Donald Barthelme

It was never clear why Donald Barthelme chose to re-publish his stories in collected, compendium editions, first in Sixty Stories and then in Forty Stories. The very titles of these books obscured the playful and distinctive signposts provided by the original volumes in which these stories appeared, bearing as they did such colorful, and ultimately revealing, titles as Come Back, Dr. Caligari and Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. (Some of the later titles—City LifeSadness—were more elegantly succinct, but they also signified a thematic association among the included stories that is lost, and to some degree impoverishes the reader’s response, when the stories are reprinted in an omnibus form.) More importantly, what encountering Barthelme’s fiction in these collected volumes, the latest of which, Flying to America, includes all of the stories not found in the first two, really threatens to de-emphasize—or even eliminate—is the more carefully calibrated iconoclasm, the redoubled assault on convention, that one experiences when reading Barthelme’s stories in their original book-bound form.

Presumably, Barthelme reprinted in Sixty Stories the stories he most wanted to highlight. To this extent, these must have been what Barthelme (or Barthelme and his editor) considered the “best” of what is now apparently his 145 short stories (forty-five are included in Flying to America). Likewise, it must be presumed that the 40 stories of the second volume were second-tier stories of a sort, while the remainder as collected in this new volume unfortunately must be counted as Barthelme’s least essential efforts. If this is not the impression that Barthelme, and now the editor of Flying to America, Kim Herzinger, wanted to convey, it nevertheless does seem an unavoidable consequence of these publishing decisions. As I read the stories in Flying to America, some of them are indeed failed experiments, others simply not fully realized (always a potential hazard with short fiction as inveterately risk-taking as Barthelme’s). But others are Barthelme stories I would not want to be without—”Edward and Pia,” “The Big Broadcast of 1938″—and it seems to me a very unhappy fate for these stories that they in effect remain buried in a volume that is likely to be regarded, should these omnibus collections become the only point of access to his work, as containing Barthelme’s least substantial pieces.

Certainly not all of the stories to be found in either Sixty Stories or Forty Stories are gems either, although this is more a function of Barthelme’s relentlessly experimental approach than it is a judgment on his skills as a writer. Though there is something identifiably Barthelmean in all of his stories—a voice, a familiarity with many different cultural domains, a comedian’s sense of timing and effect—what characterizes his body of work as a whole is an always adventurous determination to reconceive the form and the discursive assumptions of the short story as inherited by mid 20th-century writers. Rarely does Barthelme stick to a previously employed method or device (with the possible exception of the “dialogue” stories—stories written entirely in dialogue—that Barthelme wrote throughout his career but especially in the mid-to-late ’70s). One of the pleasures of reading Barthelme’s stories as they appeared, both in The New Yorker and in the subsequent books, was anticipating what new challenge to our assumptions about the nature of the short story Barthelme would offer. Many of these stories were indeed among the most innovative works of fiction in a period marked by a renewal of innovation by American fiction writers, but inevitably Barthelme’s insistent experimentalism would provide hits and misses, failed experiments as well as transformative triumphs.

The opportunity to witness this process of experimentation with the conventions of fiction, however, may be lost to future Barthelme readers (except for those intrepid few who resolve to recreate the process as adequately as possible by tracing it through the collected volumes, reading each story in order of publication). These readers will encounter stories from every period in Barthelme’s writing career indiscriminately mixed together, many of them no doubt still provoking the surprise and wonder that their original readers experienced, but others inevitably more disappointing, their strangeness less well-tempered absent the context provided both by the original volumes and by the ongoing course of his development as a writer. For some, no doubt, focusing attention on an author’s most successful work would seem only the most sensible way to sample that author, but in Barthelme’s case it is arguably at least as important to gain a broader perspective on the direction in which his fiction sought out its own possibilities.

Regrettably, a book like Flying to America allows neither for the presentation of Barthelme’s lasting work nor for a survey of his experimental evolution. The 45 stories are, as far as I can tell, arranged according to no particular view of the trajectory of his career; nor is any particular sense of thematic or formal progression evident. (Herzinger’s preface provides a few brief and very general remarks about the “aesthetic and cultural issues that engaged Barthelme throughout his writing career,” but otherwise does not explain why we are reading the stories in the order in which they’re re-presented.) Indeed, the very first story in Barthelme’s very first book, “Florence Green Is 81,” appears as the next-to-last selection in Flying to America, immediately prior to “Tickets,” the last of his stories to be published in The New Yorker (in 1989), a choice that does not seem to reflect much concern for an informed consideration of Barthelme’s work. “Florence Green” is not one of Barthelme’s very best stories, but anyone who really wants to understand where Barthelme started as a published writer should in fact begin with this story. Given “Florence Green’s” place as the first story of Barthelme’s first collection, readers ought to be able to evaluate its influences and preoccupations as the keynote among Barthelme’s stories it actually is, not as a disassociated story hidden at the end of a third-string collected volume.

And “Florence Green is 81″ does provide significant insight into Barthelme’s clearly unconventional brand of fiction. In a book (Come Back, Dr. Caligari) that conspicuously heralds an approach to fiction radically different from that which had dominated American fiction in the 1950s, “Florence Green Is 81″ offers us a writer uninterested in the usual methods of short story composition—methods emphasizing narrative continuity, consistency of character, thematic coherence, etc.—and much interested in alternatives to those methods. In its refusal to “develop,” to create characters whose actions make “sense” according to ordinary protocols of logic, it might be said that the story simply subverts inherited story conventions, settling for a kind of reflexive surrealism. But the story has its own logic, its own set of compositional principles that make it something other than a mashup of existing storytelling strategies: repetition of phrases, names, and images in constantly revised contexts, the juxtaposition of such images and phrases in startling ways, often producing wildly funny effects. “Florence Green Is 81″ introduces us to a writer who wants to challenge our complacent reading habits, but whose work will also continue to be “entertaining” in its own way, even if as readers we must always allow for an aesthetics of surprise and reinvention.

Above all, perhaps, “Florence Green” introduces us to a narrative voice that will remain identifiable across Barthelme’s stories, even as it is employed to fragment narrative and convey a world often held together only by the narrator’s conviction that its various elements actually do belong together.

    Dinner with Florence Green. The old babe is on a kick tonight: I want to go to some other country, she announces. Everyone wonders what this can mean. But Florence says nothing more: no explanation, no elaboration, after a satisfied look around the table bang! she is asleep again. The girl at Florence’s right is new here and does not understand. I give her an ingratiating look (a look that says, “There is nothing to worry about, I will explain everything in the privacy of my quarters Kathleen”). Lentils vegetate in the depths of the fourth principal river of the world, the Ob, in Siberia, 3200 miles. We are talking about Quemoy and Matsu. “It’s a matter of leading from strength. What is the strongest possible move on our part? To deny them the islands even though the islands are worthless in themselves.” Baskerville, a sophomore at the Famous Writers School in Westport, Connecticut, which he attends with the object of becoming a famous writer, is making his excited notes. The new girl’s boobies are like my secretary’s knees, very prominent and irritating. Florence began the evening by saying, grandly, “the upstairs bathroom leaks you know.” What does Herman Kahn think about Quemoy and Matsu? I can’t remember, I can’t remember . . .

Not only does Flying to America contribute to a distortion of Barthelme’s body of work by obscuring the significance of a story like “Florence Green Is 81″; it further works to erase Barthelme’s achievement as it was embodied in his original books by gathering so many of the stories published in the earliest of those books (by my count, nine from Caligari alone). Of course, this was not per se an editorial decision on Herzinger’s part, bequeathed as she was with all of the leftovers not already included in the first two omnibus volumes. Nevertheless, the effect is the same. Readers curious enough about the provenance of the stories in this book to scan the “Notes” section can’t help but wonder whether Caligari or Unspeakable Practices might just have been apprentice work, interesting in an archival sense but finally dispensable, when in fact each still provides a bracing reading experience over 40 years after they first appeared and contains such classic Barthelme stories as “Me and Miss Mandible,” “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph,” “A Shower of Gold,” “The Indian Uprising,” “The Balloon,” and “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning.” The man who wrote these stories was already in full possession of his literary powers, but future readers of Barthelme will have a much diminished appreciation of this fact if CaligariUnspeakable Practices, and City Life are not available, or at least if some future collected edition of Barthelme’s fiction does not maintain these books’ complete contents as its organizing principle.

Flying to America does, on the other hand, collect a few of Barthelme’s stories that have never before appeared in book form (in some cases, never before published), and to that extent does perform a useful service to Barthelme’s readers. It allows us to read both what the editor identifies as Barthelme’s first published story, “Pages from the Annual Report,” and what may be his final story, “Pandemonium.” (Although, again the reasons for their placement in the book, as nos. 24 and 33, respectively, are not in any way clear.) If anything, “Pages” demonstrates that Barthelme’s peculiarly angled vision was fully focused when he began publishing short fiction, as it is a recognizably Barthelmean portrayal of the essential absurdity of post-World War II American life that could easily have been included in Come Back, Dr. Caligari. “Pandemonium” shares the earlier story’s setting in a white collar workplace, but unfortunately this story doesn’t really seem much of an advance beyond the kind of skewed satire at which “Pages” already shows Barthelme to be especially adept. Perhaps if “Pandemonium,” as the editor suggests, was left incomplete, Barthelme might still have made something more distinctive of it; as it is, the story testifies to a continuity in Barthelme’s career that needs to be acknowledged, although ultimately Flying to America provides little or no context or critical framework within which to profitably consider the interplay of continuity and innovation in Barthelme’s work.

The packaging of the fiction of a writer like Donald Barthelme in such an assortment as Flying to America raises important questions, not just about perceptions of Barthelme’s career as a short story writer but also perceptions of the status of short stories in general. Because Barthelme’s achievement as a writer of fiction is primarily as an author of short stories, his example is particularly resonant, but the problem of wrenching the work out of meaningful context, of isolating individual stories without reference to other work, or to the enabling assumptions the author brings to the work, is almost always present in the way our literary culture regards the short story. Stories are published in an essentially haphazard fashion, depending entirely on what a particular publication (generally disconnected from all other such publications) find “suitable” to its own editorial tastes. By and large, the publication of short stories is considered a preliminary step some writers must take to become a credentialed author, usually prior to going on to write a novel (when real recognition will occur) or as something established writers do as a kind of respite from or supplement to writing novels. Thus writers whose most representative work is in short fiction have an inherently more difficult time getting their work judged appropriately. It would seem that even as important a postwar American writer as Donald Barthelme ultimately might not be read in the way—with the right kind of attention—his fiction deserves.

In his introduction to Not-Knowing, a previous collection of Barthelme’s nonfiction (also edited by Kim Herzinger), John Barth refers to that book, as well as the “story-volume” that will become Flying to America, as a “booksworth of encores,” suggesting these volumes are simply intermediary repackagings that will in turn lead readers “back and back again to the feast whereof these are end-courses: back to Come Back, Dr Caligari, to Unspeakable Practices, to Snow White and City Life, and the rest.” If the collected versions of Barthelme’s stories do indeed act merely as “end-courses” that for now keep his work in the literary public’s awareness in the years following his death, yielding eventually back to the books both Barth and I think are the core of Barthelme’s accomplishment, then the publication of Flying to America will have done little harm and arguably some good. But I fear, given the economics of American publishing, that the original books will not be readily available and that Barthelme will be known to future readers mostly through the assembled miscellanies—perhaps only by Sixty Stories. This will be a sad (and avoidable) injustice to a great writer.

Although Donald Barthelme is not finally a “difficult” writer–”strange” or “disorienting”  might be words that would apply–his fiction does surely pose some challenges to a novice  reader. Fabular without quite becoming fables, satirical without really being definable as satire, presenting a skewed and inside-out view of reality without exactly qualifying as surrealism, his  stories are on the one hand disarmingly entertaining, but on the other the source of their appeal  must seem obscure at first.

Their verbal humor is palpable enough, but since the context of situation, character, or plot often remains elusive, even deliberately ambiguous and distorted, it is finally not always clear why a given story should be so satisfying.  If only for this reason, readers would be well-advised to begin reading Barthelme not through one of the omnibus anthologies but by beginning literally with his first book, Come Back, Dr. Caligari. This book contains fewer of Barthelme’s  best-known, most anthologized stories (although “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” and “A Shower  of Gold” have to rank with his best), but taken together they introduce his signature techniques  and effects and form a well-integrated, if off-kilter, whole. Indeed, almost all of Barthelme’s books formed such integrated contexts, and almost all of Barthelme’s stories provide the most resonant reading experience when considered in their original context.

Among the more sheerly amusing stories in Caligari has to be “Me and Miss Mandible,” but this story also warrants closer attention to those qualities that inform most of Barthelme’s fiction, however much his later stories become more intricate and even more removed from the conventions of character development and narrative logic, as well as most of the other elements traditionally associated with the short story as a form.  “Me and Miss Mandible” is likely to attract most readers’ attention immediately, given its outrageous premise. A 35-year-old man has been sent back to grade school for “reeducation” due to his failure to adapt himself satisfactorily to adult life: “a ruined marriage, a ruined adjusting career, a grim interlude in the Army when I was almost not a person,” as the man, who narrates his own story, diary-form, eventually sums up his failures. The man begins the story by noting that “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.”

If we suspect that Miss Mandible and her student will act on their adult attraction (“I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind,” the man tells us), our suspicions prove correct, and the story holds our attention in part through the rather basic device of encouraging us to wonder, “what will happen next?”.  But the story also works through the incongruities implicit in the situation and in the characters’ response to it. The narrator seems aware of the peculiarity of his situation, although not enough to declare it to anyone. Miss Mandible and the children, however, treat the narrator as if he is indeed an eleven-year-old boy (Miss Mandible nevertheless obviously sensing something is wrong). The effect is humorous but also potentially disturbing–does Miss Mandible really know this student is a grown man, or is she having inappropriate feelings for a student?

Perhaps we could say that in this story Barthelme is working in a vein of American absurdism, but it is an absurdism in which the characters proceed as if the absurd was normal, or  perhaps as if adherence to “normal” routines prevents the perception of a lurking absurdity.  Although to an extent the absurdism of a story like “Me and Miss Mandible” might be analogous  to that of, say, Catch-22 (published at about the same time), it and Barthelme’s subsequent work  is less reliant on the joke as a structural principle and is closer to a variety of  what John Barth called “irrealism,” an approach that, in Barthelme’s case, simply  disregards “realism,” as well as the notion there is some stable version of “reality” it is the fiction  writer’s job to capture.

What most truly unifies “Me and Miss Mandible” is finally the dazed but intrepid voice  of the narrator surreptitiously recording his experience. While the ironies and absurdities ongoing around him are obvious enough, he himself does not view what is happening to him from an ironic perspective. Such is also typically the case in Barthelme’s later short fiction: “voice” dominates, and although the stories are replete with what has been called postmodern irony (they are perhaps in some ways the very definition of postmodern irony), the narrative voice is not itself the source of such irony. (Everything the narrator of “The Balloon” says, for example, could and should be taken as utterly sincere, even if the situation, the “plot,” is manifestly irreal.) The resulting tension between voice and event helps produce the “postmodern” comedy of Barthelme’s fiction, and, among its other virtues, “Me and Miss Mandible” presents us with an initial instance of his characteristic manner.


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