By Gus Negative
Q: Is the novel dead?
A: Oh yes. Very much so.
Q: What replaces it?
A: I should think that it is replaced by what existed before it was invented.
Q: The same thing?
A: The same sort of thing.
Q: Is the bicycle dead?
--From "The Explanation"
"Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how.... The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.... The not-knowing is not simple, because it's hedged about with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives."
--From the essay "Not-Knowing"
"Play is one of the great possibilities of art; it is also ... the Eros-principle whose repression means total calamity. The humorless practitioners of le noveau roman produce such calamities regularly, as do our native worshippers of the sovereign Fact. It is the result of a lack of seriousness."
--From an essay, "After Joyce"
A scout burst into the room, through the door. "Porcupines!" he shouted.
"Porcupines what?" the Dean asked.
"Thousands and thousands of them. Three miles down the road and coming fast!"
"Maybe they won't enroll," the Dean said. "Maybe they're just passing through."
--"Porcupines at the University"
At a time when the catch-all label of postmodernism can seemingly be slapped onto anything written since Joyce, serious students of literature would do well to trace the flow of postmodern literature -- a stream often muddied by an unlicensed, "anything goes" aesthetic -- back to its source. Not far from this spring, out of which only pure, intellectually respectable waters issue, one will find Donald Barthelme, a man who, when the dust of critical obfuscation settles, will surely be remembered as one of the few truly important players in postmodernism's controversial history. I imagine his spot marked with a living, mercurial statue, a hunk of marble too intellectually restive, too energetic to rest content with a single form...Yes, no statues shall be erected in Old Don B.'s honor... Many a worthy sculptor has tried, to be sure, but at the moment of consummation -- that final, spur-of-the-moment addition of a wry smile-line or a gleam of canny melancholy in the eye -- what was once an inert hewn stone becomes a shifting, protoplasmic mass of transitory forms swift and mysterious as dreams.
Robert Kennedy strolls into a gallery full of sharp geometrical abstractions, stops and stares (Secret Service men bumping into each other in a big line behind him like cars in pile-up) at the roped-in statue of Don B. (it being liable to reach out and assimilate anyone who strays to close with protoplasmic tendrils, add it to its repetoire of modal combinations) and stands very still for a moment, thinking. "Now that," he announces at length, "that is what I would call a living monument!"
For if any single theme can tie together an ourve so multifarious as Barthelme's, it is surely his tireless exploration of flux and transience, comic irruptions of the surreal into the mundane, junkyard cultural detritus bound up with old wire in a madman's basement to make beautiful, poignant artifacts. The world of Barthelme's fiction abides only by a quivering gelatinous dream logic where every law is tentative, seemingly firm ground liable to suddenly melt under your feet and swallow you up like quicksand: Worlds where a giant balloon can engulf Manhattan overnight, then just as suddenly disappear ("The Balloon"); where a troubled marriage explodes without warning into kaleidoscopic menáge of endlessly permuting relationships ("Affection"); a lesbian named Rebecca Lizard suffers a rare, incurable condition with green skin ("Rebecca"); where King Kong "is an adjunct professor of art history at Rutgers, co-author of a text on tomb sculpture," ("The Party"); where the latest thing on TV is an existentialist game show ("A Shower of Gold"). Barthelme's genius was to tap the postmodern welter of confused values and random, arbitrary emanations, billions of ethically-indistinguishable voices each shouting its own discourse like a wild-eyed junkyard evangelist, and whip it all up into a poignant, harmonious fugue.
In the late thirties my father built a house for us, something not too dissimilar to Mies's Tugendhat house. It was wonderful to live in but strange to see on the Texas prairie. On Sundays people used to park their cars out on the street and stare. We had a routine, the family, on Sundays. We used to get up from Sunday dinner, if enough cars had parked, and run out in front of the house in a sort of chorus line, doing high kicks.
--From an interview with Jerome Klinkowitz (1971-72)
Donald Barthelme was born in 1931 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but moved to Houston, Texas at the age of two, where he would remain (excepting a two-year stint in the US army) until moving to New York to become a writer in the early 60s. His father "was a 'modern' architect in the sense that he was an advocate of Mies and Corbu, et al," and was "something of an anomaly in Texas in the thirties." As would be expected in such a context, the family library was well-stocked with its share of oddities, and, having decided to become a writer at the age of ten, Barthelme began digesting its contents early on, quickly finding the need to add works by the likes of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce.
He matriculated at the University of Houston in the early fifties, where he set a new precedent by becoming editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, Cougar, in only his sophomore year, and later went on to write articles on culture and the arts for the Houston Post. His involvement with these papers continued a tradition of journalistic writing he had begun from the earliest years of his parochial schooling. He helped with typesetting and layout, which would continue to occupy a fond space in his heart throughout his life, later manifesting themselves in the form of madcap collages with wickedly irreverent captions (many of which are collected in The Teachings of Don B.).
His education was interrupted by the draft, but the war ended just as he was arriving in Korea, and he returned to Houston upon being discharged. It was then that he met Maurice Natanson, a philosophy professor who had joined the university during Barthelme's absence, who the author would always accredit with exerting a huge influence on his intellectual development, and who he remained lifelong friends with. He took a job writing "poppycock" speeches for the university president, edited the faculty newsletter, and founded a student literary journal while studying philosophy and continuing his involvement with the Post. He left the university without a diploma in his junior year and worked odd jobs until joining the Board of Directors at Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum, where he was quickly promoted to Director after the sudden departure of his predecessor. The role forced him to quickly assimilate large masses of knowledge in an array of fields, and to this end he began reading all the major academic journals, a habit which lasted some three years. The job of assembling random cultural artifacts for the museum's exhibits (brass knuckles, for instance) seems to have catalyzed new developments on his sporadic writing experiments. In addition to writing "hack" pieces at $500 a pop for pulp magazines (with the prudence to do so under pseudonyms), this period saw the birth of the first stories bearing a noticeable resemblance to the distinctive style of the short stories he would gain renown for. In 1962 he moved to New York, and the next year published his first story, "L'Lapse" in the New Yorker, which would continue to be his preferred venue from then on. He married twice and divorced twice with one daughter, and many critics have observed that marriage and its dissolution, and the problems of family-life and fatherhood, are treated more frequently than any other theme within his oeuvre, which is one of the most thematically variegated in all literary history.
He worked steadily throughout his life, producing four novels (Snow White, The Dead Father, Paradise and The King) and over a hundred short stories (originally collected in Come Back, Dr. Caligari; Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts; City Life; and Sadness, and later compiled into two "best-of" books, Sixty Stories and Forty Stories) as well as a nonfiction book Guilty Pleasures and a plethora of short essays and interviews on a diverse range of topics (collected in Not-Knowing: the essays and interviews). With the help of his daughter he wrote a children's book, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine in collage-format, which earned him the National Book Award for Children's Literature in 1972. He was a director of PEN and the Author's Guild, and a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a recipient of a National Book Award. He died of cancer in July 1989.
"What is magical about the object is that it at once invites and resists interpretation. Its artistic worth is measurable by the degree to which it remains, after interpretation, vital -- no interpretation or cardiopulmonary push-pull can exhaust or empty it."
--From the essay "Not-Knowing"
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.
Barthelme may be called a highly philosophical writer. His deepest intellectual roots seem to lie in the philosophies of existentialism and postmodernism. This affinity is not so much directly addressed as implicit in the themes, style and overall texture of all Barthelme's fiction. One has the impression that his unique, decentralized style is an organic function of the author's intimacy with such continental thinkers as Barthes, Sartre, Foucault and Derrida, rather than any conscious attempt to wrestle with profound philosophical dilemmas per se. That is, the problems set forth in such thought systems are, for Barthelme, problems inherent to the human situation -- insofar as fiction does not reflect them, it is failing to capture an essential dimension of modern thought.
Briefly, both existentialism and postmodernism emphasize, in their different ways, the problems that ensue in a world devoid of absolute normative or intellectual standards. Thus, they are responses to the waning of belief in god, with his unquestionable, absolutely right imperatives, and the decline of religious authority. In absence of a belief in God, all values become arbitrary, all propositions equally true and false. The inevitable psychological result of this is a state of confusion, equivocating ambivalence, terror, nausea, panic. While it is unclear how much of the positive conclusions of existentialism and postmodernism Barthelme accepted, it is obvious that this framing of the human situation made a deep impression on both the man and his fiction.
Famous mainly for his short stories, Barthelme was a relentless innovator and experimenter. His principal methods were the collage and pastiche, but he also occasionally made use of script formats and more traditional forms. His earlier work tended toward narrative disjointedness in describing ordinary life, while his later work (especially in Forty Stories) gravitated toward using more traditional form in describing increasingly outlandish and surreal scenarios.
Barthelme's stories, alongside Burroughs' Naked Lunch, represent the finest collage writing in the English language. In Barthelme's hands the technique becomes akin to certain types of "found art"-- ostensibly beautiful objects gerrymandered out of the everyday bric-a-brac, refuse, and scrap found in junkyards, gutters, and antique shops. But when the medium is language, the raw materials for this type of art must naturally be constituted out of clichés, tired saws, and sound bytes. (This is interesting in light of the fact that, at the time his collage style developed, Barthelme was responsible for assembling just such exhibits at Houston's Contemporary Arts musuem.) That such classically anti-literary fixtures of language should be turned into high-brow literature, and moreover that the resultant product should be beautiful and elegant, whereas its components are vulgar and ugly, are among the ironies that make this method ideally suited to Barthelme as possibly the premier American ironist of the twentieth century.
The philosophical subtext of collage and pastiche has been noted by many critics in a variety of media. In painting it was seen as an answer to the visual fidelity and animacy of film. In literature, it can be seen as a defense against the "death of the short story/novel" brought about by hackneyed, unselfconscious prose -- in short, as a talisman against cheesiness. In imitating and stringing together prose stereotypes, linguistic clichés, and the canonical injunctions of story-writing, Barthelme at once makes use of what are arguably, if unfortunately, the only techniques at his disposal in an age where the potential of literature has been exhausted, and simultaneously pokes fun at those conventions -- making the fact that they are conventions, and are being used as such by the author, okay.
One common term for this kind of story-telling is "metafiction" -- for, according to many critics, Barthelme's works are less about the usual themes of unselfconscious fiction (people, people's relationships, society, etc.) than they are about the process of fiction-writing itself. However, I think it is more appropriate to say that Barthelme's work always has metafictional resonances, but that these are not, ultimately, at the core of his true artistic concerns. While it is true that Barthelme's characters are described mainly in terms of what Paul Auster called "the realm of brute particulars," I do not think this shows a rejection of the importance of human psychology. Rather, Barthelme can often be seen as protesting the homogenization of subjectivity brought about by media-saturation and pop-psychology. It would be difficult for anyone not wearing critical blinders to ignore the melancholic, yet ultimately optimistic humanism lying at the core of all Barthelme's stories.
Okay, so those are the generalities, but don't let them deter you. The only prerequisites to appreciating Barthelme's fiction are an open mind and a past or present tendency to be human. In other words, though all this philosophical subtext is there, it is contingent enough for the most part that if you cannot perceive it, you are still likely to feel it, and this is all that matters. Sixty Stories collects selected short stories from all of Barthelme's collections published between 1964 (his first) to 1979 (Come Back, Dr. Caligari; Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts; City Life; Sadness; Guilty Pleasures; The Dead Father; Amateurs; Great Days) in addition to nine previously uncollected shorts. Since this time span forms the bulk of his life's career, this is definitely the place to start in order to get a broad sense of his work's development. From there the reader can decide whether to read each collection in detail or go ahead to Forty Stories, which collects his latest work. Forty Stories differs from Sixty Stories in length (Forty being much shorter) and in the range of styles present -- for the most part, Forty Stories contains material that is more similar to the most accessible writings of Sixty Stories, and lacks the allusive density of other stories in the latter.
The Dead Father is a novel dealing with issues of father-body disposal. Snow White re-contextualizes the famous fairy tale as a 1960s commune consisting of seven men and one woman, and satirizes the sociopolitical issues infesting that turbulent decade. Not-Knowing contains essays and interviews -- two of the essays are the closest things to literary manifestoes Barthelme has left us, but the rest are scattered book and art reviews that may not be of interest to many readers -- these take up about 150 pages of the 319-page book, and many of the interviews overlap; thus, the book might be better browsed than bought. The same goes for The Teachings of Don B., a posthumous publication conmtaining stories published in earlier Barthelme collections along with some unprinted odds-and-ends.
--Gus Negative, 20 July 2000
More on Barthelme
You may order Barthelme's works online through Amazon.com by visiting the Libyrinth's Barthelme Bookstore.
Jessamyn runs the Barthelme Web site, the major Barthelme site on the web. It contains full and partial e-texts of a number of his stories, and some good links to other resources.
Images of Barthelme and many of his book-covers are available at David Keffer's Donald Barthelme Collection.
A Teacher's Guide to Barthelme in the classroom contains some useful information.
Cold Bacon's Barthelme--Writer site contains excerpts from his 60 Stories.
The Internet Movie Database has some information on films written by Barthelme.
Google News Search -- This will search news groups related to Barthelme.
Yahoo News Search -- Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Barthelme.
Northern Light -- This will search Northern Light for online articles and sites about Barthelme and his work.
The Internet Public Library Online Literary Criticism Collection -- This page has some links to Barthelme Literary criticism available on the Web.
Gus Negative is the current CHAOS KORPS envoy to Providence Island. Part of the Korps' New Man Initiative (N.M.I., 30-50), his brain was engineered in vitro without a ventromedial amygdala or associated limbic structures. Though he was the first and only survivor of that ill-fated program (C.f. ruling from the Empyreal Court, '48), he continues to thrive in service of the Korps and its immaculate directives. In '73, he was distinguished with the Epicurus award in recognition of his stunning breakthroughs in the science of ataraxia or the selective control/elimination of feeling, reflex, desire, instinct, and intuition . His other research interests include Noise Therapy and Solipsistics. In his spare time he likes to sit still and stare at things -- preferably blank white or grey things, such as walls, skies, or graves ("but not paper"). His wife and clones are being cryogenically refrigerated at Sarcotech Inc. somewhere in the nether wastes of Eurasia, holding their breath and turning blue till hatching. Queries will be received with all due indifference at: Agnosia211@aol.com.
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