Donald Barthelme: Collected Stories, edited by Charles McGrath. Library of America, 1,004 pages.
Biography at its best may only manage to capture the fanny packs and Groucho glasses of an author’s inner world, but sometimes there comes a telling quirk that gives the game away. To wit: a habit peculiar to Donald Barthelme—the legendary square-bearded author of nine short story collections in his lifetime that defined cutting-edge postmodernism for three decades—who, feeling himself flagging after long faculty meetings at the University of Houston, where he taught from 1979 until his early death at the age of fifty-eight in 1989, would lift his wrist to his nostrils and give his cuffs a good quaff, literally sniffing himself awake. Reading through the 145 Barthelme pieces that make up the Library of America’s new Collected Stories, one thing becomes clear: here is a man who knew his own odor. An olfactory Amadeus, as it were, whose works are instantly recognizable not only for their compressed brilliance, offhand erudition, and homegrown internal logic, but for their distinctive scent.
I picture him crouched like Quasimodo at the terminus of the world, the place where things make sense, catching its detritus, refuse, and excess psychosis.
Barthelme was a writer things stuck to, and he retained their essences. Hence “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” boils down glossy-mag Feminism, the terrors of parenting, and the family sitcom to an eight-page comedy-diatribe; King Kong crashes fresh from his teaching gig as an adjunct professor of art history at Rutgers and grouses about his love life in “The Party” (first line: “I went to a party and corrected a pronunciation”); and Batman declines to shill for a certain brand of cigarettes in “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph.” Saints and philosophers pop up as frequently as cartoons and politicians in Barthelme’s work, but even more elastic—or, rather, Velcro—is his style. The yellow furls of newsprint or the burblesome staccato of a museum guide can give way to arch academy-speak or the breathless patter of a society rag inside a single sentence, not to mention the heart-sputtering aphorisms like “The death of God left the angels in a strange position,” “There was no particular point at which I stopped being promising,” and “See the moon? It hates us.” The seams of these experiments don’t often show, but there’s always a little smudge. And in that smudge, a cosmos.
A lot of bold claims are made about the short story: that it’s an intrinsically American art form, that there is grace in its pruned finitude, that its careful zoning regulates the novel’s infernal cul-de-sacs. But something that is true of Barthelme’s work that is not otherwise the case is that anything can show up anywhere else. Nothing is expected, yet it all fits together with the satisfying click of a model city (or for that matter, a real one, like the modular Galveston, Texas, in “I Bought a Little City”). A sculptor, feeling blocked after a bad showing in Basel, might find inspiration when a dog leaps out of a window and onto his head; Paul Klee might evade the Secret Police by aircraft; a surprising amount of pathos might emerge from a sought-after and apparently sentient emerald, a pirate swashbuckled by ennui, or the Phantom of the Opera’s friend. (“Why must I have him for a friend? . . . I wanted a friend with whom one could be seen abroad. With whom one could exchange country weekends, on our respective estates!”) And then there are the typographical anomalies, the hundred numbered sentences of “The Glass Mountain” so that we are actually ascending, the stage directions that sneak alongside the body of “To London and Rome,” the textbook diagrams that append “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace,” and the illustration of a reproachful Lev Nikolayevich on two sides of the same page of “At the Tolstoy Museum” so that there’s no escaping him. Most of all, there are the wonderful lists that run throughout his stories: lists of fonts; puns; self-help books; Doctors (including Caligari, Pepper, and Fu Manchu); and—in “A City of Churches,” my favorite Barthelme story—houses of worship, an ordering of the absurd that serves as shorthand for both his methodical approach to the flotsam and jetsam of the unconscious and affinity for the “hard, brown, nutlike word.”
Much is made of Barthelme the collagist (his description of rubber cement in “The Genius” as “the most important tool of the genius of today” being the operative writer’s workshop bromide), Barthelme the pop artist (long associated with his friend Willem de Kooning, his many essays on modern art include an appreciation of Robert Rauschenberg, catalog copy for Robert Morris, even a review of an Edward Gorey book), and Barthelme the New Yorker writer (which he was, publishing 129 stories there over twenty-six years, after sending in his first at his own expense in 1961 with nothing more than a stamp to recommend it; different times). But for me, I identify Barthelme with the name he chooses for himself in “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” or rather, the one the psych-patient-narrator dreams he is called by his father: Mr. Garbage. I picture him crouched like Quasimodo at the terminus of the world, the place where things make sense, catching its detritus, refuse, and excess psychosis and sending it all back up through the crap-hole at the center of civilization, refashioned as elegant origami crustaceans. Like many of the contemporaries he expressed admiration for—Kenneth Koch, Thomas Pynchon, Grace Paley (his Greenwich Village neighbor and occasional lover), and Walker Percy (we all make mistakes)—Barthelme was an in-betweener. He dwelt in the fissures of the conscious mind and made work that was neither one thing nor the other because it was both and neither. Anansi, Loki, Mercury, Coyote, Kokopelli—a trickster spirit. But one who took nonsense so seriously it congealed into wisdom, the effect of staring so deeply into the void that not only does it stare back, it becomes cross-eyed. Or, as he puts it in “Daumier”: “These works underscored what I already knew, that the self is a dirty great villain, an interrupter of sleep, a deviler of awakeness, an intersubjective atrocity, a mouth, a maw. Transplantation of neutral or partially inert materials into the cavity was in my view the one correct solution.”
Dead Fathers and Sons
As is the case with most serious weirdos, the details of Barthelme’s life have always provided readers with ample opportunity to misinterpret his work. His father, Donald Sr., was an architect who built the Miesian house the younger Donald grew up in in a Houston suburb along with his four younger siblings (including fiction writers Frederick and Steven) and to which his work is imagined to owe its ponderous, hypermodern tendencies. In fact, Barthelme had less to say about architecture than he did about fathers in general; see the low-key-patricidal taxonomies of “A Manual for Sons” (“Fathers in some countries are like cotton bales; in others, like clay pots or jars; in others, like reading, in a newspaper, a long account of a film you have already seen and liked immensely but do not wish to see again, or read about. Some fathers have triangular eyes”), or the filial weight in “Views of My Father Weeping” after the titular paterfamilias is run over by an aristocrat in a carriage.
Barthelme’s junkman aesthetic allowed him to regulate the temperature in his model worlds and reframe their parameters accordingly.
Barthelme was drafted in 1953, only to arrive in Korea on the day of the armistice, hence the willy-nilly warfare of “The Indian Uprising.” Beginning in 1961, he directed the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and managed the magazine Forum (where he published William Gass), hence the fanciful, mimeographed quality to “City Life” and “Brain Damage,” not to mention pervasive cameos by Magritte, Michelangelo, and Edward Hopper, and invocations like “You are as brave as Vincent van Gogh,” which is also just a nice thing to say to someone. In particular, his four complicated marriages can seem to lend his work its perpetual undercurrent of domestic angst; in “Me and Miss Mandible,” he refers to “my wife of former days, whose name was . . . I am only pretending to forget”; it is not unusual to find the wives of his stories grasping, plotting, scolding, or stealing garbage cans. And it’s hard to read any of Barthelme’s whimsical bon mots about the pleasures of libation knowing that he was a lifelong alcoholic whose consumption probably contributed to his fatal throat cancer. On the other hand, two of Barthelme’s most abiding interests, left-wing antiwar politics and jazz, are all over the place, whether in the insidious black ops in “Report,” which involve pufferfish and kangaroos, or the Hokie Mokie of “The King of Jazz,” who blows notes like “an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk.” And it’s probably not wrong to say that he owes some of his penchant for dizzy improvisation and broadside-style pamphleteering to the likes of Miles Davis (who knew Barthelme affectionately as “Texas”) and Upton Sinclair.
Speaking of fungal growths, two misreadings in particular have fixed themselves to Barthelme over the years. The first is that his stories are in any way fragmentary or deconstructionist. Joyce Carol Oates read the line “Fragments are the only form I trust” from “See the Moon?” autobiographically in the New York Times Book Review, and it’s a bum call because each story is so complete and fully realized inside its capsule of quantified screwiness that it would be impossible to improve on a single one. When a story ends with a line like “The bull begins to ring, like a telephone,” “We cheered until the ushers tore up our tickets,” or “Fear is the great mover, in the end,” we can be content that every inflection has been accounted for. And not only do the stories not deconstruct their subjects, they aggregate. “Sentence,” “And Then,” and “Nothing: A Preliminary Account” are avant-garde games of accrual, turning up verbiage Katamari-style, a compressed version of the disembodied, sans-subject jabberjaw that Ashbery perfected in Three Poems. “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning” only gestures at the Chappaquiddick incident, improving on mere political caricature to incorporate Kennedy’s melancholy, appetite, imagined aesthetics (“The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line”), and dreams.
The second phantasm that might hinder a more agreeably woolly sense of the writer is more difficult to dispel. I’m thinking of the idea of Barthelme as humorist, a trap he laid for himself, as with the posthumous performance in “The Death of Edward Lear,” a “gentle, genial misunderstanding” engineered to “transform the extraordinary into its opposite.” Are the stories funny? Well sure, but while their form might resemble that of a punchy satire or daft burlesque, the comic never comes at the expense of vulnerability or pathos. When Barthelme writes a story about a university beset by herds of porcupines hoping to enroll, he really means it, man. It’s the expectation of mere weird-beard triviality that is being subverted when the citizens in their cars peer out at the hangdog porcupine wrangler herding his prickle across the Bronx Expressway and think, “What is wonderful? Are these porcupines wonderful? Are they significant? Are they what I need?” Rather than comedy, it’s playfulness that Barthelme is after, something he called “one of the great possibilities of art . . . whose repression means total calamity,” before chiding the then-prevalent practitioners behind the nouveau roman for “a lack of seriousness.” As ever, it’s from juxtaposition that Barthelme draws his art, because the thing about literature-as-combinatory-gameboard is that it’s different for everyone who plays. How else to account for the crushing, out-of-the-blue finale of a story like “The Balloon?”
I met you under the balloon, on the occasion of your return from Norway; you asked if it was mine; I said it was. The balloon, I said, is a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence, and with sexual deprivation, but now that your visit to Bergen has been terminated, it is no longer necessary or appropriate. 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, sometime, perhaps, when we are angry at one another.
How can something so on-the-face-of-it frivolous leave us devastated? It may have something to do with interpretation, our instinct to impose sense on the arcane (we are told that the balloon hovers halfway between “dream and responsibility”). It may be that in looking to hold it to higher meaning and hook its rods and cogs to something recognizable, we find instead the nubs of our own broken hearts.
Ludicrous Premises, Cordial Tragedies
Apart from the collections, Barthelme wrote four novels and a children’s book; several posthumous collections have done their best to reproduce the leftover plays, interviews, magazine pieces (his review of Superman III is priceless: “Superman, coked to the gills on bad Kryptonite, suffers a personality change. He begins doing bad things. Malicious mischief. For example. He straightens up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”), deep cuts, and other curiosities shaken loose from his prolific bristles. The Library of America edition does its duty without improving on expectations. Among the missing stories are Barthelme’s first piece for The New Yorker (“L’Lapse,” a parody of Antonioni movies; that’s, wow, pretty niche); “The Royal Treatment,” written under the pseudonym Lily McNeil; and “Games are the Enemy of Beauty, Truth, and Sleep, Amanda Said,” his best title, neck and neck with “Our Work and Why We Do It” and “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby.” The volume’s editor, Charles McGrath, even suggests in his intro that we skip the early stuff and come back, as if part of the pleasure of these things isn’t archival, of seeing how the camel got its stripes. He also dismisses the early work of Frederick Barthelme as rank imitation, when I imagine Frederick has had enough trouble distinguishing himself from his elder brother when he’s not being confused with John Barth or Roland Barthes. Hence, the best way to read the book is backwards. That way you get the notes, where the lives of Chinese emperors and German phenomenologists mingle with snatches of the New Testament and the B-52s, a Barthelme story in negatives that is fascinating for its breadth and diversity. It’s too bad room couldn’t be made for his two classic craft essays, “After Joyce” and “Not-Knowing,” in which he writes, “Art is a true account of the activity of mind. Because consciousness, in Husserl’s formulation, is always consciousness of something, art thinks ever of the world, cannot not think of the world, could not turn its back on the world even if it wished to.”
Not that Barthelme’s fiction isn’t perfectly capable of speaking for itself. He was an unusually confessional writer, in his way, and creative pruning of the Collected Stories might produce an ad hoc mission statement, for example:
I think that this thing, my work, has made me, in a sense, what I am. The work possesses a consciousness which shapes that of the worker. The work flatters the worker. Of course it’s also called “making the best of things,” which I have always considered a rather soggy idea for an American ideal. But my criticisms of this idea must be tested against those of others. Doubt is a necessary precondition to meaningful action. Analysis terminable and interminable. Is there mutual respect? Is there mutual contempt? In what circumstances is confusion a virtue? Of course I usually do best with something in the rage line. We yearn to be known, acknowledged, admired even. What is the good of omnipotence if nobody knows? However that is a secret, that sorrow. Genuine sorrow is gold. If you can’t do it, fake it. We construct these machines not because we confidently expect them to do what they are designed to do—change the government in this instance—but because we intuit a machine out there, glowing like a shopping center. The ineffectual always hate our thing and speak of it as anti-human, which is not a meaningful way to speak of our thing. Function is the cry, and our thing is functioning like crazy. Keep moving, counterpunching, examination of motives reveals appeals of dark places has nothing to do with circumstance. That is, it’s best to be sudden, if you can manage it. It prevents us from being worse and worse, from in some sense stewing in our own juices. It makes new directions possible. 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. Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin. The gods are still trafficking with us and making interventions of this kind and that kind and are not dormant or dead as has often been proclaimed by dummies. Well we’ve moved beyond that now haven’t we? 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. I do not distinguish qualitatively among the desires, we have referees for that, but he who covets not at all is a lump and I do not wish to have him to dinner. As for myself, I am content with too little, I know this about myself and I do not commend myself for it and perhaps one day I shall be able to change myself into a hungrier being. Probably not. Looking at myself, I say, hubris, maybe, the sin of pride, again, but this feeling exists and at least I can look at it, try to understand it, try to figure out how widespread it is. That is, are there others that feel this way? Again a paradox, I don’t want to be the only one who wants to be out on a limb. Well, fuck it. I don’t believe in prostate trouble. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a prostate. Shall we take a walk?
Like Beckett, Barthelme’s most prevailing Demiurge, his work began overstuffed, with a slightly stifled howl of indignation buried in a lot of dramatic hurly-burly, interruption, and hypercharge formulae (and, too, stories like “The Piano Player” that read relatively straight). It pared itself slimmer and slimmer with every new book, until it arrived at the yammering mouth at the center of things, haranguing nothing for nothing’s sake. I’m thinking of the late Q&A stories like “January” and “Basil from Her Garden”; the overheard, snippy dialogues like “The Leap” and “The Farewell”; or the untitled, italicized micro-narratives that break up the stories in Overnight to Many Distant Cities like stray marginalia between big ideas. But it’s the middle period that remains the most instructive for the writer-as-recycler. “Cortés and Montezuma” imagines conqueror and conquered as frenemies treasuring small moments: Montezuma tending to the invader’s insect bite, Cortés enjoying chocolate, before the inevitable betrayal. “The Sandman” refashions E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story as a letter from a neurotic boyfriend to his girlfriend’s therapist. And “The Police Band” find themselves deep-sixed, lounging aimlessly about the precinct, their musical warranty come to naught. That these premises are ludicrous does nothing to minimize their cordial tragedy.
Barthelme believed we lived in a sunken age between ponderous heights and commercial lows, where the specialization of the sciences made real knowledge obscure to most, and crass consumerism had vulgarized the newspapers and popular entertainment. America was a country with no common ground. Barthelme’s junkman aesthetic allowed him to regulate the temperature in his model worlds and reframe their parameters accordingly, whether the strange land of looking-glass logic explored in “Paraguay,” which pleased its author (who referred to its chimerical fauna as “a salad of the real and the invented”), or the dime novel micro-verse of “Daumier.” “An actuality straining to become a metaphor,” is how he puts it in “At the End of the Mechanical Age”; “one must cheer it on.” Barthelme wasn’t content to accept the cards that reality dealt him and wisely reshuffled the deck. If his work reads today as both prescient and relatable in spite of its outwardly experimental ethos, it’s because nothing really goes away for good. It just becomes garbage, and that stink rises to high heaven.