Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part I

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s 1981 collection Sixty Stories.

I am reading the stories in reverse chronological order.

This reverse reading came about in this way: I read an intense, shocking, horrifying novel, and then I read it again. Then I tried to get into three or maybe four novels with no luck.

So I picked up the Barthelme book, a perfect book, a palate cleanser. Inside was a bookmark from a Catholic book store in St. Augustine, Florida; the bookmark marked the beginning of the final story in Sixty Stories, “Grandmother’s House.”

I recalled almost nothing about it. I read it, and kept going in reverse.

So here we go–thoughts on the last six stories in Sixty Stories:

60. “Grandmother’s House” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Like many of Barthelme’s late stories, “Grandmother’s House” consists entirely of dialogue. And, like many of Barthelme’s late stories, there’s an elegiac tone–mock-elegiac at times, but still tinged with a soft melancholy. The story begins in the by-now-traditional-postmodern mode of invoking fairy tales. One of the speakers alludes to figures from “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Beauty and the Beast.” They then move on to another trope of fairy tales—changelings, child thefts: “…we could steal a kid. A child. A kid. Steal one. Grab it and keep it. Raise it for our very own.” The dialogue is filled with non sequitur and oblique shifts, evoking the collage work of Barthelme’s prime work while also trundling along a more realistic course. The story ultimately conflates raising children with the creative arts; there’s something slightly sad about the two speakers’ desire to steal children so that they can start again, take a mulligan, improve on past failures. They want a new newness: “Of course this is not to say that what has been demystified cannot be remystified.”

59. “Bishop” (previously uncollected, 1981)

“Bishop” feels like it should be the last story in Sixty Stories. It’s a miniature portrait of an alcoholic writer, the titular Bishop who, in the course of writing a biography of the painter William Michael Harnett, discovers another painter,  John Frederick Peto.

Still Life with Three Castles Tobacco, 1880 by William Michael Harnett (1848-1892).

The story is easily one of Barthelme’s most straightforward, “realistic” pieces, employing very little of the rhetorical arsenal he’d built over the past two decades.

Old Souvenirs, c. 1881–1901 by John Frederick Peto (1854-1907)

However, his collage technique is on display throughout “Bishop,” where sentences jut brusquely against each other without the protection of transitions. Consider the economy of this opening salvo:

Bishop’s standing outside his apartment building.

An oil struck double-parked, its hose coupled with the sidewalk, the green-uniformed driver reading a paperback called Name Your Baby.

Bishop’s waiting for Cara.

The martini rule is not before quarter to twelve.

Eyes go out of focus. He blinks them back again.

He had a beer for breakfast, as usual, a Pilsner Urquell.

Imported beer is now ninety-nine cents a bottle at his market.

The oil truck’s pump shuts off with a click. The driver tosses his book into the cab and begins uncoupling.

Cara’s not coming.

The painter John Frederick Peto made a living Playing cornet in a camp meeting for the last twenty years of his life, according to Alfred Frankenstein.

Bishop goes back inside the building and climbs one flight of stairs to his apartment.

His bank has lost the alimony payment he cables twice a month to his second wife, in London. He switches on the FM, dialing past two classical stations to reach Fleetwood Mac.

Bishop’s writing a biography of the nineteenth-century American painter William Michael Harnett. But today he can’t make himself work.

Cara’s been divorced, once.

At twenty minutes to twelve he makes himself a martini.

Hideous bouts of black anger in the evening. Then a word or a sentence in the tone she can’t bear. The next morning he remembers nothing about it.

As Tracy Daugherty notes in Hiding Man, his biography of Barthelme, “it’s impossible to miss the parallels between author and character” in “Bishop”: “…same age, same physical appearance, same home city, same general profession.”

Barthelme himself protested the comparison in his 1981 Paris Review Interview:

…when [“Bishop”] appeared I immediately began getting calls from friends, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in some time and all of whom were offering Tylenol and bandages. The assumption was that identification of the author with the character was not only permissible but invited. This astonished me. One uses one’s depressions as one uses everything else, but what I was doing was writing a story. Merrily merrily merrily merrily.

There is nothing merry about “Bishop,” but there’s a lot of beauty in its odd realism.

58. “Heroes” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Another piece composed entirely in dialogue, this time between two dudes riffing on the relationship between the media, information, politics, democracy, and the average citizen. There’s a clever bit on TV screens as a “clear glass” through which we now see “darkly,” but the piece seems terribly dated in 2021.

57. “Thailand” (previously uncollected, 1981)

“Thailand” isn’t exactly a dialogue, but it’s again a piece with two speakers, an “old soldier” who served in the “Krian War” and the young man who listens to him—or, more to the point, doesn’t really listen to him. He’s introduced as “his hearer.” Instead of truly listening to the sweet old sergeant’s story about serving along the Thai military, the young hearer speaks to himself, his fragmented inner monologue intermixing with the vet’s exterior monologue, all along a similar vein: “I am young, thought the listener, young, young, praise the Lord I am young.” Again, it’s tempting to read autobiography into the story. Barthelme was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1953, but didn’t really see any action in his sixteen months there. And “Thailand” reflects that—it isn’t an old war story, but a gentle appreciation of time spent in another culture. In one memorable moment, the old soldier recalls a “golden revel” featuring thirty-seven washtubs of curry: “Beef curry, chicken curry, the delicate Thai worm curry, all your various fish curries and vegetable curries.” All the while, the young would-be interlocutor dismisses the old “demento,” culminating in the young man’s cruel final line: Requiescat in pace. The old man gets the punchline though: “They don’t really have worm curry, said the sergeant. I just made that up to fool you.” In my estimation, Thailand” isn’t so much a reminiscence of Barthelme’s army days as it is a story about an aging storyteller. Barthelme was a teacher, and while I’m sure most of his students were rapt, the older author had to know how that old Oedipal thing works.

56. “The Emperor” (previously uncollected, 1981)

A nice, precise little story of nine paragraphs. On one hand, it’s an accumulation of historical details (and some speculation) about China’s first emperor Ch’in Shih
Huang Ti, and his mad quest toward an unattainable perfection. At the same time, the story can be read as a take on the creative imagination at work, striving toward an ideal that the physical world can never quite accumulate. It can be read as a story about writing—writing as a means to attain immortality. Here’s Barthelme on the story, in his 1981 Paris Review interview:

I’ve just done a piece about a Chinese emperor, the so-called first emperor, Ch’in Shih Huang Ti. This came directly from my wife’s research for a piece she was doing on medical politics in Chinatown—she had accumulated all sorts of material on Chinese culture, Chinese history, and I began picking through it, jackdaw-like. This was the emperor who surrounded his tomb with that vast army of almost full-scale terra-cotta soldiers the Chinese discovered just a few years ago. The tomb, as far as I know, has yet to be fully excavated, but the scale of the discovery gives you some clear hints as to the size of the man’s imagination, his ambition. As I learned more about him—“learned” in quotation marks, much of what I was reading was dubious history—I got a sense of the emperor hurrying from palace to palace, I gave him two hundred some-odd palaces, scampering, almost, tending to his projects, intrigues, machinations. He’s horribly, horribly pressed for time, both actually and in the sense that many of his efforts are strategies against mortality. The tomb itself is a strategy, as is the imposition of design on the lives of his people, his specifications as to how wide hats shall be, how wide carriages shall be, and so forth.

55. “The Farewell” (previously uncollected, 1981)

A minor if entertaining dialogue between Maggie and Hilda, “The Farewell” is a sequel to “On the Steps of the Conservatory” (Great Days, 1979), and like that tale, it satirizes hierarchy in academia (and pseudo-intellectualism in general). And as silly as the whole thing is, there’s a kernel of pathos there in the story’s (off-centered center). Poor Hilda (who cannot for some reason see that she should tell her snooty snobby toxic friend Maggie to Fuck off) has finally made into the Conservatory, only to find that it’s old hat—it’s the Institution that folks are flocking to get into. And why not? As Maggie boasts, “The teachers are more dedicated, twice as dedicated or three times as dedicated.” The boasts continues. At the Institution,

Savory meals are left in steaming baskets outside each wickiup door. All meals are lobster, unless the student has indicated a preference for beautifully marbled beef. There are four Olympic-sized pool tables for every one student.

In the end though, poor Hilda comes up with that classic solution: Well, fuck it.

Summary thoughts: These late and previously-uncollected stories are tinged with melancholy and even resignation at time, and generally follow the same rhetorical mode of a two-person dialogue. Notable themes include anxiety over parenthood, writing, and one’s legacy. The weakest of the six is “Heroes” and the strongest is “Bishop.”

I will keep going (in reverse).

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