Thursday, May 07, 2009

It Obtains Everything

Donald Barthelme is kind of one of the horsemen of the Postmodern Apocalypse, along with David Foster Wallace and a few other names that are much more widely known than read. I intellectually despise postmodernism while, in practice, I enjoy postmodern writers quite a bit.

What exactly is PoMo? It's a hard question to answer, especially since my excellent English Lit course "Modernity After the Millennium," where my excellent teacher (Marina MacKay, now a published author herself) did a great job at demonstrating that there really is no meaningful division between modernism and post-modernism. Modernism was born when literature became self-aware... once writers began consciously writing about writing, and started experimenting with using the mechanics and tropes of their craft in a way that called attention to them rather than merely using them as tools to further the plot or convey a message, they had embarked on the modern journey. PoMo is the same trend dialed up to 11, as it were, but modernism is just a more sedate version of the same thing.

Anyways! There was an interesting article on Donald Barthelme in the New Yorker a little while ago, which reminded me that I had never really dug into him. Honestly, I'm a bit intimidated by writers like him... much like modern art, modern literature can sometimes seem purposefully obtuse, designed more to make people feel like they're "in" or "out" than to create something meant to be enjoyable. That said, this is the perfect time in my life to start investigating such authors myself - I'm no longer in a classroom, and have nothing to prove. I'll take what I can, and not worry about the rest.

The book I picked up was called "60 Stories," and it collects... well, yes, 60 short stories written by Barthelme over his long career. A great chunk of them originally appeared in the New Yorker. Short stories and PoMo are a perfect match - the writer can try something new and interesting, make their point quickly, we all have a laugh or shake our fist, then wipe the slate clean and start over again.

I ended up enjoying the book immensely, much more than I had expected. Oh, sure, there are a few clunkers in there that I never quite got, but when he's on, man, he's ON. Barthelme has a wonderful, joyfully permissive attitude towards absurdity, and takes a palpable delight in stirring up nonsense speech and situations. Often these are extremely specific while also being crazy, like when he writes a story about Paraguay - no, not the one you're thinking of, the other Paraguay that doesn't actually exist.

Although each story is independent (with the notable exception of two, "On the Steps of the Conservatory" and its sequel), it is interesting to note how there are a few particular modes that Donal enjoys working in. One that appears towards the end of this collection (I'm not sure if it's sorted chronologically or not) and repeats often is the pure dialog. These actually read (to me) like Beckett plays. It's clearly a conversation between two people, usually with each line offset by an M-dash, and while the rhythms of the conversation are easily comprehended, their actual content can be impossible to follow. These were interesting, but for the most part were among my least favorite stories.

A couple of stories actually reminded me of my beloved Saunders. When he wants to, Barthelme can write pretty remarkable dialect, and sometimes he perfectly captures the stilted, repetitive speech that we use in real life, and brings it front and center in his story.

Sometimes, the writing is just hauntingly beautiful. As I got further through the collection I realized that Barthelme had written some of my favorite stories that we read in my college fiction-writing class, including the surreal and moving "A Manual for Sons." I think this is one of my favorite paragraphs, ever, from any story:
The best way to approach a father is from behind. Thus if he chooses to hurl his javelin at you, he will probably miss. For in the act of twisting his body around, and drawing back his hurling arm, and sighting along the shaft, he will give you time to run, to make reservations for a flight to another country. To Rukmani, there are no fathers there. In that country virgin corn gods huddle together under a blanket of ruby chips and flexible cement, through the long wet Rukmanian winter, and in some way not known to us produce offspring. The new citizens are greeted with dwarf palms and certificates of worth, are led (or drawn on runnerless sleds) out into the zocalo, the main square of the country, and their augensheinlich parentages recorded upon a great silver bowl. Look! In the walnut paneling of the dining hall, a javelin! The paneling is wounded in a hundred places.

I can't explain why, but I get chills at that final sentence. (Oh, and don't worry about the context - it makes no more sense if you read it as part of the whole story, though it does gain a certain resonance.)

Altogether, I'm really glad to have read this. Plenty of great stories, very few tedious ones. I can't lie and say that this collection is "easy" or "approachable," but if you're determined to dip into modern lit, grabbing a couple of stories from here is probably the best way to do so. Enjoy the ride!


  1. Fascinating quote, offered up by the author of the grade-school classic, "The Boy and His Mad Dad." Hmmmm...

  2. Haha... I thought Calvin wrote that!

    The New Yorker piece actually spent a lot of time discussing Barthelme's relationship with his father, in a way that I think is ultimately not very helpful. Not to say that our personal lives don't influence our work, but it felt overly reductionist to me. Something like the "Javelin" passage is so clearly set apart from reality that it demands to be judged as art, not as history.