I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.
This post covers stories 42-37.
47. “The Crisis” (Great Days, 1979)
“The Crisis” is a bit of a toss off, a bricolage of the last decade (’69-’79) that never coheres into a duet, monologue, theme, or even punchline. Its plot, such as it is, details (details is not the correct verb) the circumstances of an absurd failed revolution. Ostensibly a dialogue (or is it a chorus?), “The Crisis” doesn’t add up to much, and is perhaps best summarized in one of its closing images:
Distant fingers from the rebel forces are raised in fond salute.
Is Barthelme shooting his readers the bird?
The story feels like a slapdash riff on Walker Percy’s weird and wonderful satirical novel Love in the Ruins. (Barthelme was a huge Percy fan.)
46. “Our Work and Why We Do It” (Amateurs, 1976)
“Our Work and Why We Do It” is self-consciously postmodern, a mash-up of Beckett’s absurdism, Benjamin’s seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” burgeoning Marxist aesthetic philosophy, and the modes and means of modernism. The opening line seems to satirize capital’s relationship between art, artist, and the means of production: “As admirable volume after admirable volume tumbled from the sweating presses . . . ” The ellipses are not mine; rather, Barthelme sets the stage here for a print economy of capitalist transactions. The Wells Fargo man arrives, gun in hand, to pick up the “bundle of Alice Cooper T-shirts we had just printed up.” He hurries the “precious product” — that’s all it is, product, content — to the “glittering fans”.
We then learn there’s a bit of conflict between the owners and the workers.
A few lines later, the narrator quips, “And I saw the figure 5 writ in gold.” Barthelme copies-cuts-pastes the modernists into his collage here—we get the visual of Charles Demuth’s painting, itself copying-cutting-pasting Willliam Carlos Williams’ “The Great Figure.”
Publication is a rough business: “If only we could confine ourselves to matchbook covers!” laments the narrator–
But matchbook covers are not our destiny. Our destiny is to accomplish 1. 5 million impressions per day. In the next quarter, that figure will be upped by twelve percent, unless
The hanging “unless” is Barthelme’s rhetorical trick and not my oversight—the punchline is “leather,” by the way. “Leather is the way to accomplish more impressions. But the real hanging punchline is that word “impressions,” with its many connotations.
45. “The Great Hug” (Amateurs, 1976)
Such a great weird little story—is it about a toxic relationship between the Balloon Man and the Pin Lady? is it a metaphor for relationships in the modern era? is it an autobiographical riff, Barthelme’s love woes scribbled into a weird parody? —an oblique comment on e.e. cummings “in Just” — look, I don’t fucken know, maybe read it here. It’ll only take a few minutes, and then you can think about it for a week or so.
44. “The School” (Amateurs, 1976)
“The School” is wonderful stuff, and will take you like, what, 9, 10 minutes to read, if not less.
It’s a monologue I guess, delivered by a sorry educator whose schooling has killed off all manner of creatures. In the first three paragraphs we learn about the school’s failure to keep alive trees, snakes, and herb gardens, but then there’s a more drastic turn:
Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.
We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.
We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy—goddammit Donald Barthelme. This line made me laugh out loud. And then it made me sad.
Reviewing my summary of the first three paragraphs, I’m tempted to make something religious out of it all—trees, snakes, gardens, and the like—but I don’t think that’s the gist. Or maybe it is the gist (Barthelme grew up Catholic). Is this a goof on the Eden thing? Humanity’s failure to be good stewards of the planet, etc. etc. etc.? I don’t know. Look, it’s a funny little story, read it.
43. “The Sergeant” (Amateurs, 1976)
“The Sergeant” reads like an oddity in Barthelme’s catalog—although not really, I guess, when that catalog is all oddity.
On one hand, “The Sergeant” is narrated in a seemingly-straightforward Hemingwayesque first-person I. This narrator is clearly based on a version of Barthelme. Barthelme served in the Korean War, but the real backdrop of “The Sergeant” is the Vietnam War–which was also the backdrop of much of Barthelme’s writing career (he arguably best addresses that folly in his 1968 story “The Indian Uprising,” which I’m still a ways from).
On the other hand, “The Sergeant” comes from the school of Kafka—it’s the bad dream we’ve all had, the nightmare repetitions of past duties we didn’t even sign up for. “The Sergeant” reads like a short blueprint for much of the Kafkaesque fiction that would follow it, including the labyrinths of Kazuo Ishiguro.
But Barthelme punctuates his nightmare-tale with a mythological touch: “Penelope!” cries the narrator, extending Barthelme’s anxiety riff into an ageless epic.
42. “I Bought a Little City” (Amateurs, 1976)
“I Bought a Little City” is likely regarded as one of Barthelme’s greatest hits, possibly because it’s a more straightforward affair than his collages, pastiches, and oblique parodies. There’s a mean streak to this story about a rich man who buys Galveston, Texas. The story is about a lot things—control, desire, community, and creativity, maybe best summed up in two of its early lines: “What a nice little city, it suits me fine. It suited me fine so I started to change it.” People love to blow up their lives, but the asshole narrator citybuyer starts to blow up other people’s lives. He shoots six thousand dogs, for example. He humiliates a cop by making said cop buy him some fried chicken. He tries to steal another man’s wife, but it doesn’t work out. Maybe “I Bought a Little City” is about creative failures; maybe it’s a satire of capitalism. Or maybe it’s just another Barthelme goof.
Summary thoughts: Uh…the stories in Amateurs are generally better than those in Great Days. The weakest one here is “The Crisis,” from Great Days; the other stories feel more of a piece with each other. I enjoyed “The Sergeant” the most, but mostly because it has a different flavor from the other stories. “The School” is probably the best of the batch.
Going forward (in reverse): We continue backwards through the seventies, where we eventually hit (what I think might be a top-ten Barthelme hit) “Eugénie Grandet.”