Todd Haynes interviewed at Slate about his film The Velvet Underground

Sam Adams has a nice conversation with director Todd Haynes about The Velvet Underground, Haynes’ marvelous documentary about the band.

I saw the film this weekend and it’s one of the best musical documentaries I’ve seen in ages. The film is really about the art scene in New York City in the 1960s, and as such, Haynes employs a number of aesthetic conceits, all of which vibrate on just the right side of pretentiousness. There are lots and lots of clips from Warhol’s films and screen tests combined with archival footage (John Cage on teevee, for example), and old interviews interspersed with new interviews with John Cale, Moe Tucker, and a host of other musicians, artists, actors, and folks who bore witness to that whole scene. The film is its own thing—it transcends being “about” the band—indeed, that’s the best thing about The Velvet Underground: it lets you see and hear the band you discovered when you were thirteen or fifteen or thirty with fresh ears and fresh eyes. To this end, it’s possible that the film might turn off folks completely unfamiliar with the band and its influence. Haynes addresses this in his interview with Adams:

I mean, there are some people for whom this will be frustrating and not what they expect from a documentary. They kind of want that tidier oral history. If you’re interested, there’s all kinds of more stuff to find and discover for yourself. But I wanted it to be mostly that experience where the image and the music were leading you, and then it was a visceral journey through the film.

A visceral journey it is.

A highlight for me in the film is a series of late appearances by Jonathan Richman. Adams enjoyed that too:

[Adams]: As someone who’s been listening to him for a long time, the interview with Jonathan Richman is a real highlight of the movie. It makes me hope there’s a Blu-ray someday so you can just release the whole thing as an extra.

[Haynes]: Oh, it’s so fucking great. The whole thing is just, it’s a complete piece. I was crying by the end of it.

Was it your idea for him to have the guitar, or did he just bring it with him?

No, he just brought it. And I mean, come on. It was just so generous and so insightful. And he served the purposes of saying things that I had sort of decided I would not include in this movie: fans, other musicians, critics. It was just going to be about people who were there. That was the criteria. Well, he was there, in spades, and I didn’t realize to what degree.

That picture of him as a teenager with the band, I’d never seen that before.

Fucking crazy. But he could also then speak so informatively as a musician and as a critic and as a fan.

Read the interview here.

Box Picture with Plaster Busts — Wolfgang Lenz

Box Picture with Plaster Busts, 1985 by Wolfgang Lenz (b. 1925)

Untitled (Boxer) — Francis Bacon

Untitled (Extract from unidentified boxing magazine with photograph of Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney), 1950 by Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

The Silence — Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer

The Silence, 1895 by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer (1865–1953)

Takeout — Salman Toor

Takeout, 2020 by Salman Toor (b. 1983)

Milestones — John Currin

Milestones, 2006 by John Currin (b. 1962)

Arcimboldo — Enrico Donati

Arcimboldo, 1945 by Enrico Donati (1909-2008)

The Old People (Book acquired, Sept. 2021)

The Old People is a 2014 novel by A.J. Perry. The Old People gets a new life thanks to Carrying Woman Originals, an imprint of Cow Eye Press, which also published Perry’s novel Cow Country a few years ago.  As you can see in the photo above, Perry’s name is not on the cover. There’s no blurb on the back. Perry’s name shows up on the editions page and then on a second title page that faces the edition page (but not on the first title page).

I was under metaphorical water in September when The Old People arrived, having decided to recommit to doing a good job at my job, by which I mean trying to provide much more feedback and coaching and general mental attendance to my students than I think I was giving in the last (covid-drenched) semesters, all the while worrying about the utter idiocy of Florida Fall 2021’s Death Campaign. Anyway, I stacked it in a growing stack of other TBR copies and retreated into Barthelme’s stories I’d already read a few times when I made the time to read for pleasure.

I moved the stack around today, dropping The Old People to the floor. I picked it up, decided to read the opening pages, and then kept reading. It’s really good! I mean, it’s a really strange thing. It’s a book about tying a knot, which I guess is a metaphor, but it’s really focused on that metaphor’s concrete component. Pages and pages of digging holes and tying knots. I’m not sure exactly what The Old People reminds me of, but it taps into the intersection of myth and anthropology, all without being precious or pretentious (so far, anyway). I hunted down a blurb on Cow Eye’s site:

Since the beginnings of darkest silence the people of a mythical island have spent their days tying the ancient knot that binds them to their past. To tie this knot they must dig a hole; to dig a hole they first must have fire; and to make a fire that is hot enough for hole digging, the knot that they have been tying must finally be tied. From silence to mud to rope to knot to wood to words to fire, the Old People will work to tie their knot under the cool shade of the island’s original knotmaking.

 

“1492” — Emma Lazarus

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part IX

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

Stories 42-37

Stories 36-31

Stories 30-25.

Stories 24-19

Stories 18-13.

In this post, stories 12-7

12. “The Dolt” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

An odd domestic tale, “The Dolt” features the hostilities of a young married couple, Edward and Barbara. Edward is “preparing to take the National Writer’s Examination, a five-hour fifty-minute examination, for his certificate.” He squabbles with Barbara, who is “very sexually attractive…but also deeply mean.” Barbara doesn’t seem to think much of Edward’s chances at earning his “certificate.” Her lack of confidence seems to bear out as we hear the details of Edward’s entry story, a nineteenth century goof on a baron and his faithless wife:

The Baron, a man of uncommon ability, is chiefly remembered for his notorious and inexplicable blunder at the Battle of Kolin: by withdrawing the column under his command at a crucial moment in the fighting, he earned for himself the greatest part of the blame for Friedrich’s defeat, which resulted in a loss, on the Prussian side, of 13,000 out of 33,000 men. 

There’s potential in the story, and Barbara begins to be persuaded as Edgar reads the story’s “development.” However, the story is missing something crucial:

“But what about the middle?”

“I don’t have the middle!” he thundered.

There’s a pastiche of ironic biographical details here—writerly anxiety, domestic anxiety—that ultimately gives over to Barthelme’s biggest thematic concern: oedipal anxiety. In an final-act swerve, a surreal figure, “the son manqué,” asking if there’s any “grass in the house.” 

The son manqué was eight feet tall and wore a serape woven out of two hundred transistor radios, all turned on and tuned to different stations. Just by looking at him you could hear Portland and Nogales, Mexico.

The giant figure (a strange filial prefiguration of The Dead Father), girded in an amplified cacophony of mass media, suggests an artistic rival that Edgar is unsure he can surpass—even if that rival is a mere manqué. (The word choice “manqué” here is significant in its oddity. Earlier, Edgar points out that, “You put a word like that in now and then to freshen your line…Even though it’s an old word, it’s so old it’s new.) 

The story’s final moment leave us in a limbo derivative of Barthelme’s hero Beckett:

Edgar tried to think of a way to badmouth this immense son leaning over him like a large blaring building. But he couldn’t think of anything. Thinking of anything was beyond him. I sympathize. I myself have these problems. Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin.

11. “Report” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Report” distills one of the main themes of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel: technology drives warfare; indeed, war is an excuse for the advancement of modern technologies. This is about as direct an anti-war story as we would get from Donald Barthelme. It begins:

Our group is against the war. But the war goes on. I was sent to Cleveland to talk to the engineers. The engineers were meeting in Cleveland. I was supposed to persuade them not to do what they are going to do.

Of course, the directness of those opening lines gets refracted and tangled in obliquity and fantasy, as the narrator (the “Soft Ware man”) learns of the unspeakable and unnatural practices of the engineers:

“The development of the pseudoruminant stomach for underdeveloped peoples,” he went on, “is one of our interesting things you should be interested in. With the pseudo-ruminant stomach they can chew cuds, that is to say, eat grass. Blue is the most popular color worldwide and for that reason we are working with certain strains of your native Kentucky Poa pratensis, or bluegrass, as the staple input for the p/r stomach cycle, which would also give a shot in the arm to our balance-of -payments thing don’t you know” . . . I noticed about me then a great number of metatarsal fractures in banjo splints.

“The kangaroo initiative . . . eight hundred thousand harvested last year . . . highest percentage of edible protein of any herbivore yet studied …”

“Have new kangaroos been planted?”

The engineer looked at me.

The Soft Ware man leaves with the engineer’s promise:

I confidently predict that, although we could employ all this splendid new weaponry I’ve been telling you about, we’re not going to do it.”

The Soft Ware man’s audience does not believe the engineer’s promise though.

10. “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

The version of  “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” published in Sixty Stories bears a slight difference from the version first published in New American Review and then later in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Act. The Sixty Stories version is the only Barthelme story signed with a date of publication. Here, “April, 1968.”

The date is contextually significant, and something that I overlooked the first time I read ” Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” some time around the year 2000. At that time, I read the tale as a kind of hagiography. Barthelme’s Bobby Kennedy — “K,” in the story’s vernacular (a nod perhaps to Kafka’s hero?) — is a Modernist man. In the final vignette, he’s saved by the narrator who emerges in this last paragraph as an “I”:

K. in the water. His flat black hat, his black cape, his sword are on the shore. He retains his mask. His hands beat the surface of the water which tears and rips about him. The white foam, the green depths. I throw a line, the coils leaping out over the surface of the water. He has missed it. No, it appears that he has it. His right hand (sword arm) grasps the line that I have thrown him. I am on the bank, the rope wound round my waist, braced against a rock. K. now has both hands on the line. I pull him out of the water. He stands now on the bank, gasping. “Thank you.”

When I first read this story, I thought it was a sympathetic attempt to save RFK — that the “line” was a metatextual reference to writing itself, an imaginative recouping of yet another assassinated Hero of the Sixties. The parodic Pop Art contours of the story were lost on me.

It wasn’t until I read Tracy Daugerty’s biography Hiding Man (and subsequently read Sixty Stories in full) that I understood that RFK was assassinated in June of 1968—two months after the story was first published. Indeed, Daugherty reports that Barthelme was working on the story as early as 1965, and likely only kept up with it after learning that Saul Bellow, whom Barthelme was competitive with, was working on a profile of RFK for LIFE (the Bellow piece never came out).

In an interview with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Barthelme stated,

I cannot account for the concluding impulse of the I-character to ‘save’ him other than by reference to John Kennedy’s death; still, a second assassination was unthinkable at that time. In sum, any precision in the piece was the result of watching television and reading the New York Times.

The story’s publication in April, 1968 also coincided with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. As Daugherty notes in Hiding Man,

[Comedian and activist] Dick Gregory went public with the fact that the FBI harassed King. The agency’s code name for him was “Zorro.” Don had dressed RFK in a Zorro costume, in the story’s final scene, to mock Kennedy’s heroic image. The coincidence unnerved him.

9. “Alice” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Alice” is probably the most formally challenging and experimental piece in Sixty Stories. I use the word “experimental” here in a pejorative sense—I’m not quite sure Barthelme pulls the experiment off. We get something like the stream of consciousness of an obstetrician who wants to fuck Alice, his friend’s wife. (Is the name an evocation of the Alice of the Wonderland? Stein’s beloved Alice B. Toklas?)

The inside of the narrator is a ball of sticky language:

the hinder portion scalding-house good eating Curve B in addition to the usual baths and ablutions military police sumptuousness of the washhouse risking misstatements kept distances iris to iris queen of holes damp, hairy legs note of anger chanting and shouting konk sense of “mold” on the “muff” sense of “talk” on the “surface” konk all sorts of chemical girl who delivered the letter give it a bone plummy bare legs saturated in every belief and ignorance rational living private client bad bosom uncertain workmen mutton-tugger obedience to the rules of the logical system Lord Muck hot tears harmonica rascal

There are some wonderful fragments there — “mutton-tugger obedience to the rules of the logical system” is a lovely insult from our would-be “harmonica rascal” — but the horny chaos becomes a bit of a headache over seven pages. Still, chaos is the point:

that’s chaos can you produce chaos? Alice asked certainly I can produce chaos I said I produced chaos she regarded the chaos chaos is handsome and attractive she said and more durable than regret I said and more nourishing than regret she said

Chaos—here a disruption of both the (illusion of) prescribed linguistic order and the domestic order—offers both rejuvenation and new possibilities. It may be nourishing and durable, but in “Alice,” it’s also exhausting.

8. “Game” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

The narrator of “Game” is a first lieutenant in some unspecified branch of the military. Here is his situation:

Shotwell and I watch the console. Shotwell and I live under the ground and watch the console. If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys. Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies. But the bird never flies. In one hundred thirty-three days the bird has not flown. Meanwhile Shotwell and I watch each other. We each wear a .45 and if Shotwell behaves strangely I am supposed to shoot him. If I behave strangely Shotwell is supposed to shoot me. We watch the console and think about shooting each other and think about the bird.

“Game’s” postmodern paranoia is worth of Poe. The story is full of repetitive tics, frequently about who is “well” and “not well.” While the ostensible object of “Game” is Cold War anxieties about nuclear war, the story’s evocation of paranoia continues to resonate. I won’t say too much more about “Game” here, but it’s a nice little funny horror story and well worth the ten minutes it will take you to read it.

7. “The President” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

Is strangeness alone enough?

I am not altogether sympathetic to the new President. He is, certainly, a strange fellow (only forty-eight inches high at the shoulder). But is strangeness alone enough? I spoke to Sylvia: “Is strangeness alone enough?”

The titular President’s strangeness charms the nation, leading to waves of mass faintings. While there’s an absurd comedy to the faintings, they also point towards the story’s sinister, paranoid undertones. For all his charisma, the President is an oddity, an unknowable Pop representation driven by unclear, even mystical motivations. There’s a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here—the seventies one with Sutherland and Nimoy—but just a touch. The whole thing ends in the rapturous applause of an audience overwhelmed by the anachronistic spectacle of Strauss’s operetta The Gypsy Baron.

Summary thoughts: I’m not really sure if “The President” works. “Alice” doesn’t, but is more interesting in its not working than it has any right to be. “Dolt” is good but not great. “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” is as good as a story so situated in a historical moment can be. “Report” is very good. “Game” is excellent.

Going forward (in reverse): The last (by which I mean first) six stories, including some of Barthelme’s Greatest Hits, “The Balloon” and “Me and Miss Mandible.”

Also, I will be happy to be done with this project. It’s better to read these stories as morsels. Better not to pig out. Better not to snort them down or shoot them up. Better to let them breathe a bit.

Work — Jeffery Edwards

Work, 1972 by Jeffery Edwards (b. 1945)

The Artist in Her Studio — Paula Rego

The Artist in Her Studio, 1993 by Paula Rego (b. 1935)

“Hell Pig” — Aimee Nezhukumatathil

“Hell Pig”
by
Aimee Nezhukumatathil

To keep me from staying out late at night,
my mother warned of the Hell Pig. Black and full
of hot drool, eyes the color of a lung—it’d follow me
home if I stayed past my curfew. How to tell my friends
to press Pause in the middle of a video, say their good-byes
while I shuffled up the stairs and into my father’s waiting
blue car? How to explain this to my dates, whisper
why we could not finish this dance? It’s not like the pig
had any special powers or could take a tiny bite
from my leg—only assurances that it was simply
scandal to be followed home. When my date and I
pull into my driveway and dim the lights, we take
care to make all the small noises that get made
in times like these even smaller: squeaks in the seats,
a slow spin of the radio dial, the silver click of my belt.
Too late. A single black hair flickers awake the ear
of the dark animal waiting for me at the end of the walk.
My fumbling of keys and various straps a wild dance
to the door—the pig grunting in tune to each hurried step, each
of his wet breaths puffing into tiny clouds, a small storm brewing.

Melville’s Bartleby, but just the punctation

, . – . . , : — — – . , , , , – , . , . – , . . . , , . , , , , . , , , , , , ; . : , , . , , , , . , ; , ‘ – . , . , , ; , . , , ; , , , , . , ‘ . , . , , , . , . ; ; , , , — — ; – , . . . — — – . – , . , ” . ” , , , , . , ; – , – , . , , . , , – . , ; , ; , . , . , , . , , , . , , , ‘ , — — — — ; — — , , — — ‘ , . . , , , , , , , . , , , , , , – . , ; . , . , , , . . , ‘ , . , , , . , , , . ; – ; , , ; , , . , , ‘ , , , , — — , , , , . , , , , , , , , , , . , , ; , ‘ ; , ; , ( ) , , , , ; , ‘ , , , . ; . , — — — — , , , ? ” , , ” , ” – . ; , , ! ” — — . ” , , ” . ” , — — , , , ! . , , . — — — — . , , . ” – . , . , , , , . , , , , , , – . — — . , , . , ; , , , ; . , . , , , . . , , , : — — . , , . , , . , , ‘ . – , . , , – , ‘ , . , , , , , , , – , . , , , , ; , ; , , . , ; , , . , . – . . ; . , , , , . , ; . , , , . , ‘ . – , , , . , . . – ; . , , , . . . – , , , , . , , , – , . , , , , , , , , , , , ; , . , — — — — , , . ‘ ‘ , . . ‘ , ‘ ; . . , , . , , . , , , . , . , . , – – . , , . , , . , — — , , , — — . , , — — — — . , – , . . , — — ” , , . ” — — , – — — ‘ . . , . , , , , . — — , , ! . , , , , . – , , . , . – , , , . – , – , , , , . , , , . , , , . , , . . , . . , – – . , . , , . , , ‘ , . , , , . , , . . , , , . , , , . , . , , , , , , . , , , , , . , — — , . , , , , , , , ” . ” , . , . . , ” . ” ” , ” , , . ” ? – ? — — , ” . ” , ” . . ; . . , , ; , , . , – – . , , . , . ? . , . , . , , ‘ . . , . , , , . , , , . ” ! , . ” , . ” ? ” . ” , , ” . ” . ” — — . ” , ” , . , . , , . ” ? ” ” . ” , , . , . . ” . , . . . ? ? ! ” ” , ” – . , ; ; ; , , . ” , , — — ? ” . : . , . , , , , . , , . ” , ” , ” ? ? ” ” , , ” , , ” . ” ” , ” , ” ? ” ” . ” ( , , ‘ , – . , , ‘ ‘ . ) ” , ” , , ” ? ” ” , , ‘ , ” . ” , ” , , ” . ” . . . . , , ; , , . 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( ) , , , ( ‘ ) , . , . ” , ? ” . ” , ” . ‘ , . ” , ” , ” , ? ” . ” . , . ? – ? ” ” ; . ” ” – ? ” ” . , ; . ” ” , ” , ” ! ” ” , ” , . ” – ‘ ? . ” ” ; , , . ” . . ” , ? . ” ” , . ” ” , , — — ? ” ” . . . . ” ” , ” , , . ” , — — — — — — — — ! ” , . , , — — . ” , ” , , ” — — , — — ? , , . ” ” : . ” ; , , – , . , , , , . – ; ; . , , , , ; , . . , , . . , . , , , . . ; . ‘ , ; , , . , , , , , . ; , , , . , , . , , . , , . , — — . , , – . . , , , – . , , , , , . ” ! ” ” , ” , , — — ” . ” ” , , ” , . ” , . . , . , , . ” ” , ” , , . , – , , , — — ” ? ” ” . ” ” ? , , ‘ . ” ” ? ” , . ” – . , . ” ” ? ” , . . ” , ” , – ‘ ( ) . ” ; . . ” ” , ? ” – , . , ; – , . ” , . ; . ” ” , , , ” – , . ” , ; — — — — , — — ‘ — — . . , , . ‘ ? ” ” – , ” , . ” ; . ” , – . ” ‘ ? ” – , . ” ‘ , ? ” ” , ” , . ” ? ? , , ; – , . ‘ ‘ — — ‘ , . ? ” , . , , , ” – . ‘ ? ” ” , . . . . . ” , , ; . ” , ” , ” ‘ . ” . ” ? ” . ” — — . ‘ . ” . . , , . . . , , , , , – , , . , , , , . . ; ; , ; . . , . – . ” . ‘ – , ? ? ” ” , ” , . ” ! — — ‘ , ? ” ” , ” . * * * * * * * * . ‘ . , , , , ‘ , , , . , ‘ . , ; , . , , ; . : , . , . ! ? , , ? – . : — — , , ; – : — — , ; ; ; . , . ! !

Melville’s Bartleby, but just the punctuation.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part VIII

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

Stories 42-37

Stories 36-31

Stories 30-25.

Stories 24-19.

This post covers stories 18-13.

18. “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend” (City Life, 1970)

Barthelme’s goof on Gaston Leroux’s serialized title of the same name is a mix of sweet and mean. The narrator wonders to himself about midway through, “Why must I have him for a friend? I wanted a friend with whom one could be seen abroad.” He quickly elects though to “put these unworthy reflections behind me,” and then the narration gives way to a metatextual moment:

Gaston Leroux was tired of writing The Phantom of the Opera. He replaced his pen in its penholder. “I can always work on The Phantom of the Opera later-in the fall, perhaps. Right now I feel like writing The Secret of the Yellow Room.” Gaston Leroux took the manuscript of The Phantom of the Opera and put it on a shelf in the closet. Then, seating himself once more at his desk, he drew toward him a clean sheet of foolscap At the top he wrote the words, The Secret of the Yellow Room.

“The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend” lines up with Barthelme’s other experimental forays into nineteenth-century novels, but it’s less successful than “Eugénie Grandet” or “Views of My Father Weeping” or “The Dolt.” It does have a lovely conclusion though:

But when I call for the Phantom on Thursday, at the appointed hour, he is not there.

What vexation!

Am I not slightly relieved?

Can it be that he doesn’t like me?

I sit down on the curb, outside the Opera. People passing look at me. I will wait here for a hundred years. Or until the hot meat of romance is cooled by the dull gravy of common sense once more.

17. “On Angels” (City Life, 1970)

A pastiche of essay, fiction, found material, and even poetry, “On Angels” begins with a fundamentally postmodern position:

The death of God left the angels in a strange position. They were overtaken suddenly by a fundamental question. One can attempt to imagine the moment. How did they look at the instant the question invaded them, flooding the angelic consciousness, taking hold with terrifying force? The question was,”What are angels?”

16. “Paraguay” (City Life, 1970)

“Creative misunderstanding is crucial,” we’re told at one point in “Paraguay.” These eruptions lead to the “Creation of new categories of anxiety which must be bandaged” — another kind of art. “Paraguay” is a strange sci-fi fable about art and creation and imagination, a story that constantly defers all available referents in favor of creating “new categories of anxiety.” Consider this early paragraph:

Where Paraguay Is

Thus I found myself in a strange country. This Paraguay is not the Paraguay that exists on our maps. It is not to be found on the continent, South America; it is not a political subdivision of that continent, with a population of 2, 161,000 and a capital city named Asuncion. This Paraguay exists elsewhere. Now, moving toward the first of the “silver cities, ” I was tired but also elated and alert. Flights of white meat moved through the sky overhead in the direction of the dim piles of buildings.

Flights of white meat. Dim piles of buildings.

Great stuff.

15. “Views of My Father Weeping” (City Life, 1970)

Barthelme’s oeuvre is oedipal, both in form and content, a thematic obsession best realized in his novel The Dead Father, but a theme that nevertheless haunts (haunts is not the right verb; Barthelme’s oedipal dead father is a playful mournful ironic ghost—but let’s fall on haunts for now)—nevertheless haunts (he writes again) Barthelme’s fiction proper. “Views of My Father Weeping” is a father-haunted tale—haunted by Barthelme’s own father, the modernist architect, Donald Barthelme Sr., as well as a host of literary fathers (of varying shades of modernism)—Dostoevsky, Freud, Tolstoy, and so on. The plot at first appears to be another goof on hoary nineteenth-century tropes, but Barthelme wads the material into a ball of anxiety dream nightmare stuff worthy of another dead modernist father—Kafka. I’ve neglected to summarize the plot: An aristocrat’s stagecoach runs down the narrator’s father (who may or may not have been drunk at the time). The narrator attempts to solve the case and come up with a crumb of justice. My only quibble with the tale is its failure to resolve — the final paragraph, after a devastating twist, reads simply “Etc.” — I suppose the joke is ahead of its time, but it also feels like our author reached his exhaustion before his plot did.

14. “The Indian Uprising” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

If someone asked me, Hey Ed, this Don Barthelme fellow, what should I read first—which no one ever has and likely no one ever will — I would offer up “The Indian Uprising.”

The story is a formally-challenging success, an experiment that Barthelme pulls off perhaps in spite of himself (some of the other pieces in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts are beautiful misfires). In his biography of Barthelme Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty devotes several pages to describing the agon between Barthelme and the story’s original editors in The New Yorker, Roger Angell (who advocated for Barthelme) and William Shawn (who fought Barthelme tooth and nail over commas specifically and syntax in general).

“The Indian Uprising” is a dizzying paste-up of urban American life in the  troubled 1960s. This setting is transposed to a mythical Manifest Destiny Westworld, a genocidal project that can be understood as a blackly surreal reading of the Vietnam War. It’s an ugly business. The story’s final paragraph begins with this sentence:

We killed a great many in the south suddenly with helicopters and rockets but we found that those we had killed were children and more came from the north and from the east and from other places where there are children preparing to live.

The imperial project is an infanticidal project.

“The Indian Uprising” is larded with markers of culture. The first paragraph ends with this little descriptor: “The table held apples, books, long-playing record.” The table is the central metaphor of the story—or one of the metaphors, I guess (“central” is an unfit adjective). The narrator has made the table with his own hands from a hollow core door, a symbol perhaps of the American Dream.

The Dream is a nightmare though. “The Indian Uprising” is punctuated by two torture scenes, both of which resonate just as strongly a half century after its publication. Here is the first, a waterboarding adventure:

We interrogated the captured Comanche. Two of us forced his head back while another poured water into his nostrils. His body jerked, he choked and wept…And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love.

The second scene is an ugly repetition:

We attached wires to the testicles of the captured Comanche. And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love.

What is the narrator drunk on here? Torture? PainPower? And what is the object of his love? Power? Pain? Language?

The power and pain of language overflows in “The Indian Uprising,” challenging the reader to make meaning from waves of images. Barthelme, ever-beholden to the Modernist fathers and mothers, shows a bit of his Gertrude Stein stuff shot through with William Carlos Williams’ dictum, No ideas but in things. Those things:

Red men in waves like people scattering in a square startled by something tragic or a sudden, loud noise accumulated against the barricades we had made of window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colors), wine in demijohns, and robes. I analyzed the composition of the barricade nearest me and found two ashtrays, ceramic, one dark brown and one dark brown with an orange blur at the lip; a tin frying pan; two-liter bottles of red wine; threequarter-liter bottles of Black & White, aquavit, cognac, vodka, gin, Fad #6 sherry; a hollow-core door in birch veneer on black wrought-iron legs; a blanket, red-orange with faint blue stripes; a red pillow and a blue pillow; a woven straw wastebasket; two glass jars for flowers; corkscrews and can openers; two plates and two cups, ceramic, dark brown; a yellow-and-purple poster; a Yugoslavian carved flute, wood, dark brown; and other items. I decided I knew nothing.

I decided I knew nothing. 

Marvelous stuff.

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13. “See the Moon?” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“Yes I know it’s shatteringly ingenuous,” says the narrator of “See the Moon?,” but I wanted to be a painter.”

Why does the narrator (surely a version of Barthelme) want to be a painter?

They get away with murder in my view; Mr. X. on the Times agrees with me. You don’t know how I envy them. They can pick up a Baby Ruth wrapper on the street, glue it to the canvas (in the right place, of course, there’s that), and lo! people crowd about and cry, “A real Baby Ruth wrapper, by God; what could be realer than that!” Fantastic metaphysical advantage. You hate them, if you’re ambitious.

The narrator pieces together bits and bytes and things and souvenirs, tacking them to a wall: “Fragments are the only forms I trust.” 

The statement “Fragments are the only forms I trust” sounds like an aesthetic mission statement from DB, but our DB ultimately rejected it in an interview with Jerome Klinkowitz:

And yet “See the Moon?” is clearly a pastiche of Barthelme biography rendered in Pop Art pastings, non sequitur, and cheap funny jokes. It’s also tinged with the notes of melancholy and regret that will heavily flavor Barthelme’s later work. Perhaps as I read backward the material will lighten.

Summary thoughts:  Everything here is good and much is great. “The Indian Uprising” is essential, and “See the Moon?” and “Views of My Father Weeping” are definitely Greatest Hits. “Paraguay” seems like a perfect Barthelme gateway drug, and “On Angels” is a fun sad jam. Even the weakest piece here, “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend,” is pretty good.

Going forward (in reverse): Our penultimate episode is chock full of pieces from 1968’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, including classics “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” and “Game.”

The Acrobat Schulz V — Albert Birkle

The Acrobat Schulz V, 1921 by Albert Birkle (1900-1986 )

Autumn Scenery — He Duoling

Autumn Scenery, 1988 by He Duoling (b. 1948)