both, he acknowledges, are designed to permit a distraction of “the original, authentic self, which is a dirty great villain, as can be testified and sworn to by anyone who has every been awake” (S 163). In contrast to that self, villainous because insatiable, the surrogates are in principle, satiable, which is to say, can be designed with adventures that are brought to an end. The ambition to structure art in this way proves an example of the narrator's hubris and meets an appropriately ironic fate when the narrator ultimately opens his own world to that of one of his fictive creations.

Arranged in a series of disconnected passages, each of which, like a Victorian novel, is headed by a brief description of its contents or of the action to come, the story leads to levels within fictive levels, complicated even further by allusions to several genres—the western, the historical romance, the domestic comedy, and the story within a story among them. Often these become literalized metaphors. When the original Daumier comments that one of his surrogates rides “the plains and pampas of [his] consciousness,” the following scene takes place on just such a location. When he imagines a scene in his mind's eye, he goes on to imagine a mind's neck as well.

There are frequent indications these inventions are to be responded to as pictures rather than as narrative. Along with abrupt shifts, lists, passages of literary quotation, or mixtures of highly stylized and colloquial diction that interrupt the narrative to confirm its artificiality; the situations themselves, as John Ditsky among others has noted, are self-consciously pictorial, a device Barthelme employs to undermine the authority of plot.10 Rather than suggest the relation between the various elements of the story, the compositional effect is highly ironic. In one passage, for example, a fictive possibility is translated into a literal situation:

Two men in horse-riding clothes stood upon a plain, their attitudes indicating close acquaintance or colleagueship. The plain presented in its foreground a heavy yellow oblong salt lick rendered sculptural by the attentions over a period of time of sheep or other salt-loving animals. Two horses in the situation's upper lefthand corner watched the men with nervous horse-gaze.

(S 165)

Daumier himself engages in a discussion of this fictive strategy with a friend named Gibbon, who attributes his comparatively untroubled sense of self-worth to his having been raised without the use of irony. Gibbon, however, confesses finally that he doesn't have enough money to pay for the drinks the two men are having and, in fact, can offer only the bizarre alternative of Krishna Socialism as an alternative to fiction as a means of meliorating the anxieties which trouble both men and presumably everyone else as well.

Unlike the satiability of his surrogates, the narrator's claim of impersonality, proves spurious. As in “The Balloon,” he intrudes to acknowledge the function of the story as compensatory. Then, literally folding his characters away in tissue paper, he underscores their flatness and their fragility. It is, in fact, one of the surrogates who provides him with a formula that applies to his fictive existence and through it to the enveloping idea of fiction as well. “There are always openings, if you can find them,” a second Daumier promises, “there is always something to do” (S 179). The promise comes at a time when the original Daumier finds himself at a dead end in his life no less than in his fiction. His romantic attachments seem to last exactly two years; his hope of doing something great “perhaps in the field of popular music, or light entertainment in general” is shadowed by the sense of his own mortality. “You eye the bed, the record-player, the pictures,” he thinks, “already making lists of who will take what” (S 179).

By plunging the self into comically proliferating openings, Barthelme struggles against what one of the surrogates, perhaps in at least partial self-justification, calls “the cocoon of habituation.” At the same time, he exposes the artificiality of the strategy the artist employs in an attempt to separate the story from autobiography. What needs to be remembered is that the strategy Daumier adopts is one of replication rather than novelty, one whose force, as his companion Amelia skeptically seems to be aware, rests, if anything, in a more realistic assessment of possibilities than Daumier is prepared to admit. If the self is to be reassured, or, as Daumier proposes, at least distracted, conviction must come from the energy and movement of the city itself. Barthelme conveys this movement in a descriptive passage that further complicates the narrative's fantastic mingling of plots. Daumier imagines a surrogate and his cowboy band driving a herd of au-pair girls into a life of white slavery pursued by Ignatius Loyola and “a band of hard-riding fanatical Jesuits” who hope to rescue the girls. This plot is complicated by the unexplained arrival of a musketeer from a Dumas's novel, who needs help in retrieving the Queen's necklace. An interruption, headed “Description of Three O'Clock in the Afternoon,” adds a further level of reality (or unreality). Characteristically, Barthelme combines baroque diction with a specificity of detail in the following extract that needs to be quoted at length:

Dispersed amidst the hurly and burly of the children were their tenders, shouting. Inmixed with this broil were ordinary denizens of the quarter—shopmen, rentiers, churls, sellers of vicious drugs, stum-drinkers, aunties, girls whose jeans had been improved with applique rose blossoms in the cleft of the buttocks, practicers of the priest hustle, and the like. Two officers of the Shore Patrol were hitting an imbecile Sea Scout with long shapely well-modeled nightsticks under the impression that they had jurisdiction. A man was swearing fine-sounding swearwords at a small yellow motorcar of Italian extraction, the same having joined its bumper to another bumper, the two bumpers intertangling like shameless lovers in the act of love. A man in the organic-vegetable hustle stood in the back of a truck praising tomatoes, the same being abulge with tomato-muscle and ablaze with minimum daily requirements. Several members of the madman profession made the air sweet with their imprecating and their moans and the subtle music of the tearing of their hair.

(S 168)

Despite the aimlessness, the density, the messiness of the scene, really because of them, a vitality emerges from the very surface of events—the listing rather than dramatization—in a catalog that copies and so reminds, even assures the reader of activity and so creates it into being. At length, Daumier becomes so entranced with his creations that he allows Celeste, one of the au-pair girls, to replace his real-life companion Amelia in his affections and literally to enter the world in which he exists. The ontological confusion of levels ends with Daumier anticipating a meal Celeste is about to prepare, which in its wonderful elegance recalls the irrelevance which the narrator of “The Party” felt marked the attempt to discriminate among critical values. Though Daumier repeats the reassurance given by his surrogate—“There are always openings, if you can find them. There is always something to do.” (S 177)—the qualification “if you can find them” suggests he is aware of both the tentative and tenuous nature of such options. Both distancing himself from and embracing his creations, then, he confirms by his act both the need to, and the means by which fiction can, enter the world and the ambiguous condition that results when it does so.

Many of the concerns Barthelme expressed in Sadness appear again in his next collection of short stories, Amateurs, where they are often subjected to more manic treatment. In “Our Work and Why We Do It,” the narrator describes the operations of a publishing house which serves as the center of a series of bizarre, unrelated activities, somewhat resembling the acts in “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace.” The owners, William and Rowena, lie naked in bed in the middle of the plant discoursing on the advantages of being bourgeois, which allows William to worry about his plants and his quiches, his property taxes, and, in a stunning incongruity, his sword hilt. The pressmen turn out jobs ranging from matchbook covers to the Oxford Book of American Grub and the Detroit telephone book, while awaiting the introduction of new machines which will print underground telephone poles, the smoke on smoked hams, and the figure 5 in gold. “Should we smash the form?” one of the pressmen wonders when a job receives a bad review, then realizes “But it's our form” (A 7).

It is an exchange it is not hard to imagine the author having with himself. In the absence of conventional forms (and perhaps the occasional impulse to smash them), the story serves as a paradigm of Barthelme's work and suggests why he does it. The narrator is unable to end some of his sentences and begins others seemingly in the middle, punctuating both with occasional non sequiturs, lists, and even an obscurely threatening note wrapped around a brick that sails through the window and identifies conditions without indicating the consequences. “And I saw the figure 5 writ in gold,” is one of the statements he abruptly introduces. The allusion is to a painting by Charles DeMuth, inspired by William Carlos Williams's Imagist poem “The Great Figure.” Though a symbolic homage to the poet, whose name and initials are worked into it, the painting is done in the hard-edge style of the precisionists, a group of artists including Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis with whom Demuth is commonly grouped and who painted everyday themes and common household objects—grain elevators, barns, silos, factories, ship's turbines—in an attempt to reduce and simplify natural forms to the borderline of abstraction. It is a style that in many ways seems to anticipate Barthelme's own. “Some things don't make sense,” the narrator explains of the rush of words that can be seen finally as the subject of the story:

But that isn't our job, to make sense of things—our job is to kiss the paper with the form or plate, as the case may be, and make sure it's not getting too much ink, and worry about the dot structure of the engravings, or whether a tiny shim is going to work up during the run and split a fountain.

(A 5)

The process of the story not its content is what the reader is instructed to pay attention to.

In “The Captured Woman” a similarly improbable situation results from the transformation into literal terms of the vocabulary of power and sexual domination commonly used to describe relationships. The narrator and his friends boast of their methods (one uses tranquilizing darts, another a lasso, a third a spell inherited from his great-grandmother; the narrator uses Jack Daniels) and of their success in taming the women they have captured. Like the domestic situations the women have left, these more exotic arrangements after a while come to seem “as ordinary as bread,” and, though the narrator feels they are at best temporary, over the course of time they take on a permanence as the women at first subtly and then more aggressively use their supposedly dependent status to gain control of the relationship.

Control operates as the informing principle of “I Bought a Little City,” which also literalizes then reverses the wish-fulfillment conditions with which it begins. The city which the narrator buys, Galveston, Texas, is treated as though it were a sports franchise run by a benevolent owner. Starting with some modest urban renewal, he tears down an entire city block and converts it into a park. “I put the people into the Galvez Hotel, which is the nicest hotel in town, right on the seawall,” the narrator drawls full of self-satisfaction, “and I made sure that every room had a beautiful view. Those people had wanted to stay at the Galvez Hotel all their lives and never had a chance before because they didn't have the money. They were delighted” (A 52). Predictably the satisfaction fades with the problems of relocation and the increasingly arbitrary changes the narrator makes (partly in response to the citizens' requests) in an effort to convert his city into a utopian dream. The result is a fragmented jigsaw puzzle which pleases no one. The attempt to bring order to the city is no more successful and when the narrator is rebuffed by one of the married women who live there he decides to sell it back at a loss. By attempting to be imaginative one can only hurt people, not help them, he concludes. It is a way of playing God, whose more powerful and painful imagination causes him to withdraw from society completely, still tormented by the thought of the wife whose fidelity could not be tempted.

Barthelme reverses that situation in “You Are as Brave as Vincent van Gogh,” which deals with the desperate reassurances that attempt to keep an affair from falling apart, and in “The Agreement,” “What to Do Next,” and more obliquely, in “At the End of the Mechanical Age,” all of which seem more nakedly informed by a personal voice struggling with the problem of divorce and its aftermath. In “The Agreement,” the divorced speaker, as in a catechism, asks himself a series of searing questions beginning with “Where is my daughter? Why is she there? What crucial error did I make? Was there more than one?” (A 61). Concerned as well about social approval (Will the mailman laugh at him? The butcher? The doctor?), he worries about his lover's fidelity and his own competence. The narrator's self-questioning is abruptly ended by a parody of one of the terms of a supposed divorce agreement, covering every conceivable contingency “from the beginning of the world to the execution of this agreement.” Having agreed to the terms of this document, he finds the loss and dislocation intrude upon his efforts to get on with the painting of his apartment and the beginning of a new life it promises.

“What to Do Next,” consists of ostensible instructions for what the narrator ironically terms “starting fresh, as it is called” after a couple has separated. Initially comparing the experiences to the loss of one's dog, he at first advises distractions to help one forget the depression but quickly recognizes that such diversions do little to address the central difficulty: the loss of self-esteem. The narrator traces such “wrenches of the spirit,” to the culture which, he recognizes, “makes of us all either machines for assimilating and judging that culture, or uncritical sops who simply sop it up, become it” (A 85). The image of separation from one's culture—that of a banged thumb, swollen and red—is, however, no more appealing. His solution, which he compares to “frontier-busting,” is to become part of the instructions themselves or in other words to write about the experience just as he himself is doing. Even this strategy is viewed ironically. Along with the instructions the newly authoritative divorcee is required to give a course twelve hours a week to others seeking solace for which the instructor will receive three credits and a silver spoon in the Heritage pattern. “The anthology of yourself which will be used as a text,” the narrator hollowly reassures the reader, “is even now being assembled by underpaid researchers in our textbook division” (S 86) and underscores the ambivalent irony he directs at these mechanical means for dealing with the pain of loss by concluding the instructions with the words, “Congratulations. I'm sorry” (S 86).

Toward the middle of “At the End of the Mechanical Age,” the narrator wonders whether the end of the mechanical age, which he equates with the present age of electricity, is simply a metaphor. “We have a duty to understand everything,” he is told, at which point the boat, in which he and his companion have been riding out a flood which followed forty days and forty nights of rain, sinks. His companion, Mrs. Davis, had reached out to him in a grocery store and following extravagant promises of idealized romantic fulfillment which both are aware can never be realized, they marry. His ideal had been a woman named Maude, who, as in Barthelme's own fiction, attempts to create things by naming them. Mrs. Davis's fantasy is that of a natty dresser with many credit cards who bears a resemblance to her first husband, Jake. The wedding turns the metaphor into reality with the mechanical nature of the ceremony:

“And do you, Anne,” the minister said, “promise to make whatever mutually satisfactory accommodations necessary to reduce tensions and arrive at whatever previously agreed-upon goals both parties have harmoniously set in the appropriate planning sessions?”

(A 181)

The accommodations set the tone of the relationship, and despite the narrator's appeal for the blessing of some Divine Presence, which ironically had been hovering behind everything that has happened, the marriage ends in a divorce which along with “blackouts, brown-outs, temporary dimmings of household illumination” only confirms divine indifference. God, the narrator concludes bitterly, is “interested only in grace—in keeping things humming” (A 183). The ending of the story once more combines the compromises demanded by the world and the more abstract truths of metaphor. Neither Mrs. Davis nor the narrator appear discouraged by the need to find happiness without the aid of some supernatural being. Their child goes to live in Russia where, the narrator believes, “He is probably growing in wisdom and beauty.” With “the glow of hope not yet extinguished, the fear of pall not yet triumphant” the couple continues to search for an ideal, but only with the aid of standby generators which ensure the flow of grace.

Like the writer in “The Dolt,” whose story lacked a middle, the narrator of “And Then” struggles with metaphors and with the difficulty of completing his own fiction. “The part of the story that came next was suddenly missing,” he begins (S 105) and then goes on to imagine a series of increasingly fantastic encounters with a public which appears to him in the form of an obscurely threatening policeman who comically multiplies (or divides) into several more, all with bicycles, demanding that he turn over a harpsichord he had given to his wife as a present. Only by lying, the narrator decides, can he successfully distract this looming presence, and desperately looking for ways to keep his audience interested he becomes lost in his own inventions. The two problems—satisfying the audience and completing his story—thus fuse into one, which he plans to resolve with an extravagant gesture. He will throw chicken livers flambé all over the predicament. “That,” he concludes hopefully, “will ‘open up’ the situation successfully. I will resolve these terrible contradictions with flaming chicken parts and then sing the song of how I contrived the ruin of my anaconda” (A 112).

As a means of resolving the predicament of both artist and audience, the spontaneous gesture proves a fragile solution in “The Great Hug,” a story which returns to the central metaphor of “The Balloon.” Summoned to console a companion to whom the narrator has given some terminally bad news, the Balloon Man appears like a carnival huckster with an assortment of balloons of all colors and varieties. They range from the Balloon of Not Yet and the Balloon of Sometimes to the Balloon of Perhaps, which the story concludes, is his best balloon. Unwilling to have his picture taken because he “doesn't want the others to steal his moves,” the Balloon Man explains “It's all in the gesture—the precise, reunpremeditated right move” (A 46). Although the balloons do not lie, the reader is told, the Balloon Man is less straightforward than the Pin Lady, his antagonist, who presents an actuality with which his imaginative creations must ultimately be locked. His balloons, or the stories with which they are associated, at best thus provide only qualified or temporary refuge in dealing with reality. Referring to the scene with which the story begins, the narrator says “When he created our butter-colored balloon, we felt better,” then adds thoughtfully, “a little better” (A 48). Yet the Balloon Man defends with spirit the qualified nature of one's encounter with his product. “Not every balloon can make you happy,” the Balloon Man admits, “Not every balloon can trigger glee. But I insist that these balloon have a right to be heard!” (A 48).

Nearly half of the sixteen stories in Great Days take this insistence literally, by concentrating in dialogue form on the sound of language. Barthelme has described this contrapuntal technique as an attempt through the arrangement of words to arrive at new meanings rather than simply providing an altered perspective in which to regard them.11 In fact, the use exclusively of dialogue as a framing device allows Barthelme to reduce the story to its basic dramatic element eliminating for the most part such narrative elements as plot, description, development, and even climax. Unlike the adversarial debates of “The Explanation” or “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” in City Life, or even the more playful story, “The Reference” in Amateurs (in which the exchange takes place between a stuffy, jargon-spouting prospective employer whose difficulties with social engineering have resulted in “planarchy” and a slangy, jive-talking antagonist whose often meaningless patter evolves into that of an agent's, representing the person for whom the reference is sought), the voices in Great Days are more like syncopated duets.

Structured like the classic jazz tune “Momma Don't ‘Low,” with its refrain and improvisations, “The New Music” develops the conversation of two brothers who have difficulty in liberating themselves from the influence of a repressive, largely unfeeling mother. Once again the parallels with an authoritative artistic tradition suggest themselves. Ironically the conversation begins with the admission by one of the brothers of imitation in a surprising context. Asked what he did that day, he replies, “Went to the grocery store and Xeroxed a box of English muffins, two pounds of ground veal and an apple. In flagrant violation of the Copyright Act” (GD 21). Their discussion of the new music is, in actuality, an example of it, touching on both its eclectic quality and its almost syncopated rhythms:

—If one does nothing but listen to the new music, everything else drifts, goes away, frays. Did Odysseus feel this way when he and Diomedes decided to steal Athene's statue from the Trojans, so that they would become dejected and lose the war? I don't think so, but who is to know what effect the new music of that remote time had on its hearers?

—Or how it compares to the new music of this time?

—One can only conjecture

(GD 21-2)

Alternately building on and echoing each other's remarks, the brothers remind each other of all the prohibitions to which they have been subjected and which spill over from their musical interests to their social lives. Their attempt to reassure themselves with brave resolutions (“Get my ocarina tuned, sew a button on my shirt.” “Got to air my sleeping bag, scrub up my canteen.”) centers around a vision of the utopian city of Pool, which, it turns out, only projects a dated image of itself obtained from movies that seem made of standard film clichés.

Despite the discouragement they feel at the prospect of getting older and the intimidating influence of official statements such as that of The Hite Report, a study of female sexuality, the brothers' conversation itself finally proves sustaining, even revitalizing. Like the new music, which has no steady beat (“The new music is drumless, which is brave).” (GD 33), the conversation renews itself by accommodating a wide range of subjects from Greek mythology and poetry of the French symbolists to discos and mixed drinks. “The new music,” one of the brothers says, “burns things together, like a welder.” At the same time, its colloquial rhythms resemble “the new, down-to-earth, think-I'm-gonna-kill-myself music, which unwraps the sky” (GD 37). Despite its echo of Shakespearian tragedy in the recognition that “the new music will be there tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” the brothers are convinced, at length, that they can deal with the prospect of things coming to an end and the troubling dreams which are certain to follow by abandoning the prospect of utopian dreams and confining themselves to a new music whose novelty depends, above all, simply on routine maintenance.

Elliptical jazz rhythms also structure the conversation in “Morning,” in which two men similarly attempt to confront the terrors of aging and loss as they are brought home in the early light of another day. “Say you're frightened. Admit it,” one begins. “I watch my hand aging,” the other replies with an unconvincing attempt at casual bravery, “sing a little song” (GD 123). The song consists in the main of disconnected riffs which include imitations by one of them of the loneliness in the cry of a wolf and appeals to literary and artistic diversions. “What shall we do? Call up Mowgli? Ask him over? … Is Scriabin as smart as he looks?” (GD 123).

The two men attempt to comfort themselves with formulaic, singsong repetitions (“One old man alone in a room. Two old men alone in a room. Three old men alone in a room.”), by mocking allusions to familiar catchphrases (“Have any of the English residents been murdered?”), and by humorous variations of classic song titles (“They played ‘One O'Clock Jump,’ ‘Two O'Clock Jump,’ ‘Three O'Clock Jump,’ and ‘Four O'Clock Jump.’”) Without the awareness of them as a strategy, the reassurances prove hollow, remaining abstractions rather than acquiring density. The story ends not with the expected daylight but with darkness and the abandoning of the search for any pleasurable or even satisfying illumination.

A parallel pessimism informs the conversation in “On the Steps of the Conservatory,” which describes one woman's rejection by a Conservatory, whose standards remain arbitrary and whose function is never made clear. What is known is only that the Conservatory “is hostile to the new spirit.” Without identifying in explicit terms which institution the Conservatory is identified with (in one sense it parallels the non-permissive momma in “The New Music”), its syllabus reveals a traditional concern for image rather than substance. “Christian imagery is taught at the Conservatory, also Islamic imagery and the imagery of Public Safety,” Hilda explains to her friend Maggie (GD 134). Like everything else, however, even the image of the conservatory itself continues to shift. Initially its staff is described as indifferent to the models, subsequently as sexually involved with them. Even Maggie does not remain a fixed entity, speaking alternately in her own voice, which repeatedly reminds Hilda of her pregnant condition and as a spokeswoman for the conservatory, who delights in pointing out the privileges to which Hilda will never be entitled. The conversation ends with Maggie's suggestion that even her intermittent attempt at consolation, like Hilda's tenuous effort to cope with her rejection, is questionable and that jealousy and envy rather than support underlies the nature of the women's relationship.

The same irony is evident in the abstract conversation of the two unnamed women in “Great Days,” which, unlike the dialogues between two women in The Dead Father that preceded the story and that it otherwise resembles, was, according to Barthelme, a more concrete experiment in combinations that could keep the reader interested without a strong narrative line on which to lean.12 In “Great Days,” the voices of two women are projected against the menacing background of crime reports that sound like broadcasts on an urban police radio frequency, both repetitive and discontinuous. The women worry about growing older, their fading beauty, their uncertain achievements. They attempt to reassure each other with meaningless sentiments from popular song lyrics or current catch-phrases expressing popular wisdom, while hoping for the childlike renewal associated with rainwashed watercolors. “Control used to be the thing,” one of them decides, “Now abandon” (GD 166). In part, the voices constitute a parody of Barthelme's reductive style, bouncing off of, though never quite responding to, what one says to the other. Yet the staccato, elliptical rhythm of their conversation is illuminated by the description one of them gives of her own painting style which is marked by her efforts to “get my colors together. Trying to play one off against another. Trying for cancellation” (GD 159).

The style is Barthelme's as well, and the effort at cancellation expands into a more general statement that is not directed at any identifiable object or made in response to any specific comment but seems to express Barthelme's view of art: a “nonculminating kind of ultimately affectless activity” one of the women calls it (GD 159). Neither focused by some controlling purpose nor generating some precise emotion, it is just that kind of aimless activity the women think of as the great days of their lives filled with concrete if transitory everyday moments of childlike playfulness and enveloping sensory experience. Making mud pies, eating ice cream, singing, they recall, the days were “all perfect and ordinary and perfect” (GD 157). The loss of those days occasions in the women as adults an insatiable need for reassurance and a consequent mistrust of the attempt or even the ability either of lovers or friends to provide it.

Reassurance is also sought in “The Leap,” a story in which antiphonal responses alternate with shifting tonal modulations and philosophies to make it appear the two voices the reader hears are contesting sides of a single personality. Cheered by “the wine of possibility,” one speaker attempts to persuade his companion to make the leap of faith, but only after each has carefully reexamined his conscience and acknowledged the failings it reminds him of. The force of this religious argument is mockingly challenged by the other voice, that of a self-styled double-minded man who wonders whether “He wants us to grovel quite so much?” “I don't think He gives a rap,” his friend replies, “But it's traditional” (GD 151).

The ludicrous consequences of too strict an observance of tradition is suggested by the doubter's insistence on regarding his sins item by item. His mock humility prompts the first speaker to express a hierarchy of values that proves both arbitrary and comically restrictive in its fine discriminations. “I like people better than plants,” he points out, “plants better than animals, paintings better than animals, and music better than animals” (GD 147). This list contrasts with a more comprehensive idea of the sublime to which both men enthusiastically subscribe, one that does not discriminate among alternatives but celebrates the rich variety of earthly phenomena, from a glass of water or the joy of looking at “a woman with really red hair” to the beauty of the human voice. In contrast to the evidence of some religious meaning in existence, the men comment on the human creative impulse responsible for the most banal works of art, the childlike regularity of which both men underscore by alternately quoting the lines of Joyce Kilmer's “Trees,” along with the typographical appearance of the lines on the page. (“‘I think that I shall never see slash A poem lovely as a tree.’”)

Rehearsing the torments of the damned as they are typically phrased in sermons, the two men suggest yet another motive for the leap of faith. Here the man who would make the leap seems to take on the posture of his double-minded antagonist. Reminded of the philosophical argument that “purity of heart is to will one thing” he replies, “No. Here I differ with Kierkegaard. Purity of heart is, rather, to will several things, and not know which is the better, truer thing, and to worry about this, forever” (GD 151). In its complexity, the statement suggests something of the skepticism or hesitancy that inhibits the will to believe. In its concern and consequent anxieties, it points to the urgency of precisely that need and the correlative desire for reassurance.

The two men agree that the divine plan is artificial in its established forms and suspect as it appears to work itself out in the inability of nations to achieve zero population growth or in such individual acts of self-destruction as suicide—a leap away from faith, the first speaker admits—and the impersonal way society deals with it as evidenced by an itemized hospital bill. Nonetheless they acknowledge evidence of the plan can be found in the example of love in all its complexity. “Is it permitted to differ with Kierkegaard?” the double-minded man wonders. “Not only permitted,” he is assured, “but necessary. If you love him,” (GD 152).

With this realization of complexity, even in love, the first speaker concludes by sharing his friend's abruptly confessed inability to make the leap of faith or at least his willingness to delay it and so becomes more in need of reassurance than ever. He finds that reassurance in the appreciation of the chaotic but nonetheless sublime quality of concrete experience in its ordinary forms. “A wedding day,” he suggests. “A plain day,” the double-minded man corrects him, bringing to his uncertainty a measure not only of comfort but of hope.

The broken rhythms of the dialogue stories find an echo not only in the voices of “The King of Jazz” but in the art of its central figure, the trombone player Hokie Mokie who, Barthelme has acknowledged, reflects his interest in the legendary jazz musicians of the 1930s, whose skill at improvisation served as a model for the writer's own strategy of renewing familiar material by unexpected placement of emphasis or by introducing elaborate variations of it. “You'd hear some of these guys take a tired old tune like ‘Who's Sorry Now?’” Barthelme told one interviewer, “and do the most incredible things with it, make it beautiful, literally make it new. The interest and the drama were in the formal manipulation of the rather slight material.”13 The material in “The King of Jazz” recounts the challenge to the newly crowned king, Hokie Mokie, from the Japanese jazz man Hideo Yamaguchi. After an initial performance, Hokie is forced to acknowledge the superiority of Hideo's playing, but in a subsequent encounter Hokie's inspired playing allows him to reclaim his crown, sending Hideo back to Japan with the knowledge of “many years of work and study before me still.” Barthelme takes the opportunity to make fun both of the dated critical vocabulary to which the artist's performance is subjected and the exaggerated enthusiasms it generates. Ironically harking back to the categories of modernism, Hokie's playing is described as having “the real epiphanic glow,” while Hideo's peculiar way of holding his horn prompts the supposedly knowledgeable observation, “That's frequently the mark of a superior player.” Even Hokie's naming of the tune the band will play is greeted with syncophantic adulation: “‘Wow’!” everybody said. “‘Did you hear that? Hokie Mokie can just knock a fella out, just the way he pronounces a word. What a intonation on that boy! God Almighty!’” (GD 56). At length, a description of Hokie's playing yields an improvisation of its own, which parallels the music it attempts to describe and brings together in an ambivalent tone the truly heroic nature of the art and, for Barthelme, the finally inescapable extravagance with which it is greeted. Called upon to identify Hokie's sound, one of the audience supplies the following similes:

“You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of life? That sounds like polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans? That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea? That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mt. Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees in the Appalachian marsh? …”

(GD 59)

The speaker continues to add to the list growing wilder and wilder as he goes on. Unable to end, he is brought to a stop only when he is interrupted by the observation, perhaps meant to shape his own jazzy flights, that Hokie is playing with a mute.

A different sort of performance becomes the subject of “The Death of Edward Lear,” whose hero literally transforms the moment of his death into a vibrant and enduring performance with a life of its own. The situation, dreamlike in its associational logic—the displacement of emotion, and the neutralization of time and space—draws its meaning, like dreams, from the intention of the dreamer, that is to say, from the enactment of his desire rather than the revelatory content of images. This is not to suggest that in Barthelme's fiction history has no meaning; it is to say that imagination brings with it its own deceptions or, more accurately, establishes its own myths. The sources of these myths are found in public, or shared, as well as private visions. Lear invites his public to witness his death, which they prepare to attend with all the confusion and excitement that would accompany their spending a day in the country, but from which they come away “agreed that, all in all, it had been a somewhat tedious performance” (GD 103). Subsequently repertory companies reenact the death scene, which in the course of time, they modify to portray Lear “shouting, shaking, vibrant with rage.” These revivals thus lose sight of the author's intention and, in the process, of his originality and charm. In the whimsical and arbitrary nature of his final acts, the narrator explains, “Mr. Lear had been doing what he had always done and therefore, not doing anything extraordinary. Mr. Lear had transformed the extraordinary into its opposite. He had, in point of fact, created a gentle, genial misunderstanding” (GD 103).

In “Cortes and Montezuma,” events resist interpretation in part because of the distortions that occur when different civilizations view each other's customs solely from the limited perspective provided by their own. Eating white bread appears just as cannibalistic to the Incan culture as human flesh does to the Spanish. Each regards the other's religious practices as equally perverse. “That the Son should be sacrificed,” Montezuma tells Cortes, “seems to me wrong. It seems to me He should be sacrificed to” (GD 46). Cortes responds by replacing an image of the god Blue Hummingbird with one of the Virgin. In more secular terms, Montezuma defines the role of the ruler in a way that parallels the artist Barthelme describes in stories such as “The Balloon,” or, more obliquely, “The Glass Mountain”: he prepares dramas that make it easier for both himself and his subjects to face “the prospect of world collapse, the prospect of the world folding in upon itself …” (GD 47).

It is fiction, however, not the world which threatens to fold in upon itself. Structured in disconnected scenes whose details make them highly visual but which impose strict limits on its own thematic organization, the narrative does not allow the reader to move easily from one episode to the next but rather keeps attention focused on a single action at a time, often as it occurs within a single paragraph. Like the annoying green flies, whose ubiquitous presence is unaccounted for other than as a reminder of a nagging commonplace reality, anachronistic references insistently disrupt the conventional relation between history and invention. “What's he been up to?” Cortes asks in current slang about a member of his expedition while the translator, Dona Marina, walks with one hand tucked inside the belt of her Incan lover, at the back, like a contemporary couple strolling through Greenwich Village. Allusions are made to private detectives, home movies, and to words such as “guillotine,” “temperament,” “entitlement,” “schnell,” some of which have yet to be coined, all of which are clearly out of place in the context of Incan culture.

The attempt throughout, then, is to reduce the mythic stature of these figures to a more human if still unfamiliar history, whose sudden and surprising turns are illustrated in the person of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who, the reader is told, will one day write a True History of the Conquest of New Spain. Bernal is pictured as whittling on a piece of mesquite as though passing a long afternoon telling stories on the porch of a southwest country store. Looked at in one way, these incongruous juxtapositions deflate the fabulous element of the narrative; in another they become themselves magically predictive in the sense indicated by the narrator of “Paraguay” of that mixture of invention and reality.

This tension, typical of Barthelme's fiction, is not limited to linguistic content but rather works its way out from the center of the story—the intimate treatment of legendary figures whose history has become obscured by the mythic significance, in part slyly internalized, to which it has become attached. The same ominous omens—lightning and rain sweeping off the lake—accompany insignificant events such as the building of a chicken coop as well as those of historical importance such as the murder of the Incan ruler. The mixture of levels is similarly illustrated in the Spaniards' search for treasure, which results in the discovery of mummified animals concealed behind a wall but also yields a “puddle” of gold. Both the sound and the meaning of the word “puddle” suggest the banality of experience. Contextually associated with gold, it becomes invested with a more magical sense.

The literal acceptance of even the most unlikely conjunctions is, perhaps, most forcefully conveyed by the uninflected tone used to describe the exchange between the two political antagonists as a variation of the relation between lovers. Cortes and Montezuma hold hands, exchange useless gifts, spy jealously on one another, finally give way to acts of betrayal and scenes of recrimination. Like the course of events, even the imaginative forms through which the two men attempt to anticipate and so understand them remain outside their control. In a concluding ghostly confrontation, Montezuma reproaches his friend for failing to alter the outcome of a dream which Cortes did not have and which he did not even appear in. “I did what I thought best,” Cortes had earlier explained to the Emperor Charles of Spain, “proceeding with gaiety and conscience.” It is Montezuma who unaccountably replies, “I am murdered” (GD 51). It is the gaiety to which the reader is particularly directed. Without it, as one learns from the two often stand-up-comic voices exchanging questions and replies in “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” one has nothing with which to face the “imbecile questions,” which look for a pattern in life, the unsatisfying answers, and the inescapable fact that things appear to lead nowhere.

All art, the reader can infer, takes as its informing purpose, the attempt to express “the possible plus two,” which is found in the example of the 400,000 welded steel artichokes constructed by the artist-hero of “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” In doing so, however, it must follow the example in that story of the artist's former girlfriend, Constanze, who does not compromise her values by her decision to move in with a wealthy car dealer but who continues to live “in a delicate relation to the real.” And though the artist has lost his muse to the attractions held out by the Plymouth Dealer, who updates Mozart's Pasha as a representative (though somewhat less benevolent) of a self-indulgent society, he pronounces this qualified though still ultimately upbeat benediction: “We adventured. That's not bad” (GD 95).

Published in 1983, Overnight to Many Distant Cities, Barthelme's eighth volume of short fiction is, in many ways, his most innovative collection. Several of Barthelme's familiar themes are easily recognizable, among them the anxieties of urban life, the fragility of domestic arrangements, the transience of romance, the qualities of sadness and beauty that inform the awareness of time, and the moments of perceived vitality that mark as luminous its passage. Yet the 12 stories that make up the volume take on a less ironic, more personal voice than that which typically marks Barthelme's earlier work. These full-length stories are counterpointed by the inclusion of brief (typically no more than 2 or 3 pages), italicized interchapters, which adopt a tone of nuanced sophistication that challenges the conventional relations between the order of things and the order of words, challenges, that is, the different ways in which structure or fictive order is imposed upon the dizzying impact of experience. In one of them, for example, two women, described as gift-wrapped, are initially pictured wearing nothing but web belts to which canteens are attached. The women appear in a succession of situations initially located in the indeterminate space of a performance art work by Yves Klein (“Nowhere—the middle of it, its exact center”).14 Subsequently the scene shifts to an architectural office where they sit before a pair of drafting tables, a lumberyard in southern Illinois, the composing room of an Akron, Ohio, newspaper, New York City, where they appear first as taxi drivers then as loan officers in a bank, and finally to an archeological dig in the Cameroons. Intermittently the women excite satyr-like young men who “squirm and dance under this treatment, hanging from hooks, while giant eggs, seated in red plush chairs, boil” (O 70). Figures ranging from the Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin in an asbestos tuxedo to Benvenuto Cellini and the French painter Georges de La Tour, both wearing white overalls, appear in the background. The surreal quality of the images (La Tour, who watches the women in a film, is subsequently pictured in the lobby of the theater opening a bag of M& Ms with his teeth) prohibits any interpretation other than to suggest that women, particularly in their nakedness, constitute somewhat troublesome gifts and also breathtaking works of art that are drawn from the most representative kinds of experience.

The sly undercutting of the ideal is directed toward art no less than life in the first interchapter of the volume which envisions a utopian city much like that of Barthelme's earlier story “Paraguay,” and begins abruptly with the narrator's remark, “They called for more structure, then …” (O 9). There is no indication of who has made the request, what kind of structure is required, or even the nature of what has already been built. While the story is filled with a wide range of contemporary allusions, none appear in recognizable contexts or satisfy conventional expectations so that it is not so much another world that is glimpsed as this one slightly out of focus. Clad in red Lego, for example, the city is spread out in the shape of the word FASTIGIUM, which proves to be not its name but a set of letters selected for the elegance of the script. Even the structure which follows the initial request is achieved by the use of materials with surprising characteristics—“big hairy four-by-fours [are nailed] into place with railroad spikes” (O 9) while the impermanence of the whole is suggested by specified areas designed to decay and so return in time to open space.

The fluid architectural design serves equally as a paradigm of Barthelme's own fiction in which the elements of fantasy do not so much displace or even alternate with reality as exist side by side with it. In another interchapter, the narrator puts a name in an envelope which, like a children's counting song, he continues to expand until the succession of envelopes and objects stuffed into them includes the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Danish Ballet, boric acid, and the entire history of art. All are compressed into a new blue suit which walks away on its own, an action that suggests something of both the compression and the autonomy of art.

The casual acceptance of the bizarre as part of the ordinary lies at the center of yet another interchapter (reprinted in Forty Stories, where it is given the title “Pepperoni”) which describes in matter-of-fact terms a daily newspaper in which the editorials have been subcontracted to Texas Instruments, the obituaries to Nabisco, and in which the reporters form a chamber orchestra that plays Haydn in the newsroom. The incongruities that mark the running of the paper are highlighted in the selection as the page-one lead of a story on pepperoni—“a useful and exhaustive guide”—run alongside instructions on “slimming-your-troublesome-thighs” with pictures (O 25).

Strangely appealing, obscurely menacing, this anti-utopian world in which the trivial takes so prominent a place blends with the everyday in the concluding interchapter, which describes in surrealistic terms, among other things, the decoration of a Christmas tree and a party which possibly follows at which the guests include both thieves and deans of cathedrals. The setting is a magical forest, alive with sensuality and far from Western civilization. In this fairy-tale world in which inanimate objects come to life women at one point partner themselves with large bronze hares (which may also be Christmas tree ornaments) while the narrator's companion jealously regards the already-beautiful who stand watching with various exotic animals cradled in their arms. Despite the unpredictability of events and the tensions to which they seem to give rise, the narrator insists, “This life is better than any I have lived, previously” (O 164). Even the weather, perhaps the most insistent reminder of the unpredictability of human affairs, continues to be splendid. “It is remarkable,” the narrator concludes in what finally appears to be the judgment of the volume, “how well human affairs can be managed, with care” (165).

To such tranquility, however, Barthelme seldom fails to append a cautionary qualification chiefly directed at the relationships which describe much of our contemporary domestic arrangements. In one of the interchapters a wife catalogs the history of a marriage while her husband remains absorbed in the idiosyncratic events chronicled in his newspaper, indifferent even to her complaint that a guest he has brought home occupies himself exclusively with eating mashed potatoes in a back room of their apartment. In “Visitors,” the initial full-length story of the volume, Bishop, a divorced father, nearing 50, struggles to bring order to a career which includes caring for a teen-aged daughter visiting at his small apartment during the summer. He must also deal with the end of an idyllic affair with a younger woman and with the various uncertainties and incongruities of city life presented in a catalog that establishes the documentary logic of ennumeration Barthelme typically relies on in place of linear development to structure his narrative. Taking a walk down West Broadway, the narrator encounters “citizens parading, plump-faced and bone-faced, lightly clad. A young black boy toting a Board of Education trombone case. A fellow with oddly-cut hair the color of marigolds and a roll of roofing felt over his shoulder” (16). After Bishop gives his daughter a mock lecture on art, the story concludes with an enigmatic scene he witnesses in an apartment across the way of two old ladies who habitually breakfast by candelight. Bishop cannot decide whether they are incurably romantic or simply trying to save money on electricity, and the alternate interpretations, which serve as well as a paradigm for the responses the story itself invites, suggest the choices no less than the limits which experience simultaneously holds out.

The disconnection that brings to such unusual circumstances a disturbing sense of the commonplace marks the adventures of the eponymous hero of “Captain Blood.” “When Captain Blood goes to sea,” the story begins, “he locks the doors and windows of his house on Cow Island personally” (O 59). Though Blood more exotically keeps marmalade and a spider monkey in his cabin, his pockets are filled with mothballs, and he notes with satisfaction the decorous behavior of his crew. Blood, the buccaneer, is nonetheless plagued by the conventional anxieties of any responsible business entrepreneur. “Should he try another course?” he wonders after a long period during which he is unable to capture any booty, “Another ocean?” (O 60). His adventures, which culminate with an unlikely battle in which he first defeats then gallantly frees John Paul Jones, are anchored if not exactly in reality then at least in a more factual illusion by lists that contain a mixture of the prosaic and the spectacular. These include the names of the ships he has captured as well as the value of his prizes. Ultimately there is a description of the Catalonian sardana, a dance which, Blood “frequently dances with his men, in the middle of the ocean, after lunch, to the music of a single silver trumpet” (O 65). The image of the trumpet evokes a sense of wonder which the wry qualification “after lunch” makes sure to anchor in the requirements of the everyday.

The mystery that informs the everyday continues to resist explanation for Connors, a free-lance journalist in “Lightning,” who is given the assignment of interviewing nine people who had been struck by lightning. Middle-aged, barely scraping by after a brief period of affluence, Connors is nonetheless able to reclaim his journalistic integrity only after his wife leaves him for a racquetball pro. He is himself figuratively struck by lightning when, in the course of his assignment, he meets Edwina, a beautiful black model with whom he falls instantly in love. For Edwina, as for the others Connors interviews, it is the pragmatic rather than dramatic effects of the experience that are significant. One man becomes a Jehovah's Witness, another subsequently joins the Nazi Party, a woman subsequently marries a man she had been seeing for two years, a Trappist monk is able to indulge his passion for rock music, and someone dumb from birth is, after being struck, able to begin speaking fluent French. Missing the underlying fact—the lack of drama for the people who must live their lives as subjects of it—Connor is unable to find a common denominator for these experiences and unsuccessfully attempts to impart to them a religious significance. His story, however, both begins and ends with the transient earthly beauty of Edwina, which his editor, Penfield, calls “approximately fantastic.” The self-qualifying terms of the description suggest the inexplicable mixture of the extraordinary and the human imperfection which necessarily limits both our approach to and understanding of it and which consequently locates the value of experience in its surface rather than in some transcendent meaning.

In “Affection,” emotional intensity similarly emerges less in contrast to the irritating sameness of domestic routine than as a consequence of it. Harris, the husband in a shaky marriage, his wife Claire, his mistress Sarah, all express the need for affection in repetitive appeals whose self-absorbed demands for fulfillment at length merge into a dreamlike blending of figures and relationships. His complaints of infidelity, of sickness, of sexual inadequacy, of the lack of understanding are greeted with indifference, even boredom, by the fortune teller Madame Olympia, who Harris consults only to hear his own domestic quarrels repeated in the experience of her other clients.

The attempt to rehearse the poverty of one's environment is wittily mocked by a T-shirt Madame Olympia wears on which is printed the ironic legend “Buffalo, City of No Illusions.” Like Dr. Whorf, the psychiatrist Sarah consults, Olympia can do little to relieve the misery and estrangement she is told about other than to convert them into cliches. It is the same strategy the story itself employs in a series of melodramatic alternatives intrusively proposed as possibilities for narrative development. “Did they consent to sign it?” an unidentified voice asks without specifying what document needed to be signed or who the signatories were, “Has there been weight loss? … Have they been audited?” (O 32).

While Harris finds anger and resentment erupting in even the conventional situation of a husband leaving for work in the morning, Claire quotes with approval a statement she attributes to Freud about the need for novelty in order to achieve orgasm. Yet it is the memory of the domestic scene of Sarah nearsightedly groping for toothpaste in the morning that most moves Harris, and Claire finds an enduring object of affection finally in the jazz pianist Sweet Papa Cream Puff who mixes nostalgic reminiscence with barefaced invention. Like the trumpet player Hokie Mokie in Barthelme's earlier “The King of Jazz,” Papa Cream Puff is aware of his reputation and of the need to maintain it in the face of youthful challenge. He does so, however, not by inspired performance alone but by studying his opponent, so that he has “two or three situations on the problem” (O 33). Responding to the surprising possibilities that, at least in part, emerge as a comic accompaniment to Sweet Papa Cream Puff's playing as well as to the steady brilliance of his performance, Claire joyfully embraces him with sudden and unself-conscious pleasure.

In a final abrupt shift, signaled as is each of the preceding scenes by blank space, the story concludes—or almost concludes—with an insistently repeated “What?” echoing the inability to hear each other that at its start comically counterpoints the efforts of Claire and Harris to prepare dinner. The couple nonetheless achieve an optimistic if not necessarily permanent reconciliation when Harris unexpectedly makes some money in the stock market. Like Sweet Papa Cream Puff's boast of having written a piece called “Verklarte Nacht,” which he explains innocently means “stormy weather,” invention thus makes fun of itself. Conventionally, repeated statement establishes an exclusively linguistic and so artificial environment in which words appear unfamiliar and so strange. Here the repetition parallels the nature of the exchanges between the characters and, in fact, invites the narrative presence directly into the world they inhabit. The triumph of the everyday is startlingly confirmed by the sudden emergence of the narrator for whom, he himself admits, the act of washing the newsprint of the daily paper off his hands constitutes an affirmation of routine through which he can continue to assert his own value.

The spilling over of the framing and fictive levels of narrative into one another—a device which in one form or another Barthelme has employed in stories such as “The Balloon,” “Daumier,” “Rebecca,” or “On the Deck,” among the more often noted examples—sends the reader outside the text to its structure for response, that is to say, directs one to the kinds of associations it establishes rather than to the narrative possibilities it invites. The illusion of an imagined world made accessible through the transparency of a narrative voice is further discredited by an unlikely reversal in which all difficulties are resolved by abrupt statement rather than by a sequence of actions consistent with what is known of the characters. It may be that this distortion of reality as much as anything else prompts Harris or the narrator—it is hard to be sure which—to urge Claire, as his last word, to smile. Yet the banal and somewhat artificial affirmation, associated with the posed awareness and fixity exhibited by the subject of a photograph, evokes an affectionate frame in which to regard those insistent if unanswerable questions that continue to provide both a challenge and a reassurance by being asked.

The triumph of ordinary interaction over the uncertainties which prevent any response to experience is confirmed by Thomas, the narrator of “The Sea of Hesitation,” who abandons his efforts to change human behavior and takes instead a job processing applications for an office of the city bureaucracy called the Human Effort Administration. He has resolved insofar as possible to let people do what they want to do. Though Thomas acknowledges that “my work is, in many ways meaningless,” (O 96), the substitution in this way of process for result, allows him to cope with the demands of his former wife that he help make life more comfortable for her and her current lover, to endure with equanimity the angry letters of a former mistress, and to listen sympathetically to the idiosyncratic interest of a current one who is absorbed in a defense of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate cause.

Like his brother Paul, who is happiest doing work other than that for which his formal training has prepared him and who has to read the daily paper in order to relieve his depression, Thomas struggles with the exaggerations of the present. At the same time, he rejects the preoccupation with the past of his friend Francesca, who is persuaded that in an earlier existence she was one of Balzac's mistresses. Even great writers, Francesca is convinced, suffer moments of doubt and concludes “The seeking after greatness is a sickness … It is like greed, only greed has better results” (O 101). Neither greatness nor greed finally prove appealing to Thomas, who rejects even truth in favor of volition and the pursuit of possibility. They are achieved, he concludes, finally only in some form of human desire and of love, which allow him to cross the Sea of Hesitation that separates him, as it does so many of Barthelme's characters, from the fulfillment possible only in the society of others. “Some people,” Thomas concludes wistfully, after an idyllic description of the urgencies which mark the beginning of an affair, “have forgotten how to want” (O 105).

That the goal of human effort is the transient condition of love is suggested as well in “Terminus,” which describes the affair between a married man and a younger woman which takes place during the unnamed couple's stay as guests in the Hotel Terminus. Despite the knowledge that the affair must end shortly and the tensions which consequently trouble even the most playful exchanges between the lovers, the joy they take in one another leads the man to behave “as if something were possible, still” (O 115). The judgment the story makes is more explicitly expressed by the woman who celebrates sensuality even in the acknowledgment of its transience. “That which exists,” she reminds him,” is more perfect than that which does not” (O 116).

In the concluding story of Overnight to Many Distant Cities, which gives its name to the volume, the narrator assembles what appear to be a series of journal entries which provide a history of his visits to various cities around the world ranging from Stockholm to Taegu, South Korea. The entries consist of anecdotes, commentary, sometimes even accounts of meals he has eaten. In San Antonio the narrator argues for adultery as a normative activity, in Copenhagen he goes shopping with some Hungarian friends who are starved for Western material goods, in Mexico City, as a teenager, he runs away from home, in Berlin he is unsettled by the stares his evident happiness with a companion draws from bystanders. Occasionally the accounts are political—an Israeli journalist explains the complex politics of the Middle East, the Swedish prime minister good-naturedly accounts for the high cost of liquor in his country, the narrator is himself enlisted by a writer from an Iron Curtain country to smuggle some writing to the West.

The absence of connection as well as the relative pointlessness of the notations once again establish Barthelme's compositional principle as that of subtraction. “In London,” one of the entries begins, “I met a man who was not in love” (O 171). The man's desperate insistence serves only to confirm the narrator's conviction of the value of love even as he acknowledges the frequency of his own divorces. “Show me a man who has not married a hundred times,” he remarks, “and I'll show you a wretch who does not deserve the world” (O 174). Finally it is the world or more accurately the people and events he encounters which, with or without meaning or connection, constitute the redeeming fact of existence merely by virtue of their being. Despite the unpredictability of things, underscored by weather bulletins that intermittently punctuate the central action, it is the world even with its minor imperfections (unreliable electricity in Barcelona) that leaves the narrator—and the volume itself—pleasing the Holy Ghost with his praise and in an “ecstasy of admiration for what is” they share a communal meal.


  1. “Not-Knowing,” Georgia Review 39 (Fall 1985): 522.

  2. Wayne B. Stengel, The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985) 161.

  3. Sixty Stories (New York: Putnam's, 1981) 420.

  4. Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Selected Tales and Poems, ed. Richard Chase (New York: Holt, 1964) 92. Further page references will be noted in parentheses.

  5. The importance of rhetoric to Melville's story is perceptively examined by Sanford Pinsker, whose suggestive reading in “‘Bartleby the Scrivener’: Language as Wall,” College Literature 2 (1975): 17-22 stands out among the unrelenting critical notice the story continues to receive. Pinsker argues that language itself constitutes a wall of rhetoric behind which the lawyer's facile optimism attempts to falsify the dark knowledge of irrationality that Bartleby's enigmatic silence refuses to blink. Though I share Pinsker's view of the importance the story places on dealing with the irrational, I find far more sympathetic Melville's treatment of the lawyer and of the limits implicit in his use of language as well as his self-awareness of the comic possibilities of inflated rhetoric.

  6. Quoted in Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists, ed. Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983) 33.

  7. “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,” Sadness (New York: Farrar, 1972) 3-4. Further references to Barthelme's works discussed in this chapter will be given in the text and indicated by the following abbreviations: Sadness; S; Amateurs; A; Great Days; GD; Overnight to Many Distant Cities; O.

  8. Alan Wilde, Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981) 170. For the importance of the ordinary to Barthelme as a suspensive value against the hopelessness and outrage, against the sheer intractability of things, I am indebted to Wilde's indispensable study.

  9. R. E. Johnson, Jr., “Bees Barking in the Night: The Beginning of Donald Barthelme's Narrative,” Boundary 2 5 (1977): 78.

  10. John M. Ditsky, “‘With Ingenuity and Hard Work, Distracted’: The Narrative Style of Donald Barthelme,” Style 9 (Summer 1975): 394-95.

  11. J. D. O'Hara, “Donald Barthelme: The Art of Fiction LXVI” Paris Review 80 (1981): 197.

  12. O'Hara 197.

  13. O'Hara 185.

  14. Overnight to Many Distant Cities (New York: Putnam's, 1983), 68. Further page references will be noted in parentheses.

Brian McHale and Moshe Ron (essay date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: McHale, Brian, and Ron, Moshe. “On Not-Knowing How to Read Barthelme's ‘The Indian Uprising.’” Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 2 (summer 1991): 50-68.

[In the following essay, McHale and Ron describe the difficulties of collaborating on a close reading of “The Indian Uprising.”]

The writer is a man who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.

—Donald Barthelme, “Not-Knowing”


When, early in 1989, the two of us began to collaborate on a project involving Barthelme's story “The Indian Uprising,” we both knew and did not know what to do. We knew we wanted to undertake a close reading of “The Indian Uprising,” for reasons we could specify: because critics have tended to shy away from fine-grained, continuous analysis of postmodernist texts, with the implication—perhaps inadvertent but in any case, in our view, unjustified—that such texts could not sustain analysis of this kind; and because we aspired (no doubt hubristically) to produce model close readings in the postmodernist paradigm analogous to those produced by Brooks and Warren in the New Critical paradigm. We did not know what such a postmodernist close reading would look like; we only knew, negatively, that it could not take for granted the kinds of assumptions that underwrote New Critical close reading (closure, unity, functionality and intelligibility of every element, etc.), which had been rendered untenable by skeptical reflections on language and meaning. We thought that, between us, we knew quite a lot about “The Indian Uprising,” one of us (Ron) having translated it into Hebrew, the other (McHale) having described elements of it in a book on postmodernist fiction. We did not know whether we could reach some joint understanding about the text which would be acceptable to both of us, or, if we did, how we could shape this joint understanding into a piece of writing.

Our project was not without precedents, but the nearest precedent was minatory rather than encouraging. In his essay called “Not-Knowing,” in the context of remarks on “critical imperialism” and the “element of aggression” in certain kinds of critical attention, Barthelme describes a run-in with a close reader:

A couple of years ago I received a letter from a critic requesting permission to reprint a story of mine as an addendum to the piece he had written about it. He attached a copy of my story he proposed to reproduce, and I was amazed to find that my poor story had sprouted a set of tiny numbers—one to eighty-eight, as I recall—an army of tiny numbers marching over the surface of my poor distracted text. … I gave him permission to do what he wished, but I did notice that by a species of literary judo the status of my text had been reduced to that of footnote.1

The story in question was “The Zombies,” and the close reader was Carl Malmgren, whose essay, “Barthes's S/Z and Barthelme's ‘The Zombies’: A Cacographic Interruption of a Text,” appeared in the journal PTL (1978). We knew the piece well, McHale, as assistant editor of PTL, having had a hand in its publication; we knew it well enough to recognize how Barthelme had shaped the incident to his own rhetorical purposes. Malmgren had, indeed, interpolated index numbers in Barthelme's text—but forty of them, not eighty-eight. More to the point, Barthelme fails to remark on the distinctly unacademic tone of Malmgren's piece, which is so shifty and ironic as to lead one to suspect that this may be less an “application” of Barthes's S/Z model of textual commentary to Barthelme's text than a sly parody of Barthes. If there is “literary judo” in Malmgren's essay, it may well be Barthes who has been flipped to the mat, not Barthelme. Indeed, Malmgren's jujitsu strategy here (if that's what it is) bears a good deal of resemblance to Barthelme's own elusive ironies, to the point that this essay might be read as a pastiche of, or even homage to, Barthelme. In that case, perhaps Barthelme's testiness can be seen as a kind of backhanded testimony to the accuracy of Malmgren's pastiche.

In any case, Barthelme's account of the incident served as a warning to us about the risks of critical imperialism, real or perceived. We felt that Malmgren had actually shown considerable restraint in his treatment of Barthelme's text, allowing for a good deal of latitude or “play” in the text and not claiming to have said the last word about it or to have finally mastered it; yet even this degree of critical restraint evidently did not satisfy Barthelme (for whatever reasons). How were we to proceed in the light of this precedent? How were we to leave room for “not-knowing”—the writer's, the text's, our own—while at the same time pursuing our goal of knowing?


“We defended the city as best we could.”2 So begins Barthelme's “The Indian Uprising.” Our problem was, which side were we on? (“‘Which side are you on,’ I cried, ‘after all?’”—the narrator to Sylvia, § 20.) Were we defending the city of narrative intelligibility, asserting the familiar forms of sense-making against the anarchic onslaught of the Comanches of indeterminacy? Or did we identify with the Comanches—were we really, like the “people of the ghetto” and the girls of the narrator's quarter, fifth columnists, proposing forms of intelligibility only in order to explode them, thereby “demonstrating” how the text first invites, then undermines its readers' attempts to make familiar kinds of sense of it? To do the first would be in effect to regress to New Critical reading practices, which would reflect extreme bad faith on our part, in view of all we knew about the untenability of New Critical positions: you can't go home again. But to do the second would be to subject Barthelme's text to what has already become a post-structuralist critical cliché. It would be, in effect, to follow the recipe for poststructuralist reading: set up, as a straw man, some totalizing interpretation (typically, one so naïve that no real reader would ever endorse it), then have the “text” (actually, your own critical discourse interpolated into the text) knock the straw man down. But who would be interested to read such an analysis? Not students, for its pedagogical value is zero; not our fellow critics, for they could follow the recipe as easily as we could, and do the job for themselves.

How to begin?3 “We propose to begin,” we wrote, “reading ‘naïvely,’ that is, linearly, sentence by sentence and passage by passage in the order that the text offers itself to us, reporting on our experience of reading the unfolding text—the sense we can make of it as it unfolds, the obstacles to sense-making that arise to block our progress.” But this was disingenuous. We very early recognized that we could not hope to pursue this “naïve,” “linear” reading to the end of the story, for our annotations would proliferate endlessly, finally swamping the text; this, after all, is what Barthes demonstrated with such bravado in S/Z, where a meager story spawns hundreds of pages of annotation, and, while this was an effective demonstration the first time around, to repeat it would only be redundant. Moreover, to annotate the “unfolding text” would be unfaithful to what we knew the reader's experience of this text, or any other text, to be like. No reader, however naïve, actually reads “sentence by sentence and passage by passage”; all readers also read “vertically,” so to speak, seeking out the familiar underlying structures that the particular text in question shares with others. In other words, in order adequately to capture the reader's experience of even so unconventional a narrative text as “The Indian Uprising” we needed to take into account the structuralist insight “that underneath the variety and contingency of the text lie abstract structures which all competent readers presumably ‘know’ or have in some sense mastered, but which can only be made available for inspection and analysis through a methodological reduction of the text to its underlying structure.”

In undertaking this “methodological reduction,” we took for our model the actantial analysis practiced by A. J. Greimas.4 In terms of this model, “The Indian Uprising” may be reduced to the narrative proposition “Subject loses Object,” where “Subject” and “Object” represent not characters as such, but roles. The story can be made to yield this abstraction if we agree to match the actantial model against the story's actor personnel roughly as follows:

Subject = we, I.

Object = city, Sylvia (she, you), and other women.

Anti-Subject = Comanches, Kenneth.

Helper = defenders and barricades, Miss R.? Block?

Opponent = Miss R.? Block?5

Where was the profit in submitting the story to such a radical reduction? For us, the profit lay in the insight that this same abstract scheme applied equally to each of the three distinct stories that coexist in “The Indian Uprising.” It is as if the text were layered, each story occupying a separate “plane” and drawing on a distinct area of the total semantic material of the text, yet each nevertheless conformable to one and the same underlying narrative proposition, “Subject loses Object,” and to a parallel (though not identical) distribution of actantial roles.

The three concurrent and parallel stories we proposed to distinguish in the text of “The Indian Uprising” were these:

(1) The public-political story. This is the story, named in the title of the text, of violent conflict between Comanche attackers and citizen-defenders for possession of the city. The Subject and his Helpers (i.e., the narrator and his fellow defenders) lose the Object (the city, security, the good things of upper-middle-class urban life) to the Anti-Subject (the Comanches and their allies, including the “ghetto-dwellers” [§ 13], and girls of the narrator's quarter, Sylvia conspicuous among them). We wrote:

Any historical narrative of a war of liberation or resistance is a potentially relevant context for reading “The Indian Uprising.” This is because its underlying plot-pattern is capable of being mapped onto that of any of these historical narratives [viz., the Algerian uprising against the French, the Afghan resistance to the Red Army, the Palestinian intifada], but also because the text of “The Indian Uprising” systematically prevents our making an association with any one particular historical context. The text is riddled with deliberate anachronisms from its very first sentences: Comanches besiege what is obviously a late-twentieth-century city; war clubs mingle with zip guns, lances and fire-arrows with helicopter gunships.6 By conflating such a range of historical conflicts, the text “disqualifies” itself from representing any particular conflict and signals its availability to be read as, in effect, an allegory of historical conflicts of a certain type. Nevertheless, if all wars of national liberation are potentially relevant contexts for reading “The Indian Uprising,” two such cases impose themselves on our attention as particularly relevant. One is, of course, the Indian wars themselves, especially in the form in which that conflict has been represented in countless movie Westerns—except that in Barthelme's version the repressed “natives” return, like America's bad conscience, to reclaim what had been expropriated from them. The other is the war approaching its height of ferocity and divisiveness in the very year (1968) in which Barthelme published “The Indian Uprising” in book form, namely, of course, the war in Vietnam. To read “The Indian Uprising” as an allegory of the Vietnam War seems not just plausible but irresistible, particularly since the analogies between the Indian wars and the Vietnam War, between Comanches (or Apaches) and Viet Cong, have become a commonplace of discourses about and representations of the Vietnam War.7

(2) The erotic-biographical story. This is the parallel story of the narrator's unsatisfactory private (in particular erotic) life, his course of therapy with Miss R., and (presumably) his final breakdown. In transposing the conflict of “The Indian Uprising” into a personal and psychological key, the actantial roles are reassigned. Obviously the Subject remains the “I” of the narrator, but the Object of his desire is no longer, as in the public-political narrative, the city (that is, the way of life threatened by the Indian uprising), but a desired woman (Sylvia, who may or may not be identical with “you”) or desirable women in general, generic Woman, in fact a series of interchangeable women with whom the narrator has apparently had unsatisfactory, or at any rate unenduring relationships (Nancy, Alice, Eunice, Marianne [§ 9]). The Anti-Subject role is assigned to the narrator's rivals for these women's affections, in particular Kenneth (whose coat Sylvia evidently loves [§ 18]), while the Helper role is ambiguously occupied by the therapist, Miss R. There appear to be four sessions with Miss R. distributed through the text (§ 11, 13, 21, 26). We meet Miss R. for the last time (§ 26) when she strips the narrator of his belt and shoelaces (“Skin,” she orders him, i.e., “Strip down”), as one would do when admitting a prisoner to jail—or a patient to a mental institution?—and introduces him to the Clemency Committee. If Miss R.'s course of therapy was meant to save the narrator from his own private demons, it appears to have failed, for at the story's end he comes face-to-face with “savage black eyes, paint, feathers, beads”: madness personified?

(3) The cultural-historical story. On this third plane the story of attack and defense is recast in terms of movements in cultural history, the defenders aligning themselves with the values of literary (and more generally aesthetic) modernism, while the attacking Comanches align themselves with what we might call (though Barthelme himself does not) postmodernism. Less explicit than either the public-political or the erotic-biographical stories, the narrative on this plane is conducted in a coded discourse of literary and other allusions, mostly to high-modernist writers (or their Symbolist precursors): T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land, possibly other texts as well), Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), Valéry, Baudelaire (“Au Lecteur”).8

What exactly the citizens of this modern city are defending is perhaps suggested by sentences like this one: “Patrols of paras and volunteers with armbands guarded the tall, flat buildings” (§ 2). Why “tall, flat buildings”? This would seem to be an allusion to the steel frame and glass curtain-wall skyscrapers of the modernist International Style, and thus, by extension, to the values of aesthetic modernism in general. Even more intransigent in her defense of modernist values is Miss R., in whose aesthetic credo (§ 21) it is possible to detect an echo of the modernist period's linguistic skepticism and the minimalist poetics of some of its most influential writers. Miss R. endorses “the hard, brown, nutlike word”: so did modernist prose stylists like Gertrude Stein and her most apt pupil, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway's aesthetic of the short, punchy sentence and the hard, brown, nutlike word was partly inspired by a profound skepticism, which he shared with others of his generation, about language itself, a medium which had proven to be all too malleable to the purposes of demagogues and ideologues. The philosophical version of this poetics of linguistic skepticism is identified above all with Wittgenstein, the final proposition of whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Miss R. also paraphrases: “I believe our masters and teachers as well as plain citizens should confine themselves to what can safely be said.”9

If modernist aesthetics is the cause in need of defense, who or what is its enemy? In terms of the Greimasian actantial model, who is the Anti-Subject here? Again, the answer is encoded in a discourse of cultural allusions:

“What do you want to be?” I asked Kenneth and he said he wanted to be Jean-Luc Godard but later when time permitted conversations in large, lighted rooms, whispering galleries with black-and-white Spanish rugs and problematic sculpture on calm, red catafalques.

(§ 25)

Anomalously, this sentence names an artist whom many would call post-modernist. Perhaps Kenneth is thinking specifically of Godard's film Weekend, in which hippie tribesmen slaughter middle-class vacationers, like insurgent Comanches overwhelming the city's defenders in “The Indian Uprising.” When and where does Kenneth hope to get to “be” Godard? Not now but later, and in “rooms” and “galleries” which are evidently those of a museum. In other words, Kenneth would be willing to model himself on Godard, but only after the Godard aesthetic will already have been safely canonized, only after it will have received the kind of cultural imprimatur that museums bestow.

“The implication,” we wrote,

is that the figures of the modernist tradition to whom this text mainly alludes—Mann, Eliot, Valéry, Baudelaire—have already been canonized, monumentalized: they are museum figures.10 Godard's aesthetics, however, have not yet been canonized, and thus remain outside and in opposition to the monumentalism of canonical high-modernist aesthetics, still too “wild” for a cautious modernist epigone like Kenneth. The enemy of this late and epigonic modernism, then, can only be the “wildness” of Godard and, more generally, of the postmodernist aesthetics that (in 1968) was just appearing on the cultural horizon. Though oriented towards modernism and recapitulating classic high-modernist positions, “The Indian Uprising” is a text which nevertheless anticipates a certain post-modernism, by reason of its own “wildness.” For despite its weave of modernist allusions, the actual poetics of “The Indian Uprising” has more to do with the postmodernism of, say, Godard's Weekend than it does with the high modernism of Mann, Eliot, or Valéry.


Very quickly our analysis of “The Indian Uprising” into these three parallel stories, all conformable to the same Greimasian scheme, began to run into more or less intractable difficulties. Foremost among our difficulties were these:

(1) An inherent indeterminacy in narrative structure itself. Our attempt to reduce “The Indian Uprising” to its abstract structure in terms of Greimas's actantial model brought to light an element of indeterminacy and perspectivism in the model itself. The distribution of roles (on the plane of the public-political story in particular) depends upon identifying the Subject position, and though “I,” the narrator, certainly occupies the subject position in the discourse of the text, this does not ipso facto make him the actantial Subject. Indeed, the text's ironies are such that there is room for regarding him (and his fellow-defenders) as occupying the Anti-Subject position, the true Subject of desire being the Comanches, who struggle with the Anti-Subject to (re)possess the Object of their desire (the city). “Once this reading has been proposed,” we wrote, “it seems almost the more intuitive one, less forced than the reading which treats the Comanches as Anti-Subject.” And we went on:

The ease with which the story can be turned inside out, as it were, perhaps points to fundamental instability in narrative structure itself. For all the assignments of roles in the actantial model, as well as the formulation of the abstract narrative proposition underlying the story, are determined by the positioning of the Subject: change the position of the Subject (from the narrator to the Comanches, say), and all the other role assignments swing around, while the underlying narrative proposition literally turns inside out. In other words, it is the perspective of the Subject that orients the entire actantial paradigm. The reversibility of a story such as “The Indian Uprising” may indicate an inherent instability in all narrative structure, so that the bedrock on which we thought we were building our reading turns out to be much less firm than we had supposed.

This discovery of what might be called the “structural perspectivism” inherent in the actantial model tends to confirm one of the predictions we made at the outset of our project, namely that “The Indian Uprising” would prove to be “a postmodernist critique of narrative reason.”

(2) The problem of integrating the three narrative planes. It did not seem satisfactory merely to distinguish the three stories without trying to determine whether and how they could be integrated, and here immediately we encountered difficulties. For the materials we could identify as belonging to different stories were merely abruptly juxtaposed in the text, in successive sentences or sometimes even within the same sentence, without the expected signals of transition from one represented situation to another:

… the coat was a trap and inside a Comanche who made a thrust with his short, ugly knife at my leg which buckled and tossed me over the balustrade through a window and into another situation. Not believing that your body brilliant as it was and your fat, liquid spirit distinguished and angry as it was were stable quantities … I said: “See the table?”

(§ 19)

The effect is like that of cinematic jump-cutting, but jump-cutting of a particularly enigmatic kind, leaving it to the reader to determine whether successive sequences could be integrated in the same “situation,” or even the same world, and if so, how.

For example, in the text's opening paragraph we cut abruptly from material obviously belonging to the public-political story of the uprising (“There were earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark and the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire. People were trying to understand”) to a domestic vignette: “I spoke to Sylvia. ‘Do you think this is a good life?’ The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. ‘No.’” The next paragraph returns to the uprising situation (“Patrols of paras and volunteers with armbands guarded the tall, flat buildings”), narrating a brutal interrogation of a Comanche captive and a somewhat puzzling maneuver to reinforce the defensive line, and then cuts back, again without transition, to material from the erotic-biographical story: “And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love. We talked.” Now, a sanctioned interpretive move, in the face of such a disjointed sequence, would involve treating the domestic scenes as exemplary private moments of crisis within the larger panorama of the public crisis of the uprising. Sylvia and the narrator, we might hypothesize, are examples of the “people” who were “trying to understand” the public crisis in which they find themselves. Perhaps the juxtaposition of the torture scene and the narrator's ensuing conversation with Sylvia is designed to make some (rather banal) point about the ironies of atrocity, namely, that even torturers have private lives, that one moment they may be pouring water into a prisoner's nostrils while the next they behave like any “normal” person, getting drunk, falling in love.

But of course this is not the only interpretive move available, not even necessarily the likeliest one. For one thing, there is no indication of temporal relations here. Although it might be “natural” to assume that, in the absence of any indication to the contrary, the order of presentation reflects the temporal order of events, there is nothing in the context to prevent our reading the interrogation scene as a flashback (or flashforward), or even as occurring simultaneously with the narrator's conversation with Sylvia. Nor need we even assume that the uprising and the domestic vignette occupy the same ontological level. What prevents our treating the uprising as, for instance, a TV Western playing in the background while this domestic scene unfolds? The domestic scene might itself in turn belong to another film, say a Bergman or Antonioni or some other treatment of 1960s malaise … and so on, to infinite regress, so weakly constraining is the context of these sentences.

A powerful integrative move of a different kind would involve treating scenes from one of the parallel stories as in effect metaphors for situations in another of the stories. In the opening paragraphs, for instance, nothing prevents us from reading the interrogation of the Comanche as a figurative version of the interrogation of Sylvia that precedes and follows it. Indeed, this maneuver could be extended to the entire text. We wrote:

Nearly everything in “The Indian Uprising” that seems to refer literally to military conflict is susceptible of reinterpretation in a figurative sense, as a metaphor for a situation of a different order: the story of the narrator's unsatisfactory private life and his—somewhat self-dramatizing, somewhat comical—psychological anguish. The implausible barricade (§ 10) can be read as a metaphor for the psychological “defenses” the narrator throws up—familiar domestic objects and souvenirs, heavy drinking—against the onslaught of his personal demons; the episodes of torture can be read as metaphors for his frustrating encounters with women. (What could be more appropriate, on this reading, than for the torture victim to have electrified wires applied to his testicles?) Similarly, all the tactical maneuvering in the story, incoherent enough as an account of a military conflict, yields readily to reinterpretation in terms of a psychomachia, an internal psychological conflict: e.g., “The rolling consensus of the Comanche nation smashed our inner defenses” (§ 25). The city, on this reading, is to be identified with the embattled, besieged self of the story's narrator: “There was a sort of muck running in the gutters, yellowish, filthy stream suggesting excrement, or nervousness, a city that does not know what it has done to deserve baldness, errors, infidelity.”

(§ 12)

This is a powerful interpretive move, yielding a satisfying degree of integration; perhaps too powerful, perhaps too satisfying. For one thing, it too casually glosses over certain discrepancies in the mapping of one story onto the other. For instance, in the opening paragraphs, if the interrogation of the captured Comanche is meant to be a figurative version of the narrator's interrogation of Sylvia (“Do you know Faure's ‘Dolly’?”), then Sylvia is to be identified with the tortured Comanche, the narrator with his torturers; but it is evidently the narrator who suffers the pain in his dialogue exchanges with Sylvia, which suggests that he ought to be identified with the torture victim rather than the victimizers. So which is he, victim or victimizer, interrogator or interrogated?

Moreover—and this is even more damaging to the metaphorical strategy of integration—nothing in the context constrains us to assign the tenor and vehicle functions of this supposed figurative narrative one way rather than another. That is, the literal-figurative relation is readily reversible, and we would be equally justified in reading the erotic-biographical story as figurative and the public-political story of the uprising as literal as we are in reading them the other way around; neither reading is inherently more plausible than the other. Thus, far from enabling us to stabilize and integrate the text, this metaphorical reading leaves us with a text of disturbing indeterminacy and reversibility.

(3) The problem of the internal incoherence of each of the three stories. Not only were there discrepancies between the stories when we tried to integrate them, but each of the three stories displayed its own internal discrepancies. The more narrowly we examined these discrepancies, the plainer it became that we could sustain our narrative analysis only at the cost of “normalizing” narratives that in fact actively resist integration.

On the public-political plane, for instance, there is the conspicuous incoherence of the display of “team colors” associated with the warring parties and presumably serving to distinguish them. Since the Comanches' girl sympathizers wear blue mufflers (§ 14), the Comanche color would seem to be blue, perhaps combined with red: thus Miss R., subsequently a turncoat (or so it would appear), wears “a blue dress containing a red figure” (§ 13). (However, the barricade against the waves of “red men” incorporates “a blanket, red-orange with faint blue stripes” and “a red pillow and a blue pillow” [§ 10].) One of the colors associated with the city and its defenders would seem to be a rather equivocal yellow: the city pavements are soft and yellow (§ 1), the streets are “yellow and threatening,” and “yellowish” muck runs in its gutters (§ 12).11 Like the girls of the quarter who sympathize with the Comanches, Sylvia wears a blue muffler, but under it she wears a yellow ribbon (§ 20). “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” was the anthem of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, who saw service in the Indian wars; indeed, the song is said to have been played when General Custer rode out to his disastrous engagement at the Little Big Horn. So if Sylvia wears a yellow ribbon, she presumably signifies by it her alignment with the Indian fighters against the insurgent Indians. No wonder the narrator cries, “Which side are you on after all?” (§ 20).

When the war agon is transposed into the terms of a football game, however, the defenders are evidently identified with the color green: “In Skinny Wainwright Square the forces of green and blue swayed and struggled. The referees ran out on the field trailing chains. And then the blue part would be enlarged, the green diminished” (§ 20). In the overall logic of this narrative, it is the “part” of the defenders that constantly diminishes, that of the Indians that constantly enlarges; so the defenders must be green, the Indians blue. How, then, to explain the map?12 “On the map we considered the situation with its strung-out inhabitants and merely personal emotions. I showed the blue-and-green map to Sylvia. ‘Your parts are green,’ I said” (§ 13). We wrote: “The system of color-coding collapses into self-contradiction. The defenders are identified with blue but also with green, the attackers with green but also with blue. The question, ‘Which side are you on?’, addressed to Sylvia when she combined Comanche blue with Seventh Cavalry yellow, now acquires the weight of a more general epistemological skepticism and confusion.”

Similarly, on the erotic-biographical plane there was the problem of repetition, a major motif of the narrator's personal crisis. The narrator's attitude toward repetition is deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, he insists that it is impossible to repeat or recover the privileged moments, especially the privileged erotic moments, of one's past life—you can't go home again—while on the other hand, the key sentences that actually tell us that you can't go home again and that the past is unrepeatable and irrecoverable are themselves self-contradictory and self-deconstructive, enacting something different from what they appear to want to say:

Not believing that your body brilliant as it was and your fat, liquid spirit distinguished and angry as it was were stable quantities to which one could return on wires more than once, twice, or another number of times I said: “See the table?”

(§ 19)

… you can never touch a girl in the same way more than once, twice, or another number of times however much you may wish to hold, wrap, or otherwise fix her hand, or look, or some other quality, or incident, known to you previously.

(§ 23)

… you can never return to felicities in the same way, the brilliant body, the distinguished spirit recapitulating moments that occur once, twice, or another number of times in rebellions, or water.

(§ 25)

Each of these sentences seems to begin unequivocally enough as statements of the impossibility of repetition (“you can never touch a girl in the same way,” “you can never return to felicities in the same way”), but then look what happens to them: not “never more than once,” but never more than “once, twice, or another number of times.” Notice, too, the other deliberate incoherences and infelicities: these are what Barthelme in an interview once described as “back-broke sentences,”13 and their purpose here, it would seem, is simultaneously to make an assertion (you can't go home again) and to allow this assertion to leak away, as it were, through the logical and syntactical fissures in the sentences.

More than merely incoherent, these sentences actually directly contradict themselves, enacting something different from what they say, by repeating the same phrase: namely, the phrase “more than once, twice, or another number of times.” Indeed, the text of “The Indian Uprising” is crisscrossed with repetitions, exact or nearly exact, of phrases and sentences, up to entire scenes.14 Moreover, immediately after asserting (for the second time) that one can never recapture a privileged moment, the narrator does, in fact, recapture a privileged moment: that of descending from a bus in Sweden to the cheers of little children, visiting an old church and its graveyard (§ 23). So is repetition possible or not? There is an ironic ambiguity here, but one that the text provides no means of resolving.

On the cultural-historical plane, finally, the identification of the citizen-defenders with modernist aesthetic values, and the Comanche attackers with postmodernist aesthetics, proved to be unsustainable. One detail will suffice to make the point: under torture, the captured Comanche begins to paraphrase the opening of Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice: “His name, he said, was Gustave Aschenbach. He was born in L—, a country town in the province of Silesia. He was the son of an upper official in the judicature, and his forebears had all been officers, judges, departmental functionaries …” (§ 23; Barthelme's ellipses). If the Comanche is somehow identical with Mann's character, then clearly the straightforward analogy “Comanches are to citizens as postmodernism is to modernism” needs, at the very least, to be considerably qualified, if not abandoned. In seeking to salvage this analogy somehow, we encountered the fourth and, in some ways, the least tractable of the impediments to our analysis of “The Indian Uprising.”

(4) The problem of epistemological uncertainty. The more deeply we probed the cultural-historical story, the more it appeared that we had cast this story in the wrong terms. The crisis on this plane was not aesthetic (the postmodernist uprising against modernist aesthetic values) but epistemological, or rather, the aesthetic crisis was the vehicle of the epistemological one. The literary allusions that serve to give coded expression to this conflict of aesthetic values nearly all proved, on closer inspection, to bear on epistemological problems. Thus, for instance, the Mann passage which issues, implausibly enough, from the mouth of the tortured Comanche emphasizes the know-how, the savoir faire, of Aschenbach's respectable professional-class forebears, a know-how which (as we know from Mann's text) Aschenbach sought to emulate in his own chosen profession of authorship. This tradition of professional know-how is ruptured by Aschenbach's belated discovery of the senses, the aesthetic and libidinal forces of not-knowing, embodied in the beautiful but fickle Tadzio and the beautiful but fatal plague-city of Venice, which together comprise something like Mann's version of the “Indian uprising” of not-knowing against conventional, bourgeois knowingness.

The allusions to Eliot direct us to similar contexts of epistemological breakdown. “You know nothing … you feel nothing,” Miss R. rants, sending us to the passage from The Waste Land in which the woman whose “nerves are bad” issues a series of epistemological challenges: “What are you thinking of? … I never know what you are thinking. … Do / You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / Nothing? … Is there nothing in your head?” (II:113-26). Once again, what seems to be at stake here are the relations among “knowing [something],” “knowing nothing,” and “not-knowing.” Similarly, when Sylvia tells the narrator, “You gave me heroin first a year ago,” she is alluding to another experience of not-knowing from The Waste Land:

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.


In the Eliot text, of course, not-knowing is only a moment in a quest for spiritual knowledge (underwritten by the Grail myth and Jessie Weston's interpretation of it), or indeed the very precondition for mystical revelation. “The Indian Uprising” does not seem to hold out any similar hope of ultimate knowledge, though this is hard to say for sure.

Perhaps, then, all we had to do was reframe the third of our three parallel stories in epistemological rather than cultural-historical terms. But no, on reflection this proved inadequate, for the epistemological crisis of “The Indian Uprising” turns out not to conform to the same narrative proposition as the public-political and erotic-biographical stories, namely “Subject loses Object.” No Subject—not the narrator, nor any other character or group of characters—loses knowledge in the course of this narrative, in the way that the defenders lose the city or the narrator loses Sylvia, because no one possesses knowledge in the first place: “People were trying to understand” (§ 1); “I decided I knew nothing” (§ 10, 11). There is no narrative of epistemological crisis here at all, for the simple reason that epistemological uncertainty is a chronic, unchanging state or condition throughout.

The more we attended to the epistemological problem in “The Indian Uprising,” the more it came to appear in some sense the master-theme of the entire text, its dominant, present on all three story-planes. Not only did the cultural-historical crisis prove to be really an epistemological crisis, but so did the public-political and erotic-biographical crises. On the public-political plane, the problem appeared to be not so much the Indian uprising itself as knowing which side anyone was on, or even (in the light of the confusion over “team colors”) which side was which. On the erotic-biographical plane, there seemed to be two dimensions to the epistemological crisis: on the one hand, the impossibility of understanding Sylvia, despite all the narrator's insistent questioning of her; on the other, Miss R.'s daunting combination of overbearing knowledgeableness and radical skepticism (“You know nothing … you are locked in a most savage and terrible ignorance”). Moreover, many of the problems of the internal coherence of the stories and of the integration among them could be reconceived as versions or dimensions of the dominant epistemological problem.

Finally, we came to recognize that epistemological uncertainty was not only the text's master-theme but also its meta-theme, that is, the problem of not-knowing in the text recoils upon readers of the text, ourselves included. And this recognition returned us full circle to the very beginning of our inquiry into “The Indian Uprising.” The text turns out to be a reflection on the problem of knowing (among other things) the text itself. Its dramatized and thematized epistemological problems turn out to be continuous with the reader's problem—our problem—of (not) knowing the text and (not) knowing what to do with it.


This is not a very satisfactory outcome. We have ended up, against our will and our intentions, reproducing the poststructuralist recipe reading, reducing the text to a critical cliché: viz., “The Indian Uprising” is “about” its own unknowability.

So who has triumphed? The Comanches of textual indeterminacy? Maybe; but there is an ironic sense in which the theme (or meta-theme) of unknowability, far from challenging or subverting familiar forms of intelligibility, is really the most powerful “naturalization” of all, one capable of flattening a text (any text) into a one-dimensional illustration of theory, of trimming it to the measure of a theoretical template. This is the most violent kind of “critical imperialism,” as Barthelme might have called it, preempting all possibility of difference, strangeness, surprise. The Comanches of indeterminacy turn out to be citizen vigilantes in drag.

Moreover, this unhappy outcome is contrary to our own direct experience of “The Indian Uprising.” Neither unidimensional nor merely an illustration of theory, Barthelme's text is not after all “unknowable,” though neither is it, by the same token, fully knowable. It is, shall we say, partially, sporadically, provisionally, and locally knowable, instead of totally, continuously, conclusively, and globally knowable. In other words, we are proposing a model of “weak” epistemological mastery: lower-case knowing instead of Knowing with a capital K.15

What explains the formal satisfaction—closure, integration, shapeliness—that this text yields despite all its local discrepancies, incoherence, and frustration of formal expectations? The answer lies right there: it is not “despite” but precisely because of these local frustrations that “The Indian Uprising” gives such satisfaction. Each failure of the text to cohere at one level or at one site—that of political allegory, fictional biography, aesthetic or epistemological reflection, etc.—sends the reader to another level or site in search of a compensatory coherence. Every failure of integration between levels or among sites sends one in search of some other point of convergence, analogy, parallelism, correspondence, etc., or some other form of integration. Restlessly roving over the text in this way, attempting one integration after another and failing to achieve any of them, the reader nevertheless ventures many provisional, local, overlapping, partial, weakly coordinated integrations, none fully satisfactory in itself. The result is a formal closure which is simultaneously under- and overdetermined, an accumulation of integrative patterns, none of which fully integrates the text or fully converges with or corroborates the others, but which in their weakly structured aggregate nevertheless yield a sense of global form. Might this not be a characteristically postmodernist type of formal closure, simultaneously weak and strong, open and closed, single and plural, integrated and unintegrated, but in any case supple and (as Block says in “The Indian Uprising”) “liquid”?16

“In the competing methodologies of contemporary criticism,” writes Barthelme in “Not-Knowing,” “a sort of tyranny of great expectations obtains, a rage for final explanations, a refusal to allow a work the mystery that is essential to it.” Later he adds: “What is magical about the [aesthetic] object is that it at once invites and resists interpretation.” While we might not be completely comfortable with the romantic tonalities of Barthelme's words mystery and magical, we nevertheless venture to hope that the form of “enfeebled” knowing we have proposed—a form of knowing that leaves room for a lot of not-knowing—might preserve intact the “mysterious” and “magical” qualities of Barthelme's text.


  1. Donald Barthelme, “Not-Knowing,” Georgia Review 39 (1985): 516-17.

  2. Donald Barthelme, “The Indian Uprising,” in Sixty Stories (New York: Dutton, 1982), 108. All subsequent references to this text will be incorporated into the body of our essay and will identify citations by the paragraph (there are twenty-six in all) in which they appear, thus: “§ 00.”

  3. Only when we were preparing the last version of this essay did we discover a text which might have served as our model, namely the chapter entitled “Gravity's Rainbow and the Post-rhetorical” in Alec McHoul and David Wills's Writing Pynchon: Strategies in Fictional Analysis (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1990), 23-66. Not only do McHoul and Wills offer a rare precedent of collaboration in literary studies, but their strategy of quoting and commenting on earlier drafts of their own text, in effect producing a “layered” or “stratified” reading of Gravity's Rainbow, anticipates our strategy in what follows. Although we arrived at this formal solution independently of McHoul and Wills, we cheerfully acknowledge their priority.

  4. At the deep narrative level, according to Greimas, we find only “semiotic squares” (also called the “constitutive model”), of which nothing need be said here except that they are purely abstract and highly controversial. The surface narrative level (roughly corresponding to Propp's morphological model) consists of a logical sequence of “narrative propositions” (énoncés narratifs), each of which is defined as the statement of a relation between two “actants.” In all the narrative propositions of all the narratives in the world there are only six actants: Subject, Object, Sender, Receiver, Helper, Opponent. A Subject may possess, win, or lose an Object, and in the process of winning or losing that Object the Subject's desire, knowledge, and capability may be tested. A Sender may send an Object, typically a message, to a Receiver who may or may not receive it. A Helper aids whereas an Opponent seeks to hinder the Subject. It is the Subject's desire (his purpose or quest) that assigns him his place in the structure and defines his identity. Thus the traditional “villain” or “antagonist,” who competes with the Subject for the same Object, i.e., for his very identity as Subject, is designated as an “Anti-Subject,” not an Opponent but a false or would-be Subject. These actants do not appear as such at the level of discourse, the level at which the story is manifested in some particular medium, language, and form (say, as a text in English such as “The Indian Uprising”). What we find at the discourse level are “actors,” anthropomorphic entities designated by names or a coherent use of pronouns and other referring expressions. Thus “actors” roughly correspond to traditional notions of “character” and are most often human agents, whereas “actants” are very highly generalized character “roles.” The actantial paradigm and the actor personnel do not obey the same economy and need not display a one-to-one correspondence. The doings predicated in the text of a single actor may manifest narrative propositions pertaining to several actants, and vice versa, a single actant may be manifested in several distinct actors. In other words, a single character may be involved in actions pertaining to more than one role, while the actions and attributes of a single role may be distributed among several characters.

  5. The attentive reader will perhaps have remarked the absence of the Sender and Receiver roles of the Greimasian scheme from our actant assignments. This reflects the fact that we could not confidently identify a Sender or Receiver actant in “The Indian Uprising.” Greimas, it should be noted, leaves open the possibility that not all the actant positions will necessarily be filled in any given narrative. This malleability of the actantial scheme might indicate one of the directions in which Greimas's model might be historicized: that is, the specific configuration of the scheme—the presence or absence of roles, their relative dominance or subordination—might very well be historically determined. Fredric Jameson, for instance, implies that the position of Sender (or Donor) is one of privileged significance in nineteenth-century romance (e.g., Wuthering Heights), for historical reasons having to do with the transformative effects of capital in nineteenth-century society; see The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), 125-29. In traditional narrative (e.g., fairy and folk tales) the Sender position is occupied by a personified source of communal authority, knowledge, etc., such as a father or king; in modern narrative, as the concept of communal authority becomes ever more problematic, the Sender becomes increasingly difficult to personify. No wonder, then, that in a text like “The Indian Uprising,” in which the notion of community is so overtly problematized, the Sender position goes unfilled.

  6. Apart from the Indian wars, the text conflates a number of twentieth-century sieges, civil wars, and other conflicts: the “Zouaves and cabdrivers” (§ 11) allude to the Battle of the Marne in the First World War, when the Germans were barely prevented from breaking through to Paris; the street names (Boulevard Mark Clark, George C. Marshall Allée, Rue Chester Nimitz, Skinny Wainwright Square, Patton Place) are those of American generals and admirals from the Second World War; the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (§ 22) evokes the Spanish Civil War (and the siege of Barcelona in particular?); the IRA (§ 13) of course evokes the Irish Civil War and Ulster's continuing “troubles”; the fire-arrow attack on the post office (§ 22) possibly alludes to the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin.

  7. That analogy is implicit, for instance, in a John Wayne movie of the time, The Green Berets, which systematically transposes the value system and imagery of cowboys-and-Indians Westerns to the Vietnam War. The Indian wars analogy also recurs throughout Michael Herr's book on the Vietnam War, Dispatches (1977). Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now (with a script by Michael Herr) parodies the Indian-war myth of Vietnam: a unit of the Air Cavalry (no longer cavalry at all, of course, but helicopter-borne) goes to battle to the sound of a bugle-call, the very call used in Westerns to signal “cavalry to the rescue”; the Playmates flown in by “Hugh Hefner” to entertain the troops wear skimpy cowboys-and-Indians costumes.

  8. “You gave me heroin first a year ago,” says Sylvia to the narrator (§ 13); see The Waste Land I:35-41, beginning “‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago.’” Miss R. tells the narrator, “You know nothing … you feel nothing, you are locked in a most savage and terrible ignorance” (§ 11); see The Waste Land II:121-23, “‘Do / You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / Nothing?’” The Barthelme passage about “the afternoon of a day that began with spoons and letters in hallways and under windows where men tasted the history of the heart” (§ 11) seems to echo passages both from Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and from his “Preludes.” The Comanche prisoner, under torture, quotes from Mann's Death in Venice (§ 23), while Miss R. quotes from Valéry (§ 20). Echoes of the last line of Baudelaire's “Au Lecteur” (“Hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable!—mon frére!”), more familiar, perhaps, as one of the fragments Eliot shored against his ruins in The Waste Land (I:76), are detectable in several of Miss R.'s therapeutic discourses: “my boy, mon cher, my heart” (§ 11); “goat, muck, filth, heart of my heart” (§ 20); “my virgin, my darling, my thistle, my poppet, my own” (§ 21).

    There are only a few exceptions to the pattern of modernist allusion: the band of the Seventh Cavalry plays baroque, not modernist music—Gabrieli, Albinoni, Marcello, Vivaldi, Boccherini (§ 20)—and Block quotes from Hamlet (“The rest is silence” [§ 16]).

  9. Miss R. appears to practice a form of “semantic therapy” related to the proposals of Count Alfred Korzybski (§ 11), and Korzybski and his General Semantics Movement can be seen as a somewhat crankish and disreputable “down-market” version of the Wittgensteinian position of linguistic skepticism. According to Korzybski's Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933), human beings live in “linguistic slavery,” constrained by the “wrong and unnatural” structures of their languages to perceive the world distortedly. Languages constructed according to what he terms “Aristotelian” principles give rise to creeds, doctrines, and institutions which are at variance with objective reality, and which in their turn produce maladjustment, conflict, and world war. Korzybski recommends retraining programs to improve “semantic hygiene”: if language-users could be schooled to recognize and correct for the distortions imposed on reality by linguistic structure, a proper relationship between language and the world would be established, with benefits at all levels—physical and mental health, domestic and social harmony, world peace. Through popularizations such as Stuart Chase's The Tyranny of Words (1938) and S. E. Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action (1943), Korzybski's ideas actually found material expression in a movement for semantic hygiene of the sort envisioned in Science and Sanity—the General Semantics Movement.

  10. Barthelme imagined such a shrine to a literary genius of the past in “At the Tolstoy Museum” (collected in City Life, 1970); one of the prime exhibits is Tolstoy's monumental coat, on which Kenneth would seem to have modeled his own, so attractive to Sylvia and thus able to serve for a Comanche trap.

  11. Maclin Bocock, the only critic to have given “The Indian Uprising” a full-dress reading, writes: “Yellow comes up a number of times in Barthelme's first two collections of short stories, and in Snow White, and is more often than not associated with the hero's feeling of sexual inadequacy, whether experienced or imagined, in the presence of women, or his fear of emotional castration by a strong male figure” (“‘The Indian Uprising,’ or Donald Barthelme's Strange Object Covered with Fur,” Fiction International 4/5 [1975]: 137).

  12. This map perhaps alludes slyly to the General Semantics of Count Alfred Korzybski, mentioned in note 9 above, one of whose slogans was, “The map is not the territory,” i.e., language is not to be identified with the real-world referents which it represents. Cf. the map of Vietnam described at the beginning and end of Michael Herr's Dispatches (1977) and the map of Central America, obviously derived from Herr's Vietnam map, in the opening paragraph of Lucius Shepard's Life during Wartime (1987): “To the east of this green zone [designated Free Occupied Guatemala] lay an undesignated band of yellow that crossed the country from the Mexican border to the Caribbean. The Ant Farm was a firebase on the eastern edge of the yellow band, and it was from there that Mingolla … lobbed shells into an area that the maps depicted in black-and-white terrain markings. And thus it was that he often thought of himself as engaged in a struggle to keep the world safe for primary colors.”

  13. In Tom Le Clair and Larry McCaffery, eds., Anything Can Happen: Interviews with American Novelists (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1983), 34.

  14. Some of the repetitions include: “I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love” (§ 23), “She ran off … uttering shrill cries” (§ 12, 13), “Once I caught it [Kenneth's coat] going down the stairs by itself” (§ 18, 19), “See the table?” (§ 19, 20, 25), “Pack it in” (§ 22, 25), etc. The principle of repetition manifests itself at the text's linguistic microlevel in the form of obsessive and unmotivated triplications: “apples, books, long-playing records” (§ 1), “hurried, careless and exaggerated” (§ 2), “trees, lamps, swans” (§ 2), “baldness, errors, infidelity” (§ 12), “zip guns, telegrams, lockets” (§ 13), “weapons, flowers, loaves of bread” (§ 14), “friendly, kind, enthusiastic” (§ 14), “letters, postcards, calendars” (§ 22), “paint, feathers, beads” (§ 26), etc. At the level of scene, there is the torture of the Comanche(s) (§ 2, 23) and the four sessions with Miss R. (§ 11, 13, 21, 26). Are these to be understood as different occurrences of a similar event, or serial representations of the same event?

  15. We suspect that our position of “weak” epistemological mastery may overlap with the recent development, by Gianni Vattimo and others, of a notion of “weak thought” in Italian philosophy; for introductions to “weak thought” in English, see Stefano Rosso, “Postmodern Italy: Notes on the ‘Crisis of Reason’, ‘Weak Thought’, and The Name of the Rose,” in Matel Calinescu and Douwe Fokkema, eds., Exploring Postmodernism (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1987), 79-92; and Giovanna Borradori, “Weak Thought and Postmodernism: The Italian Departure from Deconstruction,” Social Text 18 (Winter 1987-88): 39-49.

  16. Grace Paley, in an interview with Moshe Ron on Israeli television, has praised Barthelme for the way he “makes the poem and the short story come together.” This seems to raise the possibility of reading a story like “The Indian Uprising” more in the way one might read a poem, that is, by not insisting on full representational determinacy but looking instead for some coherence of tone or “feeling.” No doubt this would in some sense be a viable approach to the problem of coherence in this text; but to treat Barthelme as essentially a “lyrical” writer, and a text like “The Indian Uprising” as in effect a prose poem, is to reduce the problem to one of genre. We find this a less interesting approach, in that it de-historicizes the issue and considerably lowers the theoretical ante.

Jerome Klinkowitz (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Later Fiction.” In Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition, pp. 109-26. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Klinkowitz surveys Barthelme's later short fiction, maintaining that these stories “are more relaxed and more generously entertaining, with as many comic effects as the earlier pieces but now with the humor not at the expense of an older tradition but drawn from the properties of Barthelme's own style.”]

The second half of Donald Barthelme's canon, accomplished in the fourteen years following publication of The Dead Father, sounds a different note in the tonality of his short fiction. The stories are more relaxed and more generously entertaining, with as many comic effects as the earlier pieces but now with the humor not at the expense of an older tradition but drawn from the properties of Barthelme's own style. No longer will Kafka or Tolstoy be asked to sit uncomfortably within the outrageously inappropriate confines of our postmodern world; instead, the author's confidence with that world will let him joke with it on its own terms. Nor will there be a cubist disorder of conversations at birthday parties or cinema vérité pieces that steadfastly refuse to cohere. There will be precious few fragments, for now Barthelme has more trust in his ability to comprehend an overall situation—and most of all trust that his readers will not make more of them than he intends, the fear of which had kept his earlier short stories so defiantly anti-illusionistic.

With Amateurs (1976) the feeling is most immediately one of comfort, both of Barthelme in his role of writer and the readers in their roles as consumers of his stories. The opening piece, “Our Work and Why We Do It,” refers to Barthelme's frequently expressed opinion that he could be quite happy back in his previous job of assembling, composing, and laying out the contents of a magazine as its managing editor. The narrator is supervising a press, up to his elbows in “problems of makeready, registration, showthrough, and feed” (A, p. 4). But just as these unfamiliar terms have easy, functional meanings (once learned), so too are there equally mechanical solutions. No endless debates between Kierkegaard and Schlegel, no hapless protagonists pondering their existential fates—just the artistic pleasure of putting machines to work at producing the most wonderful things:

The tiny matchbook-cover press is readied, the packing applied, the “Le Foie de Veau” form locked into place. We all stand around a small table watching the matchbook press at work. It is exactly like a toy steam engine. Everyone is very fond of it, although we also have a press big as a destroyer escort—that one has a crew of thirty-five, its own galley, its own sick bay, its own band. We print the currency of Colombia, and the Acts of the Apostles, and the laws of the land, and the fingerprints.

(A, p. 5)

Within this happy context, Barthelme is able to play at language and idea with all the verve of his earlier fiction. The situation prompts a simile, and one simile prompts another, which is all it takes to turn loose his talents of linguistic invention. True, presses are run by a crew, just like navy ships—so why not add the other things navy ships have? As for what they print, the items seem extravagantly odd and random—except that all four exist in this world as printed objects and therefore have to be printed somewhere. Because these workers are pressmen and not writers, they are under no obligation to make the subjects cohere. They just print them, and are therefore granted a rare pleasure of play and association—the same pleasures Barthelme gives his reader in this narrative.

Within this story that typifies Amateurs are most of Barthelme's familiar techniques. Skinny lists of terms, here the names of typefaces, run down the page in one of the author's favorite forms, the litany. Other texts literally crash through the windows, bringing the same excitement as do the salesmen, rushing through the doors with new orders. The one element missing is that of graphic collage. But the press functions and typeface features take that role, and the story's busy tone is reminiscent of Barthelme's collage story from Sadness, “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace.” In that piece, however, the narrator had been driven nearly to exhaustion by having to come up with marvel after new marvel to delight audiences. Here there is no such worry, because the work is invigorating, rewarding, and unlikely to dissipate in either exhaustion or obsolescence. “Our reputation for excellence is unexcelled, in every part of the world,” Barthelme's narrator concludes. “And will be maintained until the destruction of our art by some other art which is just as good but which, I am happy to say, has not yet been invented” (A, p. 9).

Such is the condition in which Donald Barthelme finds his own work as the 1970s end. After a decade and a half of innovation, perforce disruptive because of the modernist traditions and conventions that stood in his way, and after the equally taxing struggle to establish his own post-modern mastery of the novel, he could—much like this story's pressman—settle more comfortably into a style of fiction writing that he knew would remain the standard of both excellence and currency for some time. Although the heyday of innovative fiction's spectacular accomplishments was over, it was now established as the mainstream—sufficiently mainstream for it to be attacked as Barthelme and his generation had challenged fiction a decade and a half before. And for the time being these challenges had been met. The attempts of John Gardner's On Moral Fiction (1978) and Gerald Graff's Literature against Itself (1979) to roll back standards to those of moralism and modernism had been resisted, and the next style of fiction, the Minimalism espoused by Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and younger brother Frederick Barthelme, had emerged by drawing as much on innovative fiction's imaginative freedom as on realism's figuration. The answer had been play: not the cocky, disruptive, irreverent play that subverted modernism in Come Back, Dr. Caligari, but a more harmlessly engaging style of amusement that takes the givens of both moralism and realism and good naturedly stands them on their heads.

In Amateurs Barthelme finds occasion for such overturnings in “The School,” whose life-or-death issue is the 100 percent mortality rate suffered by the pets and projects of a grade school class (starting with its tree plantings, continuing with its gerbil, and reaching the apex of anxiety with the demise of its sponsored third-world orphan), and in “Porcupines at the University,” an earlier story passed over several times before but now updated and added to the canon as a way of showing how the most unlikely and mutually alien subjects can be melded into a coherent story if all are treated strictly in character with the tools of literary realism (the situation involves a herd of porcupines being driven by porcupine wranglers across a college campus beleaguered by its own problems of disruption and dissent). In Great Days (1979) Barthelme shifts from subject and theme to structure and formal technique, yet keeps the same ideals of comedy and play in mind by focusing on the performative—a stylistic equivalent of the activities represented in Amateurs (class projects expiring, porcupines being wrangled, presses being run). Together, these collections reveal a confidence with subject and form equal to almost any previous high point in the development of the American short story.

Not surprisingly, this emphasis on performance coincides with the use of that most performative of American art forms, jazz, as a topic for several stories collected in Great Days. After “The Crisis” has begun the volume with a cautiously restrained examination of texture and surface and “The Apology” has moved more obviously into a jazz idiom by showing how an overwilling apologizer can drive away an offended suitor with a rifflike assemblage of overstated regrets, Barthelme offers a piece whose title tells the reader just what these words are meant to create: “The New Music,” in which standards of musical composition enhance the systematics of linguistics that the author has used before to expand the dimensions of narrative.

In both music and speech, rhythms are carriers of meaning. Rhythmic dialogues make statements far beyond the content of conceptual exchange; consider how the structure of something as simple as “Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing” says so much that it becomes the title of a humorous commentary on childhood's disaffections. In Barthelme's “The New Music,” the entire story is constituted of just such a disconnected dialogue, a mode he introduces here and continues in several other pieces as the collection's most distinguishing form. Canonically, it is the style of talk Julie and Emma exchanged in The Dead Father as a way of generating a new linguistic reality far beyond the constraints of both the father's and son's self-serving forms. Now in Great Days story after story can be produced by its creative possibilities, with a confidence detached from narrative explanations and contextual justifications. What the characters do in “The New Music” is rarely directed toward a goal or even an object, but rather expresses its own sense of activity:

—What did you do today?

—Went to the grocery store and Xeroxed a box of English muffins, two pounds of ground veal and an apple. In flagrant violation of the Copyright Act.

—Ah well. I was talking to a girl, talking to her mother actually but the daughter was very much present, on the street. The daughter was absolutely someone you'd like to take to bed and hug and kiss, if you weren't too old. If she weren't too young. She was a wonderful-looking young woman and she was looking at me quite seductively, very seductively, smoldering a bit, and I was thinking quite well of myself, very well indeed, thinking myself quite the—Until I realized she was just practicing.

(GD, pp. 21-22)

The most frequent words in this passage, like the activities themselves, are simple gerunds: ing words that, by virtue of their lacking an object, refer simply to themselves. Placed in the context of unintroduced and unpunctuated dialogue, they have no reason for existence except their own play, which Barthelme masters in a way both pleasing and amusing to his readers. The effect is that of jazz improvisation, especially the style of two instruments trading four-bar phrases back and forth in such a way that each complements the other's action while still advancing its own, as happens in a section of “The New Music,” originally published in The New Yorker of October 2, 1978, as “Momma”:

—Momma didn't 'low no clarinet playing in here. Unfortunately.


—Momma didn't 'low no clarinet playing in here. Made me sad.

—Momma was outside.

—Momma was very outside.

—Sitting there, 'lowing and not-'lowing. In her old rocking chair.

—'Lowing this, not-'lowing that.

—Didn't 'low oboe.

—Didn't 'low gitfiddle. Vibes.

—Rock over your damn foot and bust it, you didn't pop to when she was 'lowing and not-'lowing.

—Right. 'Course, she had all the grease.


—You wanted a little grease, like to buy a damn comic book or something, you had to go to Momma.

—Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Her variously colored moods.

—Mauve. Warm gold. Citizen's blue.

—Mauve mood that got her thrown in the jug that time.

(GD, p. 29)

The European style of punctuating lines of dialogue makes them hang on the page, while their responsive rhythm creates a mood all its own: of reminiscing, another gerund that is even more convincing than the activities reported earlier, for now that activity is actually taking place.

Jazz provides a model for interacting rhythms, and is by nature an activity that represents nothing other than itself—postmodernism's own ideal for fictive writing. Even as a subject, it lets Barthelme take his narrative language further than other topics might always allow, as happens in a complementary story from Great Days, “The King of Jazz.” The title is referential—to the 1930 movie featuring Paul Whiteman and his orchestra—but also reflective of practices in and around jazz, including the occasion of “cutting sessions” (where players compete against each other in jam sessions) and the way critics like to assign labels (making the title ironic, for Whiteman's popularized music made him anything but an innovator or key figure).

“Well I'm the king of jazz now, thought Hokie Mokie to himself as he oiled the slide on his trombone,” the story begins—like many postmodern stories, just where a conventional tale would end. To reassure himself of such status Hokie plays a few notes out the window, which starts a critical dialogue between two passers-by. Can you tell who is playing, “Can you distinguish our great homemade American jazz performers, each from the other?” “Used to could,” the friend replies, anticipating Simon's own little riff in Paradise when he challenges himself to name ten influential drummers in the history of jazz. “Then who is playing?” Easy: “Sounds like Hokie Mokie to me. Those few but perfectly selected notes have the real epiphanic glow” (GD, p. 55), which is itself a snatch of the language generated so facilely by the first generation of jazz critics (nearly all of them afterhours professors from Columbia and Rutgers).

The story proceeds by letting this style of language generate itself, as the tropes of literary criticism and art commentary spin out endlessly in an attempt to capture the essence of Hokie Mokie's music—which is, of course, something that neither written words nor painted objects can approximate. It is when Hokie is challenged by a young Japanese musician that the king's truly great playing—and the critical listeners' most extravagant play of comparisons—begins:

“You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of life? That sounds like polar bears crossing the Arctic ice pans? That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea? That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mt. Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees in an Appalachian marsh? That sounds like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk? That sounds like a mule deer wandering a montane of the Sierra Nevada? That sounds like prairie dogs kissing? That sounds like manatees munching seaweed at Cape Sable? That sounds like coatimundis moving in packs across the face of Arkansas? That sounds like—?”

(GD, p. 59)

This is not at all what Hokie sounds like, for words cannot be music, and the terms themselves, by virtue of their references, are contradictory (how can turkeys and beavers and polar bears all sound the same? They can't; but the speaker's language about them does!). The activity of such language does approximate the activity of Hokie playing jazz, and unleashing that verbal improvisation is what “The King of Jazz” lets Barthelme do.

His next collection both continues this special interest and confirms its supporting style in the canon. The volume is itself a gesture toward canon formation: a tall, closely printed book running 457 pages titled Sixty Stories (1981) that combines nine new short stories with another 51 (of a possible 120) from the earlier gatherings. Gone from the living record are such self-consciously difficult pieces as “Florence Green Is 81” and “Bone Bubbles”; also missing are the purposely flat narratives of “Edward and Pia” and “A Few Moments of Sleeping and Waking.” In their place, Barthelme's emphasis falls on his earlier experiments with playful delight such as “Me and Miss Mandible” and “The Balloon,” while admitting two previously noncanonical pieces from Guilty Pleasures as full-fledged stories (and not just parodies)—a third will appear six years later in the companion volume, Forty Stories, to round out the author's hundred. There is even “A Manual for Sons” from The Dead Father, a self-contained story that employs similarly ludic devices and is written with the same sense of comic confidence that became the dominant mode of Amateurs and Great Days. From the latter, Sixty Stories reprints “The Crisis,” “The New Music,” and “The King of Jazz,” while the former collection is represented by “The School” and “Our Work and Why We Do It” in Sixty Stories and “Porcupines at the University” in Forty Stories.

What distinguishes any retrospective exhibition is not just selections from the past but the nature of new work being shown at the same time. The last decade of Donald Barthelme's life is dominated by these kinds of gatherings, with just one volume of previously uncollected stories in between: Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983). But since both retrospectives add new material, his writer's development can still be traced even in these mature years of canon stabilization.

Of Barthelme's three books from the 1980s, Sixty Stories is the simplest and most direct in terms of growth, for rounding out its selections from the author's earlier collections are nine new stories. All were published between November 27, 1978, and January 26, 1981, in the wake of Great Days and before the gathering for Overnight to Many Distant Cities commenced. In length, number, historical proximity, and relative affinity and diversity, they are presented just like the samplings from other collections preceding them in Sixty Stories. Of the nine, five are dash-dialogue stories, while others relish the odd details that give Great Days its special flavor. One piece, “The Farewell,” picks up where “On the Steps of the Conservatory” left off, while another—“Bishop”—introduces the character whose similar story inaugurates the Overnight volume. Throughout the nine runs a consistent interest in language—not so much for the semiotic fascinations evident in Barthelme's earliest fiction, but more for the way certain nuances, drawn from various parts of the contemporary culture, form attractive and intriguing voices that can play off each other in dialogue or establish themselves as identifiable texts within the greater narrative.

Such voices, both by themselves and in conversation, are played to the full in “The Emerald,” Sixty Stories' most obvious contribution to the Barthelme style. Like the most radically experimental fictions of earlier collections, it was not first published in The New Yorker, but rather appeared in Esquire, in the November 1979 issue (and again in 1980 as a forty-page limited edition book published by Sylvester and Orphanos in Los Angeles). It is easily Barthelme's longest short story, eclipsing even “A Manual for Sons,” which is given such generic status here. Yet for all its length, “The Emerald” manages to move along very quickly thanks to its author's customary lightness of style and snappiness of juxtapositional transitions. The new element is a characterizational and appealingly vocal use of language, which is generated not by philosophers or advertising copywriters but by various people who sound like they come from the streets of Greenwich Village or the towns of East Texas (Barthelme's two principal residences) and who speak with the quaint angularity sure to catch the ear of such a creative artist. In the dialogue sections, oddly named characters (Tope, Sallywag, Wide Boy, Taptoe) rifle clichés back and forth (sure as shootin', right as rain) as they lay plans for stealing the emerald and cutting it up for profit. In sections of a more extended conversation, Moll—the emerald's mother—finds out as much about the interviewing journalist as the journalist finds out about Moll. The interview does reveal that the greatest threat to Moll's emerald comes from a witch hunter named Vandermaster, which sets the stage for a meeting between these two as the story's protagonist and principal antagonist. Their dialogue is the piece's most inventive one, he mixing Joycean word salad with redneck vernacular, she sounding like both a sorceress and a street-tough feminist. Yet even the subplot has its special humor, as the journalist and her subject are manipulated by an unscrupulous editor while the interview itself, undertaken as the stuff of prize winning journalism, often devolves into questions such as “do you have a chili recipe you'd care to share with the folks?” (SS, p. 413).

The nine new short fictions in Sixty Stories also indicate the step Barthelme would take in Overnight to Many Distant Cities, his 1983 volume that stands as the last gathering of previously uncollected work published during his lifetime. Though at first glance Overnight is one of his more radical experiments, its fascination with the tones and textures of language is evident in Sixty Stories' “Aria,” a 1979 New Yorker piece that stands as the first of the author's extended monologues. As an exercise in language, it complements the dash-dialogue stories by posing the reader as the story's other conversationalist. Or, if one wishes to remain uninvolved (something few postmodern readers can do), it can be said that the text in “Aria” interrogates itself. But in combination with such stories as “Bishop,” where the concerns of daily life are as common as they were in “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,” this new mode of writing is less like the impenetrability of “Bone Bubbles” and “Sentence” and much more like the tenor of the Overnight collection, where the same character (consistently named “Bishop”) is featured in the first full story and whose presence, as an icon of the author's own life in this world, remains a constant source of language and generator of narrative action.

The innovative nature of Overnight to Many Distant Cities is announced on its table of contents, for instead of listing the customary fourteen to sixteen new short stories, it alternates the titles of a dozen such pieces with the initial words (followed by three dots) of much shorter items in between. This structural distinction carries into the book itself, where the full-length fictions are printed in roman type while the miniatures are set in italics. The writing is all Barthelme's, and most of it is even from The New Yorker, with the occasional piece from another venue accommodated quite naturally within this new format. But the range of these materials is quite impressive, stretching from the author's main-line short stories to his unsigned “Comment” pieces from The New Yorker's front pages, together with stories from such places as Harper's and New American Review and a contribution that first appeared in an art gallery's catalog. In the past, “Comment” and catalog writings had been consigned to a separate volume, Great Days, and then began appearing in other collections as exceptions rather than the rule. But with Overnight to Many Distant Cities a structure is devised to integrate the author's signed and unsigned work.

The obvious precedent for structuring a short story collection in this manner is Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time (1925). For this work the accepted interpretation is that by interleaving his fifteen full-length stories with an equal number of short, italicized passages Hemingway was able to have the cultural shock of World War I permeate the otherwise domestic business of such fictions as “The Three Day Blow,” “The End of Something,” and the two parts of “Big Two-Hearted River.” Turning to Barthelme's experiment over half a century later, one must ask if the postmodern writer is using his own italicized interleavings for transitions, as associations, or for other reflective purposes. Unlike Hemingway, Barthelme has no agenda: there is nothing in Overnight to Many Distant Cities to suggest that one orders and controls in the imaginative life (Hemingway's roman typeface stories) what cannot be controlled in life (In Our Time's italicized “chapters”); nor is there any hint that art is neat while the world's a mess. For Barthelme, the eminent postmodernist, life and art are sometimes identical, driven as the former is by the latter's organizing principles. It is the interplay between Overnight's full stories and brief interpolations that establishes this principle not just as a thematic reference or technical trick but as a creative force in Donald Barthelme's work.

Story after story in Overnight to Many Distant Cities features characters caught up in the world of textuality, struggling to read their way through a culture where signs can be of more substance than the reality they might be presumed to signify. In “Visitors,” the familiar protagonist named Bishop encounters movies, commercials, labels from art history, and made-for-seduction recipes during the summer interval when his fifteen-year-old daughter visits him. From this textual mélange he extracts a recipe for curing her persistent stomach ache—not a menu item, but a snappy chalk talk on the transition from Impressionism to Modernism. In “Affection” a married couple close to estrangement consult various textual sources for advice, from mother to fortune teller (Madam Olympia) and blues pianist (Sweet Pappa Cream Puff), all of whom contribute to the couple's eventual intertext, which is survived only thanks to the husband's increased earnings and his ability to not only read the New York Times but “wash it off my hands when I have finished reading it, every day” (O, p. 36). This theme continues through the volume, as Barthelme complements these recent stories with older material that had sat uncollected since 1971, such as “The Mothball Fleet” (where, in his more familiar manner of taking a metaphor and fleshing it out ad absurdum, the navy's flotilla of mothballed destroyers sails down the Hudson as real and as startling as the ship San Dominick encountered in Melville's “Benito Cereno”) and “The Sea of Hesitation” (where the narrator is beset by texts cascading from his past, including quotations from Civil War history and phone calls from his ex-wife).

What makes the volume different, however, and what justifies the author's resurrection of these older stories (which otherwise may have remained noncanonical, or at the very least so repetitious of outdated, minor trends that reprinting them would be redundant) is the function of the brief, italicized interleavings. These passages, never bearing a title and taking their table-of-contents identification from the egalitarianism of their opening words, form a larger continuous text in which the titled stories are set as intertexts. As a context for stories that are often about lives being lived within texts (movies, commercials, advertisements, letters, telephone calls, references to books and history), the interleavings have the latitude to speak either more abstractly or more specifically about such circumstances, and by doing so yield a continuity of literary action that shows how the otherwise diverse weavings of Overnight to Many Distant Cities are in fact cut from the same broad cloth—a multiform cloth to be sure, produced as it has been by the master weaver of stories, Donald Barthelme.

The situation of a typical story, “Affection,” is a good example of how Barthelme's method works. Preceding it is the two-and-one-half-page passage beginning “Financially, the paper”; the narrative voice in this particular interpolation is that of a writer whose newspaper is financially healthy but journalistically weak, its portfolio fattened by diversification into everything from mining to greeting cards and its real-estate, food, clothing, plant, and furniture sections growing larger each week, at the same time that hard news and editorial depth suffer. Typically for the times, the problem is being treated systematically, even as the system in question (management levels) falters:

The Editor's Caucus has once again applied to middle management for relief, and has once again been promised it (but middle management has Glenfiddich on its breath, even at breakfast). Top management's polls say that sixty-five percent of the readers “want movies,” and feasibility studies are being conducted. Top management acknowledges, over long lunches at good restaurants, that the readers are wrong to “want movies” but insists that morality cannot be legislated. The newsroom has been insulated (with products from the company's Echotex division) so that the people in the newsroom can no longer hear the sounds in the streets.

(O, p. 24)

Brief as it is, the interleaved passage profits from Barthelme's ability to take a limited number of factors—the newspaper's other divisions, the decline of its traditional standards, the lavish life style of its top management and the alcohol-ridden anxiety of the middle managers—and let their interactive energy combine to generate a tight little narrative. But in the setting of Overnight to Many Distant Cities, it performs a structural function as well, enfolding (with “I put a name in an envelope …,” which follows) the more conventionally written and published story, “Affection.”

“Affection” itself features a newspaper only in its final paragraph, where its print is something that informs the husband-narrator (threatening to estrange him from his wife) but which also can be washed away (thus saving the marriage). Along the way to this conclusion are just the influences that have fattened up certain sections of the paper while slimming down others, although for the couple's life as lived these influences are encountered firsthand. The wife's chief advisor is her mother, whose “counsel is broccoli, mostly, but who else was she going to talk to?” (O, p. 30). When the husband consults his own advisor, Madam Olympia, her patois rendering of a typical marital conversation uncovers the “agendas on both sides” (O, p. 31). Subsequent textual renderings come from the languages of TV soap opera, psychiatry, and the blues. As for the couple's problems, they're solved only by a sudden influx of new money—something wily Madam Olympia has expected would have to happen from the start.

From here Barthelme moves to an abstract piece, “I put a name in an envelope …,” which first appeared as part of Joseph Cornell: Catalogue of the Exhibition, February 28-March 20, 1976, published by the Leo Castelli Gallery. In the unpaged catalog's preface, designer-editor Sandra Leonard Starr thanks the author, “who has loved Cornell's work for a very long time, for saying he couldn't think of anything to write and writing anyway.” Its apparent abstraction and self-advertised insouciance do not detract from its fictive excellence, both in itself and as an interpolation within Overnight to Many Distant Cities; in fact, the piece is as well organized and as indicative of Barthelme's aesthetic as his catalog preface to the exhibit of women in art from 2500 b.c. to the present, She (New York: Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, 3 December 1970 to 16 January 1971). There the author had posited woman as an imaginary being, an absent referent present only in the empty space she would otherwise be occupying. For Joseph Cornell, Barthelme casts out a similar net, retrieves nothing, but discovers that Cornell has become his net. For the Castelli catalog, he presents a single page typed on his own ibm Selectric; photocopied in facsimile fashion, it is folded twice and placed in an envelope, just as its first line describes; the stuffed envelope then becomes one of the several loose items gathered into the catalog, which is itself a two-pocket folder holding several individual pages and photographs. Reading the catalog thus becomes much like viewing a Cornell artwork, as the various free-standing yet compositionally integral elements are sorted out and comprehended both as entities and as parts of a whole. Reading Barthelme's page in the catalog or on the pages in Overnight to Many Distant Cities replicates this process, and in the latter case also supplies a context for “Affection” preceding it and “Lightning” to follow.

Like one of Joseph Cornell's boxes, Barthelme's page recycles discrete but personally treasured items in a way that produces a new artistic whole. “Affection” has shown an unhappily married couple doing much the same with the fragmented texts of their lives, the bonding agent being another printed text: money. “Lightning” poses a single protagonist who must deal with similar intertexts even as he struggles to write and live one of his own. Freelancing for a People-like weekly called Folks, he must take assignments on human-interest topics (such as people struck by lightning); the story's length is dictated by concerns of layout, while its focus must be, in his editor's words, on a subject who is not only “pretty sensational” but “slightly wonderful” (O, p. 41). His own career as a writer has taken him down a path much like the husband's in “Affection,” compromising ideals in order to earn more money to please his wife; but at this later stage he has lost his wife and quit the job for the textual bliss of freelancing according to his whims and fancies, with just the occasional high-paying job for Folks to keep him in rent and liquor.

This writer's human-interest feature on interesting people struck by lightning turns out to be a harvesting of recycled parts: nearly every one of his subjects has a grandparent who was struck by lightning as well (usually struck off a buckboard in 1910) and has fastened on an authoritative text to interpret his or her event. The writer himself becomes format-driven, blanching when a second respondent also has a husband named Marty—“Two Martys in the same piece?” (O, p. 44). But at this point he is figuratively struck by lightning himself, falling in love with this woman who is not only slightly wonderful but capable of enfolding him within the text of her own life, made as it is of trendy, manufactured images. Drunk with love, he tries to seduce her with a story generated out of fragments from his public relations work for Texas oil. But all that succeeds is the Folks layout, expanded as it is for this woman of his dreams who has become, in his editor's words, “approximately fantastic” (O, p. 51).

Through these stories and their interleavings Barthelme has woven a larger text whose strands remain distinct even as they become mutually enhancing. As intertextual elements exist within the volume's full-length New Yorker stories, so do those stories themselves function intertextually within the collection's larger narrative movement as carried forth by the italicized interleavings. By themselves, Overnight's titled stories are reminiscent of an earlier Barthelme or, as with “Captain Blood,” of Barthelme's colleagues in postmodern fiction—one thinks of Robert Coover's classic reversal of the Casey at the Bat narrative, “McDuff on the Mound,” when reading Barthelme's hilarious account of a textually correct but contextually inappropriate John Paul Jones speaking his historic lines prematurely and to the wrong auditor. Arranged as they are in Overnight, however, these stories not only reinforce each other, as should happen in a decently arranged collection, but are situated within a larger whole that the interleavings sustain. Should the reader wonder what type of literature is “Captain Blood,” there follows an interleaving in the form of conceptual art, “A woman seated on a plain wooden chair …,” the nature of which suggests that there can be conceptual fiction as well (which “Captain Blood” certainly is). If “Conversations with Goethe” seems at first like a single-joke story (the master's one-sided conversations consisting of aphoristic similes rushing pell-mell into absurdity), the interleaving that follows draws directly on American popular culture to show how the same thing happens when the fans of country and western music dote on the lyrics of their heroes. Finally, in the volume's title story, the larger narrative concludes with these italicized interpolations incorporated directly into the text.

Four years later, in the volume complementing Sixty Stories and rounding off his hundred presumably best stories, Donald Barthelme reprints “Overnight to Many Distant Cities.” But among these Forty Stories are no less than eleven others from the Overnight volume, more than from any single collection recalled for service in his first retrospective. True, Forty Stories also takes a second sampling from books as far back as Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, and draws so many additional pieces from City Life and especially Sadness as to make those collections' representation among the favored hundred almost complete, with only the extremes of obtuseness (“Bone Bubbles”) and obviousness (“Brain Damage,” “Perpetua,” and “Subpoena”) missing. Yet the special nature of Overnight to Many Distant Cities as an integral volume is lost, for the stories are not only presented in a different order (as Barthelme had done for the collections covered in Sixty Stories) but are scattered throughout Forty Stories almost randomly, a departure from his earlier retrospective practice of keeping each volume's selections together. As a final blow to Overnight's special nature, the typographical and titular distinctions between the mainline stories and the interpolations are effaced, making each one just one more equal addition to the Barthelme canon.

The special task of Forty Stories, however, is to complete an even larger whole—a whole much greater than the sum of its individual parts. In this sense, the material comprising Overnight to Many Distant Cities can be read two ways: as a volume that can stand alone almost as easily and completely as do any of the author's novels, or serving as examples of his short story artistry, twelve of which he selects, along with nine quite recent and therefore previously uncollected stories, to represent the latest developments in his work.

These twenty-one pieces reveal a Barthelme as comfortable and as playful as the writer Sixty Stories portrays, but also as an author committed to drawing openly and directly on his own experience. In stories such as “Visitors,” “Affection,” and “Lightning” (all of which are reprinted here), bits and pieces of Donald Barthelme's life could be recognized, but were always couched within the conventions of fiction: different names, similar but not identical professions, and only a generalized reference to locale (Texas, but not specifically Houston; New York City, but only occasionally an address identifiable as Greenwich Village). But by choosing his unsigned New Yorker “Comment” piece identified as “When he came …” in Overnight to Many Distant Cities and running it as a full-fledged, co-equal story under the title of “The New Owner,” Barthelme takes a step as obvious as when selecting his parodies and satires (previously sequestered in Guilty Pleasures) for canonization in Sixty Stories. In 1978, for a limited edition titled Here in the Village published with the Lord John Press in Northridge, California, he had gathered up eleven such unsigned columns and added his Cordier & Ekstrom catalog preface on images of women in art to form an entertaining, engaging, and self-exploratory look at the real Donald Barthelme living on New York's West 11th Street. Even as that volume appeared, the text presented as “The New Owner” in Forty Stories was being debuted as an unsigned “Comment” essay in The New Yorker for December 4, 1978, leading off the magazine's editorial section on page 21. From here its progress is revealing, not just because it brings an element of Here in the Village into Overnight to Many Distant Cities, but because even that presence, interpolative as it was, now becomes mainstream in the retrospective collection that rounds out Barthelme's career as a short story writer.

Of the author's signed New Yorker stories published since Overnight, only “Kissing the President” (August 1, 1983) is passed over. Of the nine included, a few tend toward abstraction, but the great majority are evocative of experiences and locales in Barthelme's very real world. The 1980s had seen him return home to Texas for part of each year and a chair at the University of Houston, his alma mater, and in “Sinbad” he unites the abstract and referential streams of his later work by crafting a story in which the protagonist is at once Sinbad the Sailor washed up on the figurative beach of middle age at the same time he's teaching a writing class at an all too typical southwestern university, where he rescues a failing pedagogic situation by realizing “I have something to teach. Be like Sinbad! Venture forth! Embosom the waves, let your shoes be sucked from your feet and your very trousers enticed by the frothing deep. The ambiguous sea awaits, I told them, marry it!” (FS, p. 34).

“The point of my career is perhaps how little I achieved” (FS, p. 256), concludes the journalist-turned-religion-writer being interviewed in “January,” Forty Stories' last selection. As a piece of fiction, it interrogates itself—how odd that for all of Donald Barthelme's experiments with form, he waits until almost the very end before trying the same format so many critics, including myself, had used to generate texts, presenting him with studious questions to which he would reply in kind, much as does the character Thomas Brecker in this piece. The point of “January,” however, is that viewing a lifetime's remarkable achievements as “so little” is the best way to keep one's self alive. The title, after all, is not “November” or “December,” but rather the year's coldest month, the depth of winter, which is nevertheless the start of something entirely new. Forty Stories, providing as it does the larger context and canonical status for Here in the Village, may well be the January of Barthelme's career—not as a living author but as one for the ages.

Barbara L. Roe (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5816

SOURCE: Roe, Barbara L. “Part 1: The Short Fiction.” In Donald Barthelme: The Short Fiction, pp. 3-93. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Roe surveys Barthelme's later fiction and reflects on his legacy as a short fiction author.]


In 1981, when Barthelme turned 50, he seemed pleased with the view from this lookout. The years, he said, had tempered his anger over humanity's folly and taught him to “cherish” life more and more as there is “less and less time” (Brans, 131). The implications of mortality, however, preoccupy Barthelme's last decade of stories, as aging characters debate, deny, or crusade for their remaining prospects. Not surprisingly, gray often betokens their uncertain status. Depending on a character's perspective, for instance, gray hair is either the gloomy wreath of death or the respectable laurels of experience. Though Bishop, the 49-year-old protagonist of “Visitors,” still idles in the holding tank of middle age, he is beginning to feel the pinch of a silver crown.

Vulnerable to affection, understandably perplexed by the contradictions of age, Bishop never hides his humanity in caricature as so many other characters do. In fact, his story is among the least inventive but most candidly emotional of Barthelme's work. Bishop's cassoulet seduction of young, tanned Christie and particularly his hip bedtime art lecture to 15-year-old daughter Katie deliver the verbal gymnastics that Barthelme aficionados expect of the author's prose: “You get Kandinsky, a bad mother, all them pick-up-sticks pictures, you get my man Mondrian, he's the one with the rectangles and shit, … you get Moholy-Nagy, he did all the plastic thingummies and shit'” (F, 113). However, Bishop's emotions—loneliness, desire, compassion—always simmer near the surface. This emotional complex gathers force in Bishop's tender relationship with Katie, who has been visiting her father each summer since her parents' divorce. As she languishes on the couch with stomach flu, he tries to cheer and comfort her, even though he, too, is ill. Other Barthelme men bemoan such imposition, but Bishop ministers to the task lovingly. His only complaint about the child is the joke he repeatedly musters to reconcile himself to divorce from Katie's “otherwise very sensible, and thrifty” (F, 109) mother. “‘It was your fault,’” he teases Katie. “‘Yours. You made too much noise, as a kid, I couldn't work.’ His ex-wife had once told Katie this as an explanation for the divorce, and he'll repeat it until its untruth is marble, a monument” (F, 108).

The father-daughter confinement occasions not only intermittent conversations, but also drifting reveries that expose Bishop's disorienting status. Worried about his solitude, Katie encourages her father to live a little: “You could find somebody. You're handsome for your age. … You don't try” (F, 107). But this accusation is not quite true. As Bishop recalls, he has ventured into the city streets, only to be confused by the uncertainty of signs—the motley throng on West Broadway, artistic conspiracies. Once, he forced himself to enter a gallery and to wham “EVERLAST heavy bags” (F, 109) at the artist's invitation. He hurt himself. Similarly, though he picks up Christie on the street and lures her back to his apartment, their dialogue only underscores the disparity in their ages and interests. He babbles excitedly about Richard Widmark's “resilience” (F, 111), but she misses any hinted comparisons to Bishop. When she then extols Robert Redford, Bishop worries that “the conversation has strayed, like a bad cow, from the proper path” (F, 112). Even Katie is a paradox. Ill, she seems just a helpless child, but when Bishop is with her in public, he is self-conscious of her maturing body and their impression on strangers as she clings to his arm.

The story closes with Bishop pondering yet another, perhaps prophetic enigma: whether his elderly neighbors eat “breakfast by candlelight” because “they are terminally romantic” or because “they're trying to save electricity” (F, 114). Bishop is equally vague about his own circumstances. Resilience is an effort, but desire and romance are not dead in him. Unlike Barthelme's more pitiable characters, he has yet to witness or experience the paralyzing fear of the unknown.


This story's characters, in contrast, feverishly debate the implications of their mortality in a stark dialogue, stripped of the comfortable setting and explicitly identified characters and relationships offered in “Visitors.” Distractions of style aside, “Morning” exposes emotions as honest and disarming as Bishop's. Hastening to remove from the world their worst fears, the speakers challenge each other to list their particular demons—sirens, vestments, breaking glass, an aging hand, but not death, not death, one thinly protests. As the companions alternately beat their oars against mortality's tide, acceptance and denial of life's inevitable end reciprocate. “Say you're frightened” (SS, 359), the first voice insists, at least twice repeating this plea. Initially more vulnerable than his companion, he pules about an enshrouding “gray light,” while the other obliviously basks in his own brilliant orange desire, “a firestorm of porn” (SS, 359), the hoped-for glow beneath a girl's tight pants.

The conversation's nameless voices, abrupt shifts, and vague pronoun antecedents (especially the occasional “she”) confuse the speakers' gender and number. Hence, if the text's marginal dashes punctuate shifts in thought, not necessarily changes of speaker, then one, two, or several characters may contribute ideas to, say, the “not afraid of” (SS, 360) litany early in the story. Even if, in the simplest reading, the marginal dashes designate two characters' alternating responses (voice A, voice B), the respective trumpets of terror and courage interchange midway through the dialogue. Forgetting his earlier advice that one should not stop long enough to dwell on his fears, the initially more confident speaker of this reading confesses his dread of mornings, weighty with a day's demands. The topic suddenly turns to death, and its lingering denial further undermines confidence. However, as the now-timid voice nervously elicits his companion's confessions to dread, the latter rejuvenates himself with romantic memories and a healthy list of his life's remaining prospects. True, morning confers upon the coward the terrifying responsibility of efficient and timely fulfillment of his prospects, of accounting to his conscience or spouse for some 480 meaningful daylight minutes. But chasing the night's phantoms, morning also ushers in hope. Though he cannot escape his mortality, he does not yet have to forfeit the delights of a “bright glorious day” (SS, 362) and consign himself to a dim room with lonely old men. He and his companion can enjoy the mottled hues of their metamorphosis, gray tendering orange, at least until “darkness, and they give up the search” (SS, 363). Regardless of the number or sequence of characters' voices, this debate's outcome is the same.

In the similarly affirmative dialogue “Great Days,” a voice proclaims, “Each great day is itself, with its own war machines, rattles, and green lords” (F, 242), certainly an ambiguous offering. But as the story's closing knock-knock joke warns, only solitude and anonymity befall those who abandon effort, vigilance, and faith.


Such hopelessness ultimately tolls doom for the lost, aging souls of “The New Music.” Like the impotent cronies in “Grandmother's House,” the speakers could initially be comic Tim Conway and Don Knotts lamenting the injustice of physiques out of sync with desire. Contrary to Arte Johnson's dauntless shuffling lecher on television's “Laugh-In,” they suffer permanent losses with each new rejection. Youth mercilessly lords over its elders. One man recalls how a lovely young seductress, merely “practicing” her wiles, left him emotionally bankrupt, “like Insufficient Funds” (SS, 338). However, this defeat is only a prelude to the story's real subject: willful submission to death in life.

The man errs by denying himself any prospects beyond the virility and confidence of youth. With his companion, he compulsively defends himself as “a slightly old young man still advertising in the trees and rivers for a mate” (SS, 338), but his nervous jokes soon dissipate. No silver trophies immortalize his vital past, and, contrary to the popular adage, cleanliness—the virtue of his middle age—is far overrated. His more enterprising friend tries to allay these misgivings by proposing a special journey. Life's rapturous tunes, distant and strange, waft from Pool, a mecca of hope. There they can once again dance with young women and revel in “the new music.” But distrust tarnishes the bright city's treasures. The demoralized speaker dismisses his friend's enticing descriptions as propaganda for a retirement compound or death camp, whose circuses, rich gardens, and grand estates merely distract attention from the truth: widows water lawns in solitude; photographs replace families in the retirees' homes; inmates receive little medals for daily survival; corpses grace the museum walls. The doubter makes excuses. He must tend to a shirt button, his camping gear, his prescriptive daily tasks.

Behind his paralytic fear looms the doubter's mother. Though only a dark memory, she is one of the few female progenitors in Barthelme's stories not seen chiefly in dubious battle with her spouse. Similar to the mysterious masculine authority in “A Manual for Sons,” this mother is a soul-basher. Or so she seems. The spineless son recalls her ecstatic devotion to “the Eleusinian mysteries and the art of love” (SS, 343). Cloaked in secrecy, these ancient fertility rites venerated Demeter, earth mother and goddess of grain. In autumnal celebrations, when the corn was sown, a priestess coupled with her king on the ploughed earth to recapitulate Demeter's cornfield affair with Iasius and ensure a bountiful harvest. In other rites, Demeter's initiates manipulated phallic objects to reenact the immortals' copulation. Thus, the goddess's fecundity represented life's renewal for both the earth and mankind's spirit.1

In Barthelme's story, however, all these mythical elements compete with archetypal demons and desires in the mother-son relationship. Nightmarish visions conjure residual images of drunken orgies and bloody sacrifices to the ancient matriarch. A grim reaper, the heartless mother seems to conceive her fruits only to harvest and chop them up. The son manifests his ambivalence in a dream about a monster with Teflon claws. The monster complains that the “Curator of Archetypes” has been criticizing the beast for “shuckin' and jivin'” instead of “attacking, attacking, attacking” (SS, 345). Talk of “shuckin'” abruptly evokes the monster's demands for return of a cornflake. In other memories, the son perverts the ancient fertility rites and implicates his mother in his own maturing sexuality. On an autumnal walk, he dreamily relates, he once observed lovers couple “in the bare brown cut fields” (SS, 344) to his right; in the field to his left, however, rocked his stern mother, ignoring his polite tip of his hat to her: “She was pondering. ‘The goddess Demeter's anguish for all her children's mortality'” (SS, 344). He then obscures the forbidden relationship in his insistence that “Momma wouldn't have 'lowed” (SS, 346) “the new music,” but she loved lutes. They used to spend hours, the son recalls, “banging away at [their] lutes” (SS, 345).

In Demeter's rites of death and rebirth, the ceremonies, performed with music and dancing, symbolically delivered participants from mortal terrors into the divinities' glorious climes. Pool boasts not only these revelries, but also buildings and gardens splashed with red, Persephone's color, the hue of resurrection. Though eating the scarlet pomegranate relegated her to Hades for a season, Persephone, like the sown seeds, repeatedly rose from the realm of death to walk the green earth. Associating Pool's revelries with the taboos of his ambivalent relationship with his mother, the son chooses to decay in his current dormancy rather than risk the city's sure debaucheries and villainy. Like those “uninitiated” into the ancient mysteries, he is fated to grovel “in filth and fog, abiding in … miseries through fear of death and lack of faith” (Themistius quoted in Grant, 133). He submits himself to the stony crypt of death in life.


Barthelme lamented such hopeless refusal of life's prospects. Significantly, Pool's architecture shines in the phenomenal world, not an alleged hereafter. For heroic spirits, assurance in the one assuages uncertainty of the other. As Joseph Campbell explains, to witness “not the world of solid things but a world of radiance” requires a “visionary transformation” of the mundane,2 faith in the beauty of the “here and now” (SS, 417). With comic persistence, “The Emerald” casts its light into the shadows of disbelief.

Once again, Barthelme invokes myth as the source of moral enrichment. Contrary to the uncompromising seriousness of Judeo-Christian religion, notes Campbell, myth tolerates an irreverent union of humor and symbolism as it performs its revelations (220). It is a fitting choice for an ethical ironist. In “The Emerald,” Barthelme reveals the gods' presence in the most unlikely vessels: the witch Mad Moll and a reliquary encasing the Foot of Mary Magdalene. Sharing the same initials, the two form a sisterhood of darkness and light, a coalition as ambiguous as the emerald's portent. But as Moll ultimately concludes, one cannot forego the heroic “scrabble for existence” (SS, 417) to worry whether life's mysteries are good, bad, or indifferent.

Conceived on a stormy night, Moll bears suspicious stigmas: a black beard and a furry black mark on her forehead. In a wild parallel to the Immaculate Conception, she claims to have endured a seven-year pregnancy to deliver a god's offspring, a sleeping, talking emerald, fathered by the man in the moon. In the midst of other provocative numerical configurations, the child's arrival “at six sixty-six in the evening” (SS, 394) further darkens the omens. Though an acceptable tale in antiquity, the story seems madness to her cynical contemporaries. Yet Moll brews knowledge. In her “witch's head” swirl spells and incantations but also “memories of God,” from whose sustaining hands she “fell … into the world” (SS, 410). Faced with a phalanx of doubters, however, her magic and wisdom sometimes seem “not enough” (SS, 401).

Having abandoned the “tucked-away gods” (SS, 401), disbelievers constitute this story's greater populace. Like Dante's lost souls, they form a hierarchy of denial. Deferring to her husband's prejudices, Moll's mother drifts into doubt when she tries to disguise her daughter's congenital oddities to make her look normal, common, anonymous. Flatly dismissing Moll's tale, young ignorant Lily reduces the emerald's mystical conception to salacious details, such as the alleged father's “hideously engorged member” (SS, 392). Like those beyond the gates of Dis, the truly hopeless doubters are mercenary schemers. A pervert tries to peddle his own false idol in a dark alley. Lather, the editor of World, capitalizes on life's ugliness and terror. Thieves calculate the weighty stone's value in dollars per carat. Out of greed, bitterness, or fear, they want to destroy this pretender to the gods. Their spirits, if not their purses, are bankrupt, as they petrify in their own iron-willed obstinancy.

Allied with the powerful Foot, loyal bodyguard Soapbox, the canine convert Tarbut, and her own green redeemer, Moll crusades for the spiritual enchantments still accessible to mortals. The gods, she tells Lily, “are not dormant or dead as has often been proclaimed by dummies” (SS, 416), but “to live twice” (SS, 404), as the ruthless Vandermaster demands, may indeed presume too much. Faith, action, love—these articulate spirit and consciousness in the deafening roar of the “ferocious Out” (SS, 399). Such human experience, says Joseph Campbell, elicits the “rapture of being alive” (5).


The physical, emotional, and intellectual sources of human rapture preoccupy much of the short fiction in Overnight to Many Distant Cities. A few pieces—“Conversations with Goethe,” “Well we all had our Willie & Wade records …,” “Wrack,” “Captain Blood”—softly hum the amusements or comforts of friendship. But human desire—sometimes random lust, more often sustained magnetism—seems in this collection's stories the best hope for mortals to share anything akin to heroics or otherworldly bliss.

In “The Sea of Hesitation,” for instance, narrator Tom routinely records the detached pursuits of his self-indulgent acquaintances. Francesca obsesses about Robert E. Lee; Catherine, about Balzac. Jinka writes Tom hate mail. Their interests are frenetic, disconnected; Tom seems equally indifferent to each. Still, he repeatedly defends people's right to “do what they want to do” (O, 94). Any willful action, he suggests, is better than silence and immobility. Ironically, through most of the story, Tom himself seems incapable of decisive action. Recalling his work with “sensory deprivation studies” (O, 95), he admits that the inertia of hibernating in a cozy “black box” with “the white-noise generator standing in for the sirens of Ulysses (himself an early SD subject)” (O, 103) is a tempting alternative to bucking for a place in the world. However, his comparison to Ulysses, paradoxically “deprived” to prove he could conquer temptation and premature death, supports Tom's subsequent claim that such experimentation is not “will-lessness,” but the pursuit of “Possibility” (O, 103). The degree of heroism is relative to one's world: in this “Age of Fear” (O, 99), any “behavior” seems to Tom “a small miracle” (O, 96).

As Ulysses bravely lurched over the treacherous deep, Tom now tugs along on his own low-grade odyssey. After reading several pages of this voyage's uneventful log, we must suspect, against Tom's and Moll's protests, that the gods are indeed “dormant or dead.” Then, in the last vignette, life's best miracle befalls Tom: sudden passion for a woman at the newsstand. Love animates him with joy not glimpsed elsewhere in the story. Rapt with desire for this goddess, who wordlessly returns his ardor, “smash of glance on glance” (O, 103), his heroic “persona floats toward her persona, over the Sea of Hesitation” (O, 103), and he savors every detail of the mating ritual. This magnetism, however short-lived, reaffirms humanity's riches.

For gods and mankind alike, of course, love is not without folly. Forgetting his wife and propriety, another narrator abandons himself to glorious debauchery at the Hotel Terminus: “He has learned nothing from the gray in his hair; … he behaves as if something were possible, still” (O, 115). Lost to love “forever,” he then suffers betrayal: “She comes toward him fresh from the bath, opens her robe. Goodbye, she says, goodbye” (O, 117). Unlike some of Barthelme's other tales of rejection, however, “Terminus” closes with no hint of regret. Likewise, the narrator of “The Sea” embraces love's immediate prospects, even though he knows that he will eventually discover “spiritual blemishes” (O, 104) in his mate. Desire inspires hope, if not discretion. This risky assent to possibility is the payoff for surviving the advancement of years. As the life-worn Henrietta philosophizes, “maturity” has blessed her with an appreciation for human prospects in “a rich world beyond the pale” (O, 87). One does not grow old, she assures her mate Alexandra, “while love is here” (O, 87).

Two of the bridge pieces in Overnight also boast the heroics of love. In “Now that I am older …,” desire transforms ordinary food and furnishings into spiritual accoutrements. Noble sounding phrases—“fleet through the woods” (O, 132) instead of “came home from work,” and “plucked forth a cobwebbed bottle” (O, 132) instead of “passed the Gallo”—likewise mask the vernacular. The speaker covets the ritual of flowers and feasts that anticipates the bed, but mostly he covets the bed. Like an “arrow from the bow” or “spear from the hand of Achilles” (O, 132) (he is in too much of a hurry to choose between these similes), he rushes to his lover, bearing posies and pop records in lieu of shield and sword. Contrary to “The Sea,” this ardent meditation ignores life's dull parts. More significantly, it ignores death. Above the bed where the lovers have enjoyed so many “violent nights” hangs a “silverprint” (O, 131) of violent death, its “prostrate forms” (O, 132) partially illumined by each morning's dawn. The speaker barely notes the gruesome omen before once again ravishing the lovely prone “form” beside him in “full light” (O, 132). The ironic analogy here between mortality's best and worst possibilities is unmistakable. For now, at least, life's coffers are full.

The other bridge piece—“I am, at the moment …”—is a strangely ethereal meditation, almost a hymn to death. Or maybe it is a hymn to memory, dream, imagination, the lighted altars of intellect. It is certainly a hymn to art. Like “They called for more structure …” and “A woman seated on a plain wooden chair …,” the visionary text resonates with joy in the provocative beauty of words. The setting is a forest, but the cosmos that embraces this ethereal thicket is uncertain. Familiar earthly landmarks—Ireland, France, Portugal—are “remote” (O, 163) or “wrapped in an impenetrable haze” (O, 164), though the tombs amid the exotic “beanwoods” are “perfectly ordinary gray stone” (O, 163) and the “already-beautiful” wear crowns of “red kidney beans” (O, 164). Typically, Barthelme's woods are lively places, where old gray wolves romp after nymphs. “Departures,” for instance, depicts the narrator's grandfather gamely bartering with the dryad Megwind, who is “lovely as light” (F, 102). But the forest of “I am, at the moment …” is hushed, holy, lighted by someone beloved who religiously glues “chandeliers” (O, 163) to the beanwood limbs. All Barthelme's woods, however, harbor mystery, and often miracles. As the narrator of “Departures” confesses, he is only “fantasizing” (F, 102) the forest and its denizens, but imagination's sorcery can conjure extraordinary visions to lighten the load of “human affairs” (O, 165).

Several images in “I am, at the moment …” suggest that this dreamy vision is another analog to death, not the physical wreckage of the last piece's silverprint, but the soul's contemplated release. Sometimes the speaker seems formless, otherworldly, physically remote from his lover. He sleeps in the tombs with the “already-beautiful,” who, like Demeter's devotees, dance mystical rites. There are also redemptive overtones. After confession, “thieves” lie with the “deans of the chief cathedrals” (O, 164) in the woods. And the speaker confides, “This life is better than any I have lived, previously” (O, 164). Though he “rise[s] … to hold the ladder” (O, 163) for his beloved and closely monitors her labors, moreover, the couple never explicitly communicates. In fact, he says that he has a testament of “notes, instructions, quarrels” (O, 163) that he has been intending to discuss with her but has not or cannot. Briefly frustrated, he imagines that passionately hitting his own brow might “fell [him] to the earth” (O, 163). Some images, on the other hand, tauntingly imply that this vision is just another sexual fantasy, more well disguised than most. The “already-beautiful,” who tote around “plump red hams” (O, 163), dance with “bronze hares,” which the speaker has cast at night with much hot, sweaty, rhythmic labor: “Working the bellows, the sweat, the glare. The heat. The glare” (O, 164). Dancing and coupling is again reminiscent of Demeter's rites. More clearly, in this enchanting life that the speaker so enjoys, “beautiful hips bloom and part” (O, 164). Thus, when the speaker excitedly follows this disclosure with news of his beloved's “sudden movement toward red kidney beans” (O, 164), the reader cannot be sure whether she is ascending his spiritual ladder or descending his torso.

“I am, at the moment …” creates the sort of dense, abstract lyrics that Barthelme knew might lose readers. Wisely, he placed it like a benedictory preface to the keystone of Overnight to Many Distant Cities, the story that shares the volume's title. All the demons of human relationships, in fact, are appeased in “Overnight,” as maturity's tender mercies assuage the psychic losses of disappointment, familial conflict, aborted romances, and aging. If Barthelme mapped the previous piece's mazes and detours in exotic landscapes, he charts this story's settings in the everyday world, or at least in a tempered imagination's analogs to these locales. Paris, Stockholm, Taegu, and Berlin are distant only because memory displaces them to an ephemeral past. Tolerance and pleasure then balance the emotional investments in these sites.

The story condenses the journeys of a life into a fleeting chronicle, just as its spatial leaps circle the globe in a few pages. It is a deceptively spare microcosm. Italicized reminiscences announce each excursion. Some memories rankle a bit: in Paris, the speaker impatiently kicked his temperamental child; in Boston, he helped a divorcée load up her marriage spoils; in Taegu, too many swaggering generals demanded the spoils of rank. No matter how he watched his path, moreover, the narrator was always stepping into someone else's politics: swilling Stockholm's expensive J & B, he unwittingly supported the Swedish army; a “Warsaw Pact novelist” once inveigled him to smuggle “a package of paper” (O, 170) to the United States. Most pitiful, though, was the wretched loveless man in London, who gnawed his buttons for his soul's hunger. Selected for review along with these misfortunes, however, are ecstatic times shared with friends or lovers: a youthful escapade in Mexico City, more exciting to the elders who tracked the runaways than to the romantic adolescents themselves; simple “happiness” (O, 174) with a beautiful lover in Berlin; best of all, the celebration of Barcelona.

The Barcelona anecdote that closes the story departs noticeably from the context now expected of these recollections. To this point, the narrator has substantiated his memories almost exclusively with “real” objects and places. The people, though sometimes exaggerated, are likewise credible. Contrarily, the Barcelona anecdote resumes the dreamy tone and sublime images of “I am, at the moment. …” Again, the persona seems both quick and dead. At first, the italics hint no mystery: “In Barcelona the lights went out” (O, 174). Probably just an electrical short; hence, the candlelit dinner of “shiny langoustines” (O, 174). Later, strolling with his lover, the narrator celebrates the repeatedly blissful state of marriage: “Show me a man who has not married a hundred times,” he boasts, “and I'll show you a wretch who does not deserve the world” (O, 174). Through the anecdote's first paragraph, then, nothing more than mortal romance seems to inspire his rapture for Barcelona. Yet in the next paragraph, he is suddenly and quite mysteriously dining with “the Holy Ghost” (O, 174) and discussing Barcelona's lighting difficulties. The passage ends just as ambiguously: “In an ecstasy of admiration for what is we ate our simple soup” (O, 174).

Here, again, is the now familiar apotheosis of life as is, with faith edging out irony in death's final play-off. Is Barthelme structuring another analog between a freely creative intellect and a blissful, otherworldly spirit? Very possibly. An infinite cosmos, “Overnight” suggests, exists in memory, dream, and imagination. But the god of this cosmos is just an ordinary mortal, listening to Manhattan's forecast—“tomorrow, fair and warmer, warmer and fair, most fair. …” (O, 174)—as he eats his “simple soup.” All in all, it is a good life, Barthelme wrote. Bless the bean waters of Babel.



By the late 1980s, people were accustomed to Barthelme's shameless irreverence for short story form: his absences, his arias, his fiction's chameleon poses. But acceptance had its laggards. For instance, colleague Raymond Carver, once suspicious of Barthelme's motives, tried to make peace by honoring “Basil from Her Garden” in Best American Short Stories, 1986. When Barthelme subsequently dissected this particular fiction and scattered it through Paradise, Carver felt betrayed. Had he known “Basil” was to be part of a novel, he grumbled, he would not have considered it. Carver's chagrin amused Barthelme. He wanted to redeem good will, to tell Carver that, at the time, he himself did not know the story's destiny. Neither, of course, could Barthelme have imagined his own life path when he wrote Damon Runyon parodies for his high school newspaper or hung shows in a Houston gallery or trailed his gods to New York City. In life, as in fiction, he trafficked in possibility.

Still, like most artists, most people, Barthelme succumbed to bouts of despair and abused his health. Seeing his thin books on the shelf next to other writers' thick books worried him. Sustaining a novel worried him. He used to say that his stories' tight, complex structures taxed intellect and patience; they were difficult to support in a sprawling network. The public's expectations fed this worry. Popular bias viewed short fiction as a stepchild unworthy of the novel's laurels. With his startling successes, however, Barthelme greatly altered this perception of short fiction and opened the genre for other generations to blaze their own trails into the “exquisite mysterious muck.” As Overnight to Many Distant Cities indicates, moreover, maturity gave his work a patina of age, temperance, and grace. Snow White and The Dead Father were distant triumphs before he again successfully launched a novel, but even as Barthelme concentrated his last years' efforts on longer fiction, he never abandoned the rich veins mined in narrow spaces.

In March 1989 the New Yorker published its last short fiction from Barthelme before he died the following July. If not a dazzling performance, “Tickets” is one of those beautifully balanced meditations that returns pleasure with every reading.3 Stylistically more conservative than the lyric abstractions in Overnight, it confirms the even hand of the settled writer. Because Barthelme's stature in American short fiction owes so much to the longevity of his relationship with this magazine, “Tickets” deserves a cameo shot.

Barthelme once said that his favorite sentence was not a sleek liner, but an old “wreck,” curious for all its odd baggage.4 Without straining to the limits of “Sentence” or “Bone Bubbles,” “Tickets” assembles a whole fleet of these fastidiously constructed wrecks—true treasures in Barthelme's legacy. The narrator's role in the fiction's dilemma supports these semantic freighters perfectly. From the first postured sentence, the narrator tries to muster the impression that he is inured to social politics. His wife has tickets to the symphony. Though she has politely invited the narrator to join “her group” (32)—her group consisting of herself and her thick, thick friend Morton—she knows full well that her husband does not like to suffer the discomforts of sitting all evening. Meanwhile, the artist Barbet has invited the narrator's wife and Morton to join his group. Fueled by the narrator's repressed jealousy, these simple gestures menace like rival nations' lying diplomacy. The sublimated emotion also generates the story's stylistic accretions. As staid subject-verb openings quickly collect clause upon clause, defense upon defense, obsessive thinking exposes the narrator's feigned control as mental paralysis. Suspended in his agitation, he cannot act—hence, the absence of plot.

Pleasure derives chiefly from comic exchanges within this tense design. The strongest stylistic pattern is an amusing “cancellation” motif. With “invitation” and “counter-invitation” (32), the narrator's wife and Barbet introduce this pattern in the story's first two paragraphs. In their game of social politics, each player checks the other's moves until he or she captures the opponent's men or women. After the narrator reviews his options for attending the symphony himself, the story compounds the game's significance. Dwelling on both Barbet's gall and his vicious “decayed wit” (33), the narrator explains midway through his mental volley that the artist's notoriety rests on his “‘Cancellation’ paintings” (33)—canvasses that superimpose an unknown work on a famous one and thereby invalidate the masterpiece. Like the terrorist writers Barthelme described in “After Joyce,” Barbet manufactures objects hostile to both art and life. He betrays his creative gifts. Ironically, the narrator replicates this destructive process by defending Barbet's “fundamentally indefensible” (33) acts. With mock praise of the paint's value, for instance, he essentially cancels the importance of Barbet's art. However, he really wishes to cancel Barbet and suggests that the artist's “ill will” (33) justifies shooting the nuisance. The cancellation motif's real task, though, is to purge the jealous “ill will” that immobilizes the narrator in his obsessive thinking/counterthinking. Morton facilitates the resolution. Barbet hates Morton, but Morton counters Barbet's malice with an “indifference” that exacerbates the artist to “illness” (34). A riotous rug analogy, extended in one carbuncular sentence to almost 200 words, finishes off the malcontent. More importantly, Morton's role in Barbet's misfortune delights the narrator and thus cancels all “ill will” for his wife's friend. Checkmate.

This resolution returns the narrator to prospects declared in the story's opening sentence (forming his own group), but unbridled joy now vanquishes earlier restraint and inspires him to action. Rebelliously embracing Morton, a Gypsy, a blind man, and “that sugarplum” his wife, he proclaims that his new group “will exist in contradistinction to all existing groups” (34). His enthusiasm for life's wonderful charge will mobilize countless troops. Barthelme's trademark litany—here, “Let's go! Let's go!” sung “over and over” (34) with the signature faith of the later stories—spurs adherents into the mysterious welter.

Like a friendship of unexpected joy and duration, “Tickets” gives the kind of pleasure that makes good memories of good literature. Barthelme bequeathed many such gifts. Not the least was his legacy to his students, who remember him affectionately as a munificent magus with one gene from Legree. Though he never sent his style armies to trample other writers' sacred land, he did expect untested troops to bleed their native talents. According to former students Vikram Chandra (Sahaj) and Olive Hershey, reading one's feeble words aloud in class to the inexorable pacing of Barthelme's lizard cowboy boots could be murderous for a young writer unaccustomed to the master's scrutiny. Sometimes such a trial left the linoleum “littered with small carcasses.”5 No one, however, doubted Barthelme's motives for cutting his or her work to the quick. The master's radar, says Hershey, was “unerring”: “As a teacher [Barthelme] gave the kind of criticism I could accept, e.g., ‘Your sperm count is low,’ ‘Make her smarter,’ or ‘Try having her fall in love with the other guy.’ He had an astounding gift as a listener, hearing work for the first time in class and knowing instantly where the story wanted/needed to go.”6 In matchless acts of integrity, moreover, Barthelme generously donated his time, money, and energy to prepare his students to light their own ways. As much as his inimitable fiction, they will remember these gifts.

When Barthelme died, his literary estate included Guilty Pleasures, his “nonfiction” parodies/satires; Sam's Bar: An American Landscape, a picture-text collaboration with Seymour Chwast; The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, his award-winning children's book; four novels (The King, published posthumously); and nine short fiction collections. Given their creative triumphs, all within three decades, these works constitute a staggering legacy. Translated into many languages, the short fictions alone extend Barthelme's importance to literature globally. These small fictions were the author's natural terrain. Here, on his existential journeys, Barthelme never dreamed utopian parks poised beyond an earthly pale. But he willed us something better: privileged glimpses of the world's gardens, lush with exquisite flaws. “Collect the troops!” his stories hail. “Let's go! Let's go!”


  1. For a thorough discussion of Demeter's and daughter Persephone's roles in the death-rebirth rituals, see Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1960), 1:89-96; and Michael Grant, Myths of the Greeks and Romans (New York: New American Library, 1962), 126-38; hereafter cited in the text.

  2. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, ed. Betty Sue Flowers (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 230; hereafter cited in the text.

  3. “Tickets,” New Yorker, 6 March 1989, 32-34; hereafter cited in the text.

  4. See Larry McCaffery, “An Interview with Donald Barthelme,” in Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists, ed. Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 34.

  5. Vikram Chandra [Sahaj], “Good-bye, Mr. B,” Texas Monthly, July 1990, 48.

  6. Olive Hershey, letter to author, 19 May 1989.

Wayne B. Stengel (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3306

SOURCE: Stengel, Wayne B. “Irony and the Totalitarian Consciousness in Donald Barthelme's Amateurs.” In Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, edited by Richard F. Patteson, pp. 145-52. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992.

[In the following essay, Stengel analyzes three representative stories from Amateurs in order to differentiate Barthelme's early and later short fiction and to explore the relationship between irony and human consciousness in his work.]

At his best Donald Barthelme was a highly moral and political American short story writer. Moreover, for a decade or so—from the mid-sixties to the late seventies—in a plentiful, inventive stream of stories that often appeared first in the New Yorker, Barthelme challenged and enlarged the possibilities for short story form and short story expression. As the seventies proceeded, Barthelme's imaginative energies altered substantially. This phenomenon is apparent in Amateurs, Barthelme's fifth collection of short stories, published in 1976. There are four or five first-rate stories in this group of twenty-one, and yet even in the best of these Barthelme's vision seems tamed, controlled, even restrained by some of the very forces that his earlier writing so brilliantly destroyed or at least called into question. If the two most important vectors in Barthelme's short fiction are irony and human consciousness, as well as the relationship between the two, many of the stories in Amateurs impinge irony on their subject matter from so many perspectives as to be finally not so much deeply ironic, or even anironic, but merely controlled by Barthelme's willful subjugation to his own dazzling, dexterous use of a variety of ironic stances. Likewise, if Barthelme's stories prior to Amateurs consistently reject the tendency of human consciousness to force imaginative writing into conventional, preordained shapes and containers, some of the most effective tales in this collection are about the triumph of groupthink, the victory of a particular, collective attitude to reality that squelches the desires of individuality, language, and perverse lone resistance to its kind of conformist tyranny. Furthermore, there is far too little, and far too ambivalent, a sense of the irony of just these defeats within these stories. By analyzing three vivid, representative tales from Amateurs, “The School,” “Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby,” and “The New Member,” I think it is possible to see a large and significant fault line between early and later Barthelme. In recognizing this graphic distinction, critics might begin to assess the gains and losses in Barthelme's attitude toward his own ironic attempts to forge a reconciliation with the world and toward his vision of human consciousness as fostering a kind of intellectual totalitarianism among otherwise independent, free-spirited, and civilized men and women.

“The School” is one of Barthelme's most frequently anthologized works, appearing as a representative sample of Barthelme's art and as an exemplum of post-modernist short story practice in a wide variety of freshman composition texts and short story collections. Yet what is one of Barthelme's smoothest, glibest, and rhetorically most confident tales is a curiously self-defeated model as well. Told by a male grade school teacher, this tale recounts, in a kind of mellifluous, catalogued ironic lament, a series of deadly mishaps involving first plants and animals, then parents, and finally reaching their children, who are students in the narrator's elementary school class. As the mayhem and horror of these spiraling disasters mount, the teacher, with only occasional qualms or nervousness, proceeds with his lesson plans, insistent that these disruptions are inevitable in a modern education and, perhaps, are irrelevant to it. When his terrified students demand to know why the school has been besieged with these unremitting catastrophes, the narrator can offer them no satisfying explanation. Furthermore, they insist that he offer them proof of the power of regeneration, the force of life over death, by making love to their attractive teacher's aide before their innocent eyes. Horrified by their request and yet fearful of ignoring their anxiety, the narrator begins to embrace the student teacher as his students become excited. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door. The narrator opens it to find a new pet gerbil waiting to enter his classroom. Barthelme concludes his parable with the sample declarative: “The children cheered wildly.”1

Doubtless the smug, mostly self-assured voice of the narrator is meant to represent those modern educational administrators who insist on procedure, order, and ritual under any circumstances, choosing to ignore the death, violence, and chaos of the society around them as they hurry through their daily drills, schedules, and standardized agendas. Where is the humanity and ultimate purpose in an education that so ignores the brutality of the world, Barthelme asks? Yet what finally fails this story is its lack of surface tension and its ironically smiling conclusions.

Anyone who teaches this story must ask who has placed this new gerbil outside this desperately smiling instructor's door so that he can begin yet another round of falsely confident, cajoling lessons in animal and human ecology—the glib, manipulative teacher, his fellow instructors and administrators, or worse yet, Barthelme, the looming authorial presence in the tale? What is wrong with both the consciousness and the irony in this work is that it becomes, at once, too little and much too much. Barthelme is at great pains to show that the sweetly domineering consciousness of this grade school teacher is not a monstrous force but an individual, with his own uncertainties and insecurities. Still, his victory achieved by someone placing before the students new life, and thus diverting them from their meaningful, hard-headed questions about life and death and human values, is a triumph for just the collectivist brain damage that so many of Barthelme's earlier tales have assailed. Moreover, in conclusion, the children cheer wildly at what? It is the simple arrival of a new living creature, the endless ability of their teacher to deceive them, the duplicity of their school in cheating them out of a meaningful education, or, in essence, the force of Barthelme's imagination in finishing his tale with such multiple, whimsically ironic endings that even his readers become a tool of his skillful rhetorical persuasion?

What is most wrong about his charming, accomplished cautionary fable is not just its protagonist's easy acquiescence to the forces of control and submission—although earlier Barthelme stories like “City Life,” “Paraguay,” “The Explanation” and “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” refute just the totalitarianism to which this narrator succumbs—but the smoothness of its droning narrative listing of disaster, its almost musicialization of grief and disaster recorded as a harmonic Vonnegut-like “so it goes.” In one of his finest stories, “Engineer Private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916,” from Sadness (1972), Barthelme recreates abstract expressionist painter Klee's experience as a thoroughly reluctant inductee in World War I and sketches a great artist's ability to make the best of any nightmare through the sheer force of his imagination. On the other hand, “The School” displays the power of a teacher and a writer to hoodwink his pupils and audience through the power of his pet gerbil, his linguistic magic acts, parlor tricks done with mirrors, and self-reflexive language. In stories before Amateurs, Alan Wide recognizes a significant shift in the writer's attitude to his use of irony: “The fact is that increasingly in Barthelme's work, if not consistently, mere acceptance is modified by a more positive, more affirmative anironic attitude of assent … Klee intimates the possibility of irony (irony completed by the anironic ideal it implies) as a graceful, even integrative gesture toward the world.”2 Yet the voice of “The School” has no desire to integrate his view of education as rote procedure with the tragedies that beset his school. Rather, he wants to superimpose his rules and guidelines on his students as a means of ignoring and suppressing the painful incongruities of experience.

What's worse, this story has absolutely no rough surfaces. Barthelme's best tales have the jagged edges, the musical flat notes of jazz and collage, two of Barthelme's favorite art forms. Because of their raggedness and asymmetry, encountering such stories from any angle draws blood, invokes the shock of recognition that here is an artist deeply suspicious of the detritus of American pop culture and mass consumption, a writer who is forcing the short story into a symbolist, highly poeticized verbal and formal stylization to dramatize his anxieties about the vulgarity and emptiness of contemporary American experience. “Fragments are the only forms I trust,”3 insists the narrator of “See The Moon,” deeply aware of the moral responsibility of the legitimate craftsman to shape the fragmentation of his culture and experience into a sum that is more than the holes in its parts. “Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole,”4 the narrator of “The Indian Uprising” contends as he watches the takeover of New York City and his own imagination by a savage, terrorist band of Comanche Indians expertly trained in guerrilla warfare and brutal counterinsurgency techniques. With this story Barthelme clearly recognizes that though language may be capable of destroying the meaning and value of experience, the moral and political demands of art dictate that the consummate writer retain his identity and purpose, whatever the forces of oppression or liberation, justice, or injustice a society creates or inherits.

Yet despite these fictive recognitions of the writer's moral and political responsibility, by the time of Amateurs in 1976, there seem to be unsettling confusions in Barthelme's style and subject matter. No critic has analyzed Barthelme's aesthetic late career quandary as forcefully as Jack Hicks in his study of contemporary American fiction, In the Singer's Temple.

These twenty fictions [Amateurs] lack the structural and linguistic energy of Barthelme's most significant work. There is no experimentation with typography or engraving, nor is there widespread use of literary fragmentation or collage, as in “The Falling Dog” or “Departures.” … Barthelme's fiction … is a precarious balancing between lyric poetry and narrative prose; it depends on the tension between the necessary baggage of character, plot line, sustained mood, traditional syntax, and consistence of verbal style and the correcting need to deny, modify, or escape from those holding cells. It thrives on the eternal dichotomy between fiction as artistic sublimation ruled by logic, order, and coherence, and verbal expression as the more unrestricted play of the mind, particularly in its preconscious and subconscious aspects, daubing as an idiot savant at the palette. However accessible and affirmative, … the stories [in Amateurs] often lack the richness of texture and narrative invention that characterized Barthelme's finest work.5

With equal acuity, Hicks summarizes the philosophical tensions implicit in Amateurs and all of Barthelme's fiction: “Barthelme regards literature as a single, hierarchical system within a vastly oppressive mega-hierarchy. The act of writing is a projection of human consciousness; what is needed is a form of literature that releases consciousness from the burden of the past and from its own self-destructive tendencies.”6

Yet the legitimately menacing quality of “Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby,” an occasionally anthologized story from Amateurs and arguably one of the cleverest and most ominously controlled stories Barthelme ever composed, depicts the desiccation of individual consciousness as a creatively gleeful act. In this tale a coterie of aesthetes gathers to discuss the fate of their friend Colby, who has obviously gone too far. Collectively, their totalitarian impulses dictate that Colby meet with death by hanging and the entire duration of the story, as narrated by one of their circle, consists of their discussion of the graceful, aesthetic forms, the polite, easeful considerations they can amend to their decision to destroy their friend's right to be. A variety of special arrangements are proposed as humane accoutrements to his beheading. One friend wonders what kind of classical music—exalted or severe—should accompany the event; another speculates how the invitation to the ceremony should be worded, while yet another ponders if wire or rope is the most painless method for Colby's demise. Not only does this story brilliantly demonstrate the total triumph of the artful, artificial forms of modern life over any moral content, but the story demonstrates the unabashed victory of a horrific consensus consciousness that can easily obliterate meaning and purpose in a decadent, overcivilized society.

Yet the ultimate confusions of the tale lie in its contradictory, self-consuming senses of irony. Its smiling nihilism, this Kafka-without-claws quality, lies not exclusively in what Hicks perceives as the strength of its forces of logic, order, and coherence, personified by Colby's would-be friends, but also in Colby's enervated inabilities—and Barthelme's limited desire—to have Colby fight back, escape, or evade their grotesque but fine-tuned reasoning. Colby hardly constitutes the vital Barthelme ego, what Hicks calls an “idiot savant daubing at the pallet of his very unique consciousness.” Thus the greatest terror of the story is that finally it is consumed by what Hicks recognizes as its own self-destructive tendencies. “Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” is a masterful, hilarious, smooth-as-glass depiction of how gracious and urbane citizens perform complex, strategic, and heinous acts, losing their individual identities to the dominant consciousness of a death-obsessed, death-worshipping culture. Unfortunately, one can't help but feel that completely appreciating this story means losing some small portion of one's own consciousness and irony to enjoy Barthelme's linguistic destruction of Colby as much as the narrator and Colby's other friends relish tightening the rope around his neck.

If a denuded Kafkaesque spirit hovers over this story, the full-fledged energy of Poe, Barthelme's other influential literary benefactor, gives real dimension, even poignance, to “The New Member,” one of the most unappreciated stories in Amateurs. “The New Member” is never anthologized in short story collections, has been critically avoided by scholars, and is hardly deemed essential reading for anyone attempting to assess the Barthelme canon. Yet this tale, once again about horrifying committee decisions and the partial triumph of committee consciousness, has an exuberantly playful, highly unpredictable sensibility and a well-contained sense of irony. The story ultimately demonstrates that the forces of totalitarianism threatening to engulf modern life are susceptible, even vulnerable, to their own fears, tremors, and demons of control. In this tale, which is a deadpan spoof of those collective mental processes so conditioned by Roberts' Rules of Order that they are unable to think beyond it, either a committee of archangels, a gathering of exceedingly genteel mafioso bosses and matrons, or, most likely, a group of East Side Manhattan philanthropic benefactors, meet to decide the fate of their charges. These privileged executives and doyens are so consumed with ruling a motion proper or out of order, seconding or tabling it, that they have long forgotten that people's fates and lives hang in the balance. When a novice member of the committee looks apprehensively outside their meeting room to report a huge stranger lurking at the window, her fears gradually convince other committee members to invite the outsider into their enclave. By story's end, the tribunal offers this alien presence a seat on the committee so that one of the anonymous masses whose lives are so randomly disrupted by its causal pronouncements can at last take part in their decision-making process.

One of the wittily calculated concluding ironies of this tale is that the hulking stranger, now a part of one of his society's most important committees, its dominant thought processes, immediately emerges as an insufferable tyrant. Like many creatures who live for committee duties, he instantly becomes a whimsical autocrat given to absurd decrees and stringent regulations. The new member's saving grace is revealed in the last sentence of the story. Although he demands that all members wear gray overalls with gray T-shirts, that they say morning, evening, and lunchtime prayers and do calisthenics between 5 and 7 p.m., and despite his forbidding boutonnieres, nose rings, and gatherings of one or more persons, “on the question of bedtime, [he is] of two minds.”7

Very few Barthelme stories achieve such a perfect balance of his concerns with human consciousness and irony with such grace and astringency. If the great danger for human consciousness in the modern world is society's terrifying drive to make all individuals think as one, how, Barthelme asks, does literature effectively dramatize that threat, and how can irony ridicule this compulsion without making the ironic impulse just another aspect of the collectivization of human thought? With this story, Barthelme makes his new member as guilty of the deadly pragmatism and fatalism as the narrow circle of lawmakers he enters, while giving this newest dictator some of his colleagues' trepidations and uncertainties. Barthelme ultimately declares here that the hope for all totalitarian systems, as the West has just recently seen with communism, is that, eventually, they may be “of two minds.”

After an initial series of stories and short story collections that viewed experimentation, formal innovation, fragmentation, and collage as fundamental means for analyzing human perception, Barthelme's later writing enters the enemy camp. What is it like to be part of absurd mental constructs like educational administration, a deadly, claustrophobic clique of aspiring artists and aesthetes, or any committee that makes life and death judgments, Barthelme asks in “The School,” “Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby,” and “The New Member.” The danger in these tales is that in visiting their tyrannical collective social consciousness, Barthelme fraternizes far too much with his antagonists' dilemmas. In revealing ironies within ironies inside their hierarchical systems, Barthelme can make totalitarianisms that wish to devour us seem all too humane, amusing, understandable, or aesthetically appealing. Ultimately one can ask, at least about “The School” and “Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby,” where does Barthelme stand in relation to these stories? Isn't he too sympathetic with his instructor's evasion of responsibility to his students in “The School,” and don't we, us the audience, as well as Barthelme, eventually enjoy threatening our friend Colby? In Amateurs, only in “The New Member” does Barthelme have the wit, moral vision, and controlled irony to explain the origins of his pet gerbil while vividly illustrating the dissension in the ranks that the sudden appearance of this beast on the threshold creates. In this ingenious fabliau, the figure hovering in the doorway is our own need to continue the lesson, to proceed with the story, to be ironically entertaining before our audience at all costs, even though we know we are as capable of manipulation, threat, and the desire to control others as individuals within the most insidious totalitarian environments. Our redeeming trait may be that, on some issues, we are of two minds.

In an otherwise felicitous essay honoring Donald Barthelme's career, John Barth in the September 19, 1989, New York Times Book Review called Barthelme the thinking man's minimalist.8 For all of Barthelme's economy and miniaturization, he can never accurately be called a member of the minimalist school. Nor did he strive for limited effects in a limited short story form. Indeed, Barthelme was interested in evoking major aesthetic realignments, crucial shifts in our attention spans, and substantial inversions in our grasp of language and cognition. Recognizing that the human thought process in all its scope, grandeur, and wackiness is a huge and complex subject, Barthelme could be better termed the thinking man's essentialist. He is forever a writer who realizes the need for individuality, persistence, and the constant struggle of every unique human consciousness in asserting itself against many of the monolithic, pernicious, deadly “isms” of twentieth-century life.


  1. Donald Barthelme, Amateurs (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), 41.

  2. Alan Wilde, Horizons of Assent (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 183-84.

  3. Donald Barthelme, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968), 157.

  4. Barthelme, Unspeakable, 11.

  5. Jack Hicks, In the Singer's Temple (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 35.

  6. Hicks, 35.

  7. Barthelme, Amateurs, 164.

  8. [Ed. note: Barth's essay is reprinted at the head of this volume.]

Further Reading

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Barthelme, Helen Moore. Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2001, 209 p.

Former wife of Barthelme recounts author's life and work.

Condini, Nereo E. Review of Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme. National Review XXXIV, no. 4 (5 March 1982): 246-47.

Brief review of Sixty Stories.

Giles, Paul. “Dead, but Still with Us.” Commonweal 158, no. 19 (8 November 1991): 637-40.

Finds a Catholic sensibility in Barthelme's stories.

Hudgens, Michael Thomas. Donald Barthelme: Postmodernist American Writer. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001, 191 p.

Examines the story “Paraguay” among other writings by Barthelme in terms of postmodernism.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Donald Barthelme (April 7, 1931-July 23, 1989).” In A Reader's Companion to the Short Story in English, edited by Erin Fallon, R. C. Feddersen, James Kurtzleben, Maurice A. Lee, and Susan Rochette-Crawley, pp. 57-64. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Overview of Barthelme's life and work.

Maltby, Paul. “Donald Barthelme.” In Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon, pp. 43-81. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Barthelme's work.

Patteson, Richard F. Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992, 220 p.

Collection of critical essays on Barthelme's oeuvre.

Additional coverage of Barthelme's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24R, 129; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 20, 58; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 13, 23, 46, 59, 115; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 234; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980, 1989; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 3; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 2; and Something About the Author, Vols. 7, 62.

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Donald Barthelme Long Fiction Analysis


Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 1)