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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Donald Barthelme - '60 Stories'

Book cover of Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme is not afraid to be stupid. If you're expecting to open this book, read it from start to finish, and for there to be recognizeable characters and epiphanies and 'human dilemmas' and other sorts of things you've come to expect from 'literary fiction', then you're going in with the wrong mindset. No, serious. It's not just nonlinearity. Sometimes Barthelme's writing is retarded. You can see it trying to be funny and failing, or just plain showing off, dropping names. But then, just as you're about to put the book aside, Barthelme will toss off some random, memorable line or image.

Let me give you an example, from the story "The Party" :

I want to a party and corrected a pronunciation. The man whose voice I had adjusted fell back into the kitchen. I praised a Bonnard. It was not a Bonnard. My new glasses, I explained, and I'm terribly sorry, but significant variations elude me, vodka exhausts me, I was young once, essential services are being maintained. Drums, drums, drums outside the windows. I thought that if I could persuade you to say 'No,' then my own responsibility would be limited, or changed, another sort of life would be possible, different from the life we had previously, somewhat skeptically, enjoyed together. But you had wandered off into another room, testing the effect on members of the audience of your ruffled blouse, your long magenta skirt. Giant hands, black, thick with fur, reaching in through the windows. Yes, it was King Kong, back in action, and all of the guests uttered loud exclamations of fatigue and disgust, examining the situation in the light of their own needs and emotions, hoping that the ape was real or papier-mache according to their temperaments, or wondering whether other excitements were possible out in the crisp, white night.

Donald BarthelmeNotice that King Kong doesn't come in until halfway down the page, and doesn't even seem to be the biggest thing happening. A less talented writer would blow their Kong-wad in the first sentence and make a big deal of it: but here, the ape's presence is almost incidental to the story, which somehow makes it a thousand times funnier. This is harder to pull off than it looks.

Here's some more, from 'Report'

"We could, of course, release thousands upon thousands of self-powered crawling-along-the-ground lengths of titanium wire eighteen inches long with a diameter of .0005 centimeters (that is to say, invisible) which, scenting an enemy, climb up his trouser leg and wrap themselves around his neck. We have developed those. They are within our capabilities. We could, of course, release in the arena of the upper air our new improved pufferfish toxin which precipitates an identity crisis. No special technical problems there. That is almost laughably easy. We could, of course, place up to two million maggots in their rice within twenty-four hours. The maggots are ready, massed in secret staging areas in Alabama. We have hypdermic darts capable of piebalding the enemy's pigmentation. We have rots, blights, and rusts capable of attacking his alphabet. Those are dandies. We have a hut-shrinking chemical which penetrates the fibers of the bamboo, causing it, the hut, to strangle its occupants. This operates only after 10 P.M., when people are sleeping. Their mathematics are at the mercy of a suppurating surd we have invented. We have a family of fishes trained to attack their fishes. We have the deadly testicle-destroying telegram. The cable companies are cooperating. We have a green substance that, well, I'd rather not talk about. We have a secret word that, if pronounced, produces multiple fractures in all living things in an area the size of four football fields."
"That's why-"
"Yes. Some damned fool couldn't keep his mouth shut."

Honore de BalzacOr this from 'Eugenie Grandet', in which Barthelme simply summarizes an entire Balzac novel in a few pages:

"Mother, have you noticed that this society we're in tends to be a little...repressive?"
"What does that mean, Eugenie? What does that mean, that strange new word, 'repressive,' that I have never heard before?"
"It means...it's like when you decide to do something, and you get up out of your chair to do it, and you take a step, and then become aware of frosty glances being directed at you from every side."
"Frosty glances?"
"Your desires are stifled."
"What desires are you talking about?"
"Just desires in general. Any desires. It's a whole...I guess atmosphere is the word...a tendency on the part of the society..."
"You'd better sew some more pillow cases, Eugenie."

After reading this, you can't look at Balzac the same or even read him again (if you ever could). I wish someone was around to do the same sort of thing to the Balzacs of today. (Barthelme also rips on Balzac in 'The Rise of Capitalism' - even funnier the second time round).

When you consider that stuff like this came out in the 60's, just after the ponderous over-earnestness of the Beats, you get the sense that the culture really NEEDED writing like this. The problem is that Barthelme only manages this sort of thing maybe 30 or 40% of the time: I'd have cut this book at least in half, maybe quartered it to get down to the essentials. Or maybe that's wrong, maybe the appeal of Barthelme is in the diffusion of details, the flood of random crap: certainly his imitators have taken it upon themselves to inflict 1000+ page piles of shit on us, many of them remaindered within months. However, while sixty stories may sound like a lot, at the individual level, Barthelme is concise: stories tend to be three or four pages tops, with little excess detail. Of course, depending on your point of view, this material is *all* excess - an excess variously pretentious, monotonous, and brilliant - often in the same piece. I say 'piece' because, with a few exceptions, I can't classify most of 60 Stories' contents as 'short stories' - they're more like sketches, drafts, improvisations, shots in the dark.

In this sense, Barthelme prefigured all of what was to come. When post-modern fiction comes up, Nabokov's name* is often mentioned. But what generally gets tagged as that now comes off more like a combination of Barthelme and Borges: Borges, for the constructedness and references, Barthelme for the humor, random crap, and 'flat' constructed effect. Of the two, Borges is the better writer, but Barthelme, though lesser-known, has probably had more influence: you can just SEE kids reading this stuff and wanting to go out and do it for themselves (David Foster Wallace has admitted that Barthelme's story 'The Balloon', included here, is what made him want to be a writer). Although their approaches couldn't be more different, Barthelme is, like Hemingway or H.P. Lovecraft, the kind of idiosyncratic writer who immediately gave rise to a cult of 'Shit that's awesome now let me see if I can do it too' ripoff-writers who aren't so much influenced as directly trying to carry the line. The difference (again) is that Barthelme-imitators are still getting tagged as 'avant-garde' or 'daring' or whatever, despite working in a genre (and yes, metafiction of this sort is a genre just as much as epic fantasy or dimestore romance) that reached its apex at least thirty years ago. Simply put: without Sixty Stories, there could be no McSweeney's. Before Barthelme, literature just wasn't like this. You couldn't just dick around, make jokes, and reference movies and still expect to get published by Penguin. Barthelme made it so you could. Whether that was an improvement or not is for everyone to decide. However, not everyone can come up with something like 'A Manuel for Sons', which discourses on dandling, calcium candy, and 'the tunneling father.'

Barthelme tries for profundities from time to time, or at least closing lines that let you know he's onto Deeper Things - but these are mostly ruses; in fact he's like the literary equivalent of King Crimson or some other prog band who release five-disc boxes of live improvisation: looked at one way it's just dicking around, but dicking of a very high caliber indeed.

The best way to read this book, then, is to just flip through it and see whatever interests you. I read it from start to finish, yes, but not before I'd already skimmed most of the stories, cracked up a few times, read various parts over, ignored the boring bits, and marked my place with a crayon. It's that kind of book, and Barthelme is that kind of writer. Unlike his derivatives' work, there is real anarchy here, struggling to get out: as much freedom as writing affords, Barthelme at his best managed to get: in stories like "A Shower of Gold," , you feel as if anything could happen from sentence to sentence, but more than that, you want it to happen. Barthelme is not big on paragraphic unity: his sentences often seem to have come together by accident, or resulted from the cut-up method. "Alice" is just stream-of-consciousness, and boring stream-of-consciousness at that (although it does contain the phrase 'chaos is tasty AND USEFUL TOO'). But elsewhere, "A Shower of Gold" and "The Falling Dog" are full of old-school absurdity, with nonsensical plots, characters reduced to functions and inexplicable, hilarious references (look up the 'cat piano' from the former story; Barthelme didn't just invent that). Some of the stories, perhaps inevitably given Barthelme's roll-the-dice mentality, are more traditional, even conventional: "Game" is a kind of Cold War Twilight Zone episode, with two military men in a bunker trying (unsuccessfully) to stave off insanity. "The Leap" is straight-up Waiting for Godot, format and everything. "Me and Miss Mandible" is based on an absurdity - a 30 year old is sent back to grade school due to a clerical error and ends up fucking his teacher - but still kicks along in fairly linear, comprehensible fashion.

Barthelme sometimes degenerates into lectures ("On Angels", "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel"), a pedantic tendency he has in common with lesser Borges, but his tangents are usually interesting enough to make you keep reading. I'm not sure you could call some of this stuff 'fiction', even; it's more like speculation: still, it's better than a Cheever story, or something. At his best here, Barthelme pushes things in ways none of his derivatives could hope to: a thousand more pages of something like Infinite Jest could never equal the flash of the programmable ocean in "Paraguay", or the 'suppurating surd'. Barthelme knew this, and kept it short: this is the only book of his you'll need, and most of the stories are only a few pages.

So, read this book, retain it, and remember: the better you know it, the less likely it is that you'll ever be impressed by any hype about metafiction or nonlinear storytelling: Barthelme wrote the book.

Check out some of these stories full-length here.

* Yeah, all right, look: Barthelme kills Nabokov dead. Don't give me that shit; Lolita was overwritten and obnoxious, and the kind of technical gimmickry in Pale Fire, well, Barthelme pulls that off on more or less every other page. Serious, how many times does Nabokov make you laugh out loud, and I don't mean 'laugh-out-loud', I mean actually physically laugh or think 'holy shit' ? As much as Barthelme fucks up sometimes, he has the ability to do that.

Swifty: Apparently, Barthelme's short story, Margins, inspired a Wordpress layout named after him too (download it here).

And here's a video of actor Timothy Hutton reading from Sixty Stories: