Three Books (Books acquired, 31 July 2020)

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The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme. Mass market paperback from Pocket Books (S&S), 1976. Cover art and design uncredited.

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Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts by Donald Barthelme. Mass market paperback from Bantam, 1969. Cover art and design uncredited.

I found a lovely copy of Donald Barthelme’s story collection Come Back, Dr. Caligari! a few weeks ago, and I’m pretty sure these two guys are twin triplets with that guy. (I found Caligari under “Classic Literature” in my local favorite sweetass bookstore; found these two in “General Fiction.”) No artist credited, which is a shame. I already own a copy of The Dead Father—maybe Barthelme’s best “novel”?—but I couldn’t pass up the mass market edition. I live with myself, but. I’ve read everything in Unspeakable —think — but again, great edition. This is probably the best starting point for Barthelme, with no fewer than five perfect or near-perfect short stories: “The Indian Uprising,” “The Balloon,” “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” “Game,” and “See the Moon?”

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Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis. English translation by William L. Grossman. Mass market paperback from Avon-Bard, 1978. Cover art and design uncredited.

I’m a huge fan of these Bard-Avon Latin American editions, and although this cover isn’t one of their weirdest, it’s not bad. I’m not sure if Grossman’s translation is the one to tackle, but I’m up for it.

Oreo/Orange (Books acquired, 13 July 2020)

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I’m like 50 pages from the end of Fran Ross’s 1974  Oreo and I simply don’t understand how this novel is so erased or ignored in most discussions of postmodern classics. (It could be ignorance—mine for sure—or erasure, or sure, structural racism in publishing and literary criticism—I mean, I feel like every list that compels someone to read Thomas Pynchon and Kathy Acker and John Barth and Stanley Elkin and Ishmael Reed and Robert Coover should include Fran Ross, Fran Ross’s novel Oreo, Fran Ross’s only novel Oreo, why is there only one novel by Fran Ross, Oreo? What I’m trying to say is: Why didn’t I read this until now? Although reading it now has felt like a gift of some kind.)

This thing—Oreo, that is—zapped me on like page three or four with this ditty–

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I mean, c’mon!

I owe Oreo a proper write-up, if I can ever muster such a thing again, which maybe I can’t.

I also picked up, almost entirely at random, Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeeps. The spine and title struck me, I saw it was a Two Dollar Radio publication, and when I fished it from the shelf, I read Steve Erickson’s blurb and just went with it. Here’s Two Dollar’s blurb:

A girl with drug-induced ESP and an eerie connection to Patty Reed (a young member of the Donner Party who credited her survival to her relationship with a hidden wooden doll), searches for her disappeared foster sister along “The Highway That Eats People,” stalked by a conflation of Twin Peaks’ “Bob” and the Green River Killer, known as Dactyl.

I also found a Donald Barthelme collection with an Edward Gorey cover:

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Three Books

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Come Back, Dr. Caligari by Donald Barthelme. Mass-market paperback from Anchor Books, 1965. Cover art and design by Edward Gorey.

I’d only ever seen the Milton Glaser cover for Barthelme’s first collection of stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, and was thrilled to pick up this Gorey Anchor cover the other day. I’d almost picked up the Glaser version years ago, but it wasn’t in great shape, and I was pretty sure that all of the stories in Caligari are contained in Sixty Stories and Forty Stories (I could be wrong). I love the richness of Gorey’s cover.

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Nova by Samuel R. Delany. Mass-market paperback from Bantam Books, 1979. Cover art by Eddie Jones (not credited); no designer credited.

I couldn’t make it through Delany’s cult favorite Dhalgren a few years back, but Nova was easier sledding. The book is a riff on Moby-Dick, tarot, monoculture, and the grail quest. It’s jammed with ideas and characters, and if it never quite coheres into something transcendent, it’s a fun quick read (even if the ending, right from the postmodern metatextual playbook is too clever by half).

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Mr Pye by Mervyn Peake. Mass-market papberback from Penguin Books, 1982. Cover art by Mervyn Peake; no designer credited.

While Mr Pye isn’t as rich, dense, or abjectly weird as Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, it is wry and sharp, a strange morality play that made me laugh out loud a few times. (It also has a few shades of Wicker Man to it–but not too much). Good stuff.

“No interviews!” the pirate cried | Donald Barthelme

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From Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or The Hithering Thithering Djinn.

They found the Dead Father standing in a wood, slaying | Donald Barthelme

They found the Dead Father standing in a wood, slaying. First he slew a snowshoe rabbit cleaving it in twain with a single blow and then he slew a spiny anteater and then he slew two rusty numbats and then whirling the great blade round and round his head he slew a wallaby and a lemur and a trio of ouakaris and a spider monkey and a common squid. Then moving up and down the green path in his rage he dispatched a macaque and a gibbon and fourscore innocent chinchillas who had been standing idly by watching the great slaughter. Then he rested standing with the point of his sword stuck in the earth and his two hands folded upon the hilt. Then he again as if taken by a fit set about the bloody work slaying a prairie dog and a beaver and a gopher and a dingo and a honey badger and an otter and a house cat and a tapir and a piglet. Then his anger grew and he called for a brand of even greater weight and length which was brought him by a metaphorically present gillie and seizing it with his two fine-formed and noble hands he raised it above his head, and every living thing within his reach trembled and every dead thing within his reach remembered how it got that way, and the very trees of the wood did seem to shrink and step away. Then the Dead Father slew a warthog and a spotted fawn and a trusting sheep and a young goat and a marmoset and two greyhounds and a draghound. Then, kicking viciously with his noble and shapely foot at the piles of the slain, raw and sticky corpses drenching the earth in blood on every side, he cleared a path to a group of staring pelicans slicing the soft white thin necks of them from the bodies in the wink of an eye. Then he slew a cassowary and a flamingo and a grebe and a heron and a bittern and a pair of ducks and a shouting peacock and a dancing crane and a bustard and a lily-trotter and, wiping the sacred sweat from his brow with one ermine-trimmed sleeve, slew a wood pigeon and a cockatoo and a tawny owl and a snowy owl and a magpie and three jackdaws and a crow and a jay and a dove. Then he called for wine. A silver flagon was brought him and he downed the whole of it in one draught looking the while out of the corner of his ruby eye at a small iguana melted in terror against the limb of a tree. Then he tossed the silver flagon into the arms of a supposititious cupbearer sousing the cupbearer’s hypothetical white tunic with the red of the (possible) wine and split the iguana into two halves with the point of his sword as easily as one skilled in the mystery fillets a fish. Then the Dead Father resumed his sword work in earnest slaying diverse small animals of every kind, so that the heaps mounted steaming to the right and to the left of him with each passionate step. A toad escaped.

From Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father.

Photograph from “The Postmodernists Dinner” — Jill Krementz

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Photograph from “The Postmodernists Dinner,” 1983 by Jill Krementz (b. 1940)

From the University of Houston’s collection of Barthelme’s papers. The entry’s description:

Left to right: unidentified, unidentified, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Robert Coover (turned), unidentified, Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Abish (with patch), William Gaddis (squatting), unidentified, William Gass, unidentified, unidentified. In 1983, Barthelme arranged a “Postmodernists Dinner” for the group of writers who were often lumped together under the “postmodernist” label. The reclusive Thomas Pynchon declined the invitation.

It would be swell if anyone could identify the women in the photograph.

In his 2009 Barthelme biography  Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty offers the following recollection of the “Postmodernist Dinner” from novelist Walter Abish:

Around this time — in the spring of 1983 — “Donald had this idea to make a dinner in SoHo,” says Water Abish. “A major dinner for a group of writers, and he planned it very, very carefully. It was a strange event. Amusing and intriguing. He invited…well, that was the thing of it. The list. I was astounded that he consulted me but he called and said, ‘Should we invite so-and-so?’ Naturally, I did the only decent thing and said ‘Absolutely’ to everyone he mentioned. I pushed for Gaddis. Gass was there, and Coover and Hawkes, Vonnegut and his wife, Jill Krementz, who took photographs, I think. Don’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, was there. She was always very friendly. Susan Sontag was the only woman writer invited.

Daugherty continues:

Pynchon couldn’t make it. He wrote Don to apologize. He said he was ‘between coasts, Arkansas or Lubbock or someplace like ‘at.”

Abish recollects that the meal was at a very expensive restaurant, prefix, and the writers had to pay their own way. There were about 21 attendees, and Barthelme was “Very, very dour.”

Here is Pynchon’s letter declining the invite (via Jessamyn West, both on Twitter and her wonderful Donald Barthelme appreciation page):

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I had never seen the photograph until today when Ethelmer shared it with me on Twitter. Thanks!

“I Wrote a Letter…” — Donald Barthelme

“I Wrote a Letter…”

by

Donald Barthelme


I wrote a letter to the President of the moon, asked him if they had towaway zones up there. The cops had towed away my Honda and I didn’t like it. Cost me seventy-five dollars to get it back, plus the mental health. You ever notice how the tow trucks pick on little tiny cars? You ever seen them hauling off a Chrysler Imperial? No, you haven’t.

The President of the moon replied most courteously that the moon had no towaway zones whatsoever. Mental health on the moon, he added, cost only a dollar.

Well, I needed mental health real bad that week, so I wrote back saying I thought I could get there by the spring of ’81, if the space shuttle fulfilled its porcelain promise, and to keep some mental health warm for me who needed it, and could I interest him in a bucket of ribs in red sauce? Which I would gladly carry on up there to him if he wished?

The President of the moon wrote back that he would be delighted to have a bucket of ribs in red sauce, and that his zip code, if I needed it, was 10011000000000.

I cabled him that I’d bring some six-packs of Rolling Rock beer to drink with the ribs in red sauce, and, by the way, what was the apartment situation up there?

It was bad, he replied by platitudinum plate, apartments were running about a dollar a year, he knew that was high but what could he do? These were four-bedroom apartments, he said, with three baths, library, billiard room, root cellar, and terrace over- looking the Sea of Prosperity. Maybe he could get me a rent abatement, he said, ’cause of me being a friend of the moon.

The moon began to sound like a pretty nice place. I sent a dollar to the Space Shuttle Hurry-Up Fund.

Drumming fiercely on a hollow log with a longitudinal slit tuned to moon frequencies, I asked him about employment, medical coverage, retirement benefits, tax shelterage, convenience cards, and Christmas Club accounts.

That’s a roger, he moonbeamed back, a dollar covers it all, and if you don’t have a dollar we’ll lend you a dollar through the Greater Moon Development Mechanism.

What about war and peace? I inquired by means of curly little ALGOL circuits I had knitted myself on my Apple computer.

The President of the moon answered (by MIRV’D metaphor) that ticktacktoe was about as far as they’d got in that direction, and about as far as they would go, if he had anything to say about it.

I told him via flights of angels with special instructions that it looked to me like he had things pretty well in hand up there and would he by any chance consider being President of us? Part-time if need be?

No, he said (in a shower of used-car asteroids with blue-and-green bumper stickers), our Presidential campaigns seemed to damage the candidates, hurt them. They began hitting each other over the head with pneumatic Russians, or saying terminally silly things about the trees. He wouldn’t mind being Dizzy Gillespie, he said.

From The Teachings of Don B. (Via.)

Blog about some books acquired

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My family and I spent a wonderful week in Oregon at the end of July. We visited friends who live in Portland, where we based our stay, and we drove to the coast, to Mount Hood, and to all kinds of beautiful places. It was really fucking lovely.

Among all the gardens and forests and breweries and record shops, we managed to fit in some bookstores too, of course.

The first was Melville Books, right off of Alberta Street, tucked away just a bit. Our rental house was a block from Alberta, and we got there early in the afternoon and took a stroll. Melville Books is pretty new. The owner-proprietor was making a wooden “Open” sign while he chatted with me about his stock and his experiences scouting and buying used books. He was really friendly, and the small store was very well curated.

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I picked up Charles Portis’s first novel Norwood there on something of a whim. I’ve never read Portis, but I know his fans love his stuff, and I couldn’t pass up the Vintage Contemporaries cover. There was also a hardback copy of True Grit in stock at Melville that I now regret not having picked up. Norwood is hilarious, and has evoked in me a need to read more Portis.

I actually went to my local used book store today to get some stuff for my kids (and maybe just to get out of the house), but the only copy of True Grit they had in stock was a Coen Brothers film adaptation tie in. I did pick up copies of Masters of Atlantis (in hardback) and The Dog of the South though.

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We also visited Powell’s, of course. I wasn’t expecting it to be as big as it was. Powell’s is a very well-stocked general bookstore, but I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t find more weird or rare stuff there (I think my local place, Chamblin Bookmine, has spoiled me).

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I picked up a first-edition hardback of Donald Barthelme’s “nonfiction” collection Guilty Pleasures for just a few bucks.

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It includes one of my favorite Barthelme pieces, “Eugenie Grandet.” It also includes quite a bit of his collage work.

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I also picked up a hardback copy of Barry Hannah’s High Lonesome. I’ve read a lot of the stories in here (collected in Long Lost Happy), but some are unfamiliar. Also, the cover is by the photorealist painter Glennray Tutor, a Southern contemporary of Hannah’s. Tutor did the covers for several other Hannah volumes.

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Over in the sci-fi section of Powell’s I found some books by the Strugatsky brothers, which I’ve been into lately. I’ve heard Monday Starts on Saturday is good, but the cover for this edition is so godawful bad that I couldn’t go for it. That’s what library e-books are for, I guess. (Really though, a blank white cover would have been better.)

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I ended up picking up The Doomed City instead, which I might try to squeeze in before the end of summer.

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I was impressed with the art books collection at Powell’s but also disappointed not to find anything by Remedios Varo or Leonora Carrington, other than recent editions of their fiction—no real art books though. I was happy though to see a shelf recommendation for Margaret Carson’s recent translation of Varo’s Letters, Dreams & Other Writings though. I sent a pic to Margaret, who was really generous to me with her time in recent interview about her translation.

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I visited a few other bookshops, not so much as destinations, but rather in happy accidents in the neighborhoods we visited—but I restrained myself from picking anything else up. (And no, I didn’t make it to Mother Foucault’s, unfortunately, although many folks told me to. Next time.)

We visited Floating World Comics the same day as Powell’s, where I picked up a copy of Kilian Eng’s Object 10. I’ve been a fan of Eng’s for years, sharing his images on the blog and following him on Instagram. I hadn’t realized though that Floating World was his publisher. Object 10 is lovely.

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I also picked up a pack of 1993 Moebius trading cards there for a dollar. I haven’t opened them yet though. Saving it for a treat later. It was neat to see copies of Anders Nilsen’s Tongues in the wild, too. I had reviewed the title awhile back for The Comics Journal, but I hadn’t realized that Nilsen lived in Portland. We also checked out Bridge City Comics on Mississippi, which had a nice selection of dollar comics that I indulged my kids in.

Portland was fantastic in general. The only real disappointment came when we visited the Portland Art Museum expecting to see a major Frida Kahlo exhibit. Unfortunately, we misread the dates—the show starts next summer. The museum has a nice collection though. Just a few pics of some pieces I liked:

Rip Van Winkle (1945) by William Gropper:

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The Fair Captive (1948) by Rene Magritte

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and The Femminiello (1740-60) by Giuseppe Bonito.

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Here’s the museum’s description of this unusual painting:

Owing to widespread social prejudice, cross-dressing was rarely depicted in European art until the modern era. This recently discovered painting from the mid-eighteenth century is a testament to the exceptional and long-standing acceptance of cross-dressers known as femminielli in the great Italian city of Naples. The term, which might be translated “little female-men,” is not derogatory, but rather an expression of endearment. Femminielli come from impoverished neighborhoods, as is evidenced by this individual’s missing tooth and goiter, a common condition among the poor in the Neapolitan region. Although femminiellicross-dress from an early age, they do not try to conceal their birth sex completely. Rather than being stigmatized, they are deemed special and are accepted as a “third sex” that combines the strengths of both males and females. In particular, femminielli are thought to bring good luck, so Neapolitans often take newborn babies to them to hold. Femminielli are also popular companions for an evening of gambling. This association is represented by the necklace of red coral, which is similarly thought to bring good fortune. Neapolitan genre paintings (images of everyday life) frequently feature a grinning figure to engage the viewer. Here, we are invited to consider the artist’s playful inversion of traditional views of gender, which contrasts the pretty young male with the more masculine femminiello.

Maybe we’ll get back to the Pacific Northwest next summer and see the Kahlo then.

Anyway so well—

Like I said, I went to the bookstore today, not looking for myself (promise!) except that I did stop and browse Portis briefly, picking up the aforementioned copies. When I got home, I had a package from NYRB containing The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It immediately interested me when I flicked through it—seems like a weird one. NYRB’s blurb below; more to come.

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Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them is a historical novel like no other, one that immerses the reader in the dailiness of history, rather than history as the given sequence of events that, in time, it comes to seem. Time ebbs and flows and characters come and go in this novel, set in the era of the Black Death, about a Benedictine convent of no great note. The nuns do their chores, and seek to maintain and improve the fabric of their house and chapel, and struggle with each other and with themselves. The book that emerges is a picture of a world run by women but also a story—stirring, disturbing, witty, utterly entrancing—of a community. What is the life of a community and how does it support, or constrain, a real humanity? How do we live through it and it through us? These are among the deep questions that lie behind this rare triumph of the novelist’s art.

 

Blog about some recent reading

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It’s been pretty busy around Biblioklept World Headquarters this week. It’s the first week of my kids’ summer vacation, and they both had birthdays this week, as did I. I managed to read but not write that much—so here’s this lazy post.

I finally finished Robert Coover’s 1966 debut novel The Origin of the Brunists this morning, which I had started with a huge wave of enthusiasm way back at the end of February. The novel has one of the finest second chapters I can remember, a long description of a mine’s implosion, and the rest of the book simply never matches its intensity. Coover conjures a mining town called West Condon, and explores the fallout of the disaster and how it affects seemingly every citizen. The central conflict is between a doomsday cult (the Brunists) and the rest of the town. There are some wonderful moments, but there’s a maudlin streak to the novel that Coover’s later work would satirize. The Origin of the Brunists suffers from the strains of First Novel Syndrome—Coover overstuffs the beast, and doesn’t leaven his unwieldy monster with enough humor. It’s a shaggy read, which, like, fine—I love shaggy novels!—but shagginess should correlate with theme, and Coover’s theme is decidedly unshaggy. You could probably cull a dozen short stories from Origin and end up with a finer book. I ended up reading it out of a sense of duty to the author. Maybe the sequel, which came out a few years ago, is a better affair.

I should have a review of Ann Quin’s first novel Berg out next week, but here is a short review: Go read Berg. It’s extraordinary. It’s so extraordinary that upon finishing it I immediately needed more Quin. I’ve been reading the collection of fragments and stories The Unmapped Country slowly, interspersing them with other reads. Good stuff.

I picked up Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man this Friday as I browsed my favorite bookstore as a birthday treat for myself. I read the first two chapters that afternoon. The language is extraordinary, strange, poetic, bracing. More thoughts to come.

I read Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts over the course of three mornings. I then immediately reread it, finding it even more precise and accomplished than I had realized the first time. Murnane’s “fiction” is a compelling meditation on seeing and trying to see what can’t be seen. It’s about place, memory, image, and color—the colors of marbles, of liveries, of racing flags and stained glass windows. It’s also a strange and ironic exercise in literary criticism—but ultimately, it’s about waiting for the epiphanies our stories promise us, and perhaps waiting in vain. Very highly recommended.

I had hoped to write Something Big on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland but found myself a bit too exhausted at the end of it to muster anything. I know among Pynchon fans it has a certain cult status, but I’d rather pick up Gravity’s Rainbow or Against the Day or Mason & Dixon again than reread Vineland. The book is a shaggy mess, really, with some excellent bits that never properly cohere. (It is possible that the book doesn’t cohere on purpose—there’s a narratological implication that the entire book is simply a film treatment, or, a few characters riffing over a film treatment.) Vineland features characters from other Pynchon novels, notably the Traverse family from Against the Day, as well as folks from Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, suggesting that there is of course a Pynchonverse. The book is an indictment on the baby boomers selling out in the seventies and really the eighties, and attack on Nixonia and the rise of Reagan. The indictment could be stronger. Vineland’s also an extended attack on television, but also a love letter to The Tube. (There’s also a motif about cars and driving that I didn’t fully understand.) And there are all the usual Pynchon themes: zeros and ones, preterite and elect, visible and invisible, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia. Probably the weirdest thing about Vineland is that its “B” plot about a ninja and her partner and their strange adventures actually seems to take up way more of the book than the “A” plot (about a daughter and her estranged mother reuniting). I liked the “B” plot a lot better. I’m sure I’ll reread all of Pynchon at some point, but for now, I’d put it at the bottom of this list.

I finally found a copy of Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Or, the Hithering Thithering Djinn. My kids seem a little too old for it but I dig it, and the collage work (by Barthelme himself) is fun, if not exactly Une Semaine de Bonté.

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I actually did muster a review of Jaime Hernandez latest Love & Rockets book, Is This How you See Me? The review is at The Comics Journal.

Not pictured in the stack above (because I have it out as a digital loan from my local library) is Maria Gainza’s novel (is it a novel?) Optic Nerve, in translation by Thomas Bunstead. I’m a little over half way through, and just really digging it. It’s kinda like a life story told through paintings and art history, but it’s also very much about aesthetics and ways of seeing. It reminds me a lot of  W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño Claire-Louise Bennett, Lucia Berlin, and David Markson, but also really original. Good stuff.

Donald Barthelme interviewed by George Plimpton

No situations (Barthelme)

But it is wrong to speak of “situations,” implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension; there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there — muted heavy grays and browns for the most part, contrasting with the walnut and soft yellows. A deliberate lack of finish, enhanced by skillful installation, gave the surface a rough, forgotten quality; sliding weights on the inside, carefully adjusted, anchored the great, vari-shaped mass at a number of points. Now we have had a flood of original ideas in all media, works of singular beauty as well as significant milestones in the history of inflation, but at that moment, there was only this balloon, concrete particular, hanging there.

From “The Balloon” by Donald Barthelme.

Yes, it was King Kong, back in action (Donald Barthelme)

I went to a party and corrected a pronunciation. The man whose voice I had adjusted fell back into the kitchen. I praised a Bonnard. It was not a Bonnard. My new glasses, I explained, and I’m terribly sorry, but significant variations elude me, vodka exhausts me, I was young once, essential services are being maintained. Drums, drums, drums, outside the windows. I thought that if I could persuade you to say “No,” then my own responsibility would be limited, or changed, another sort of life would be possible, different from the life we had previously, somewhat skeptically, enjoyed together. But you had wandered off into another room, testing the effect on members of the audience of your ruffled blouse, your long magenta skirt. Giant hands, black, thick with fur, reaching in through the window. Yes, it was King Kong, back in action, and all of the guests uttered loud exclamations of fatigue and disgust, examining the situation in the light of their own needs and emotions, hoping that the ape was real or papier-mache according to their temperments, or wondering whether other excitements were possible out in the crisp, white night.

“Did you see him?”

“Let us pray.”

From “The Party” by Donald Barthelme.

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I Don’t Like to Look at Him, Jack by Walton Ford

 

Read “The Policemen’s Ball,” a short story by Donald Barthelme

“The Policemen’s Ball”

by

Donald Barthelme


Horace, a policeman, was making Rock Cornish Game Hens for a special supper. The Game Hens are frozen solid, Horace thought. He was wearing his blue uniform pants.

Inside the Game Hens were the giblets in a plastic bag. Using his needlenose pliers Horace extracted the frozen giblets from the interior of the birds. Tonight is the night of the Policemen’s Ball, Horace thought. We will dance the night away. But first, these Game Hens must go into a three-hundred-and-fifty-degree oven.

Horace shined his black dress shoes. Would Margot “put out” tonight? On this night of nights? Well, if she didn’t– Horace regarded the necks of the birds which had been torn asunder by the pliers. No, he reflected, that is not a proper thought. Because I am a member of the force. I must try to keep my hatred under control. I must try to be an example for the rest of the people. Because if they can’t trust us. . .the blue men. . .

In the dark, outside the Policemen’s Ball, the horrors waited for Horace and Margot.

Margot was alone. Her roommates were in Provincetown for the weekend. She put pearl-colored lacquer on her nails to match the pearl of her new-bought gown. Police colonels and generals will be there, she thought. The Pendragon of the Police himself. Whirling past the dais, I will glance upward. The pearl of my eyes meeting the steel gray of high rank.

Margot got into a cab and went over to Horace’s place. The cabdriver was thinking: A nice-looking piece. I could love her.

Horace removed the birds from the oven. He slipped little gold frills, which has been included in the package, over the ends of the drumsticks. Then he uncorked the wine, thinking: This is a town without pity, this town. For those whose voices lack the crack of authority. Luckily the uniform. . . Why won’t she surrender her person? Does she think she can resist the force? The force of the force?

“These birds are delicious.”

Driving Horace and Margot smoothly to the Armory, the new cabdriver thought about basketball.

Why do they always applaud the man who makes the shot?

Why don’t they applaud the ball?

It’s the ball that actually goes into the net.

The man doesn’t go into the net.

Never have I seen a man going into the net.

Twenty thousand policemen of all grades attended the annual fete. The scene was Camelot, with gay colors and burgees. The interior of the Armory had been roofed with lavish tenting. Police colonels and generals looked down on the dark uniforms, white gloves, silvery ball gowns.

“Tonight?”

“Horace, not now. This scene is so brilliant. I want to remember it.”

Horace thought: It? Not me?

The Pendragon spoke. “I ask you to be reasonable with the citizens. They pay our salaries after all. I know they are difficult sometimes, obtuse sometimes, even criminal sometimes, as we often run across in our line of work. But I ask you despite all to be reasonable. I know it is hard. I know it is not easy. I know that for instance when you see a big car, a ’70 Biscayne hardtop, cutting around a corner at a pretty fair clip, with three in the front and three in the back, and they are all mixed up, ages and sexes and colors, your natural impulse is to– I know your first thought is, All those people! Together! And your second thought is, Force! But I must ask you in the name of force itself to be restrained. For force, that great principle, is most honored in the breach and the observance. And that is where you men are, in the breach. You are fine men, the finest. You are Americans. So for the sake of America, be careful. Be reasonable. Be slow. In the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Ghost. And now I would like to introduce Vercingetorix, leader of the firemen, who brings us a few words of congratulation from that fine body of men.”

Waves of applause for the Pendragon filled the tented area.

“He is a handsome older man,” Margot said.

“He was born in a Western state and advanced to his present position through raw merit,” Horace told her.

The government of Czechoslovakia sent observers to the Policemen’s Ball. “Our police are not enough happy,” Colonel-General Cepicky explained. “We seek ways to improve them. This is a way. It may not be the best of all possible ways, but. . . Also I like to drink the official whiskey! It makes me gay!”

A bartender thought: Who is that yellow-haired girl in the pearl costume? She is stacked.

The mood of the Ball changed. The dancing was more serious now. Margot’s eyes sparkled from the jorums of champagne she had drunk. She felt Horace’s delicately Game Hen-flavored breath on her cheek. I will give him what he wants, she decided. Tonight. His heroism deserves it. He stands between us and them. He represents what is best in society: decency, order, safety, strength, sirens, smoke. No, he does not represent smoke. Great billowing oily black clouds. That Vercingetorix has a noble look. With whom is Vercingetorix dancing, at present?

The horrors waited outside patiently. Even policemen, the horrors thought. We get even policemen, in the end.

In Horace’s apartment, a gold frill was placed on a pearl toe.

The horrors had moved outside Horace’s apartment. Not even policemen and their ladies are safe, the horrors thought. No one is safe. Safety does not exist. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Bamboozle the inspectors (Thomas Pynchon on Donald Barthelme)

One out of several humiliating features about writing fiction for a living is that here after all is just about everybody else, all along the capitalist spectrum from piano movers to systems analysts, cheerfully selling their bodies or body parts according to time-honored custom and usage, while it’s only writers, out at the fringes of the entertainment sector, wretched and despised, who are obliged, more intimately and painfully, actually to sell their dreams, yes, dreams these days you’ll find are every bit as commoditized as any pork bellies there on the financial page. To be upbeat about it, though, in most cases it doesn’t present much moral problem, since dreams seldom make it through into print with anything like the original production values anyway. Even if you do good recovery, learning to write legibly in the dark and so forth, there’s still the matter of getting it down in words that can bring back even a little of the clarity and sweep, the intensity of emotion, the transcendent weirdness of the primary experience. So it’s a safe bet that most writers’ dreams, maybe even including the best ones, manage to stay untranslated and private after all.

Barthelme, however, happens to be one of a handful of American authors there to make the rest of us look bad, who know instinctively how to stash the merchandise, bamboozle the inspectors, and smuggle their nocturnal contraband right on past the checkpoints of daylight “reality.” What he called his “secret vice” of “cutting up and pasting together pictures” bears an analogy, at least, to what is supposed to go on in dreams, where images from the public domain are said likewise to combine in unique, private, and, with luck, spiritually useful ways. How exactly Barthelme then got this into print, or for that matter pictorial, form, kept the transitions flowing the way he did and so on, is way too mysterious for me, though out of guild solidarity I probably wouldn’t share it even if I did know. The effect each time, at any rate, is to put us in the presence of something already eerily familiar … to remind us that we have lived in these visionary cities and haunted forests, that the ancient faces we gaze into are faces we know.

From Thomas Pynchon’s introduction to The Teachings of Don B. The introduction was republished yesterday in The Paris Review in a version that omits the first two paragraphs. You can read the full version of Thomas Pynchon’s essay on Donald Barthelme at ThomasPynchon.com.

George Saunders’ “Little St. Don” and the limits of contemporary satire

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George Saunders has a new story called “Little St. Don” in this week’s New Yorker. A satirical hagiography of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is a pastiche told in little vignettes, parables roughly allegorical to today’s horrorshow headlines. Here’s an example from early in the story:

Little St. Don was once invited to the birthday party of his best friend, Todd. As the cake was being served, a neighbor, Mr. Aryan, burst in, drunk, threw the cake against the wall, insulted Todd’s mother, and knocked a few toddlers out of their seats, requiring them to get stitches. Then Todd’s dad pushed Mr. Aryan roughly out the front door. Again, Little St. Don mounted a chair, and began to speak, saying what a shame it was that those two nice people had both engaged in violence.

Here, Saunders transposes the racist rally at Charlottesville into a domestic affair, a typical move for the writer. Saunders’ heroes are often hapless fathers besieged by the absurdities of a postmodern world. These figures try to work through all the violence and evil and shit toward a moral redemption, a saving grace or mystical love. Collapsing history and myth into the personal and familiar makes chaos more manageable.

The vignettes in “Little St. Don” follow a somewhat predictable pattern: Little St. Don incites racial violence, Little St. Don makes up juvenile nicknames for his enemies, Little St. Don radically misreads Christ’s central message. Etc.

The story’s ironic-parable formula is utterly inhabited by Donald Trump’s verbal tics and rhythms. Here is Saunders’ Little St. Don channeling Donald Trump:

Gentle, sure, yeah, that’s great. Jesus sounds like a good guy. Pretty famous guy. Huh. Maybe kind of a wimp? Within our school, am I about as famous as Jesus was when alive? Now that he’s dead, sure, he’s super-famous. But, when alive, how did he do? Not so great, I bet. Anyway, I like Saviours who weren’t crucified.

We all know these terrible tics and rhythms too well by now—indeed they have ventriloquized the discourse. In repeating Trump’s rhetorical style, Saunders attempts to sharpen the contrast between the narrative’s hagiographic style and the amorality of the narrative’s central figure. Saunders inserts this absurd language into a genre usually reserved for moral instruction to achieve his satire. The reader is supposed to note the jarring disparity between our culture’s moral ideals and our current political reality. The result though is simply another reiteration of Trump’s rhetoric. George Saunders is not the ventriloquist here. He is being ventriloquized. “Little St. Don” redistributes the very rhetoric it seeks to deride. It spreads the virus.

“Little St. Don” exemplifies just how limited contemporary literature’s toolkit is when it comes to acutely skewering our zeitgeist. Trump’s rhetoric purposefully surpasses absurdity; indeed, Trump’s rhetoric is nihilistically absurd, the ur-huckster’s argot that distills over two centuries of American con-artist culture for a 21st-century mass media environment. Ahistorical and amoral, Trump’s rhetoric oozes outside the bounds of allegorical satire. His rhetoric is already kitsch, part and parcel of a self-ironizing aesthetic that is always only-joking-but-hey-not-really-joking. This rhetorical aesthetic is post-postmodern, and Saunders’ postmodern techniques in “Little St. Don” cannot lance it, deflate it, or expose it—Trump’s rhetoric is already exposed. Saunders here is simply describing it, repeating it, and reframing it within  preëxisting literary genres.

Mashing up these genres is a typical 20th-century postmodernist move, one that Saunders’ audience in The New Yorker could expect. Indeed, it seems that connecting with an audience is Saunders’ main concern. But he’s preaching to the choir. The story is like a mediocre cover band’s copy of a terrible greatest hits record. In his mash-up we already know all the tunes, all the rhythms, and all the tones. Hell, we even know the mash-up’s not-so-secret formula. Saunders simply confirms the emotional and intellectual gestures that  preëxist in his New Yorker audience. His story is there to assure us of our own moral rectitude.

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There is nothing wrong with a writer writing to please his audience. However, Saunders, who won the Booker Prize last year for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is frequently praised as the greatest satirist of his generation. “Little St. Don” is not great satire, but that is not exactly Saunders’ fault. Again, what the little story does well (and why I find it worth writing about) is show us the limitations of literary fiction’s power to satirize our ultra-absurd age. Reality runs a lap or two on fiction, trampling it a little.

This is not to say that fiction is (or has been) powerless to properly target absurd demagoguery and creeping fascism. A number of fiction writers in the late 20th century anticipated, diagnosed, and analyzed our current zeitgeist. Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, and Margaret Atwood all come easily to mind. To be fair, these writers were anticipating a new zeitgeist and not always specifically tackling one corroded personality, which is what Saunders is doing in “Little St. Don.” Thomas Pynchon had 700 pages or so of Gravity’s Rainbow to get us to Richard Nixon, night manager of the Orpheus Theater—that’s a pretty big stage of context to skewer the old crook. But Pynchon’s satire is far, far sharper, and more indelible in its strangeness than “Little St. Don.” Pynchon’s satire offers no moral consolation. Similarly, Ishmael Reed’s sustained attack on a postmodern presidency in The Terrible Twos never tries to comfort its audience by suggesting that the reader is in a position of moral superiority to any of the characters. And I don’t know how anyone can top JG Ballard’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.”

It might be more fair to look at another short piece from The New Yorker which engaged with the political horrors of its own time. I’m thinking here of Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “The Indian Uprising.”  Barthelme creates his own rhetoric in this weird and unsettling story. While “The Indian Uprising” is “about” the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, it is hardly a simple allegory. To match the chaos and disruption of his time, Barthelme repeatedly disorients his audience, making them feel a host of nasty, contradictory, and often terrible feelings. The story requires critical participation, and its parable ultimately refuses to comfort the reader. None of this is particularly easy.

If Saunders’ “Little St. Don” is particularly easy, perhaps that’s because the moral response to Trump’s rhetoric should be particularly easy. That a moral response (and not a rhetorical response anchored in “civility”) is somehow not easy for certain people—those in power, say—is the real problem here. Saunders tries to anchor Trump’s rhetoric to a ballast that should have a moral force, but the gesture is so self-evident that it simply cannot pass for satire, let alone political commentary. Saunders offers instead a kind of mocking (but ultimately too-gentle) scolding. He doesn’t try to disrupt the disruptor, but rather retreats to the consolations of good old-fashioned postmodern literature.

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

Ultimately, Saunders’ genre distortions end up doing the opposite of what I think he intends to do. He wants the reader to look through a lens that turns history into fable, but that perspective assuages through distance, rather than alarming us. The ironic lens detaches us from the immediacy of the present—it mediates what should be slippery, visceral, ugly, vital, felt. Separating children from their parents and detaining them in concentration camps, banning entire groups of people from entering the country, fostering reckless xenophobia and feeding resurgent nativism—logging these atrocities as events that “happened” in a hagiographical history—no matter how ironic—promises a preëxisting, preordained history to come.

There’s a teleological neatness to this way of thinking (History will record!) that is wonderfully comforting in the face of such horror. Throughout his career George Saunders has moved his characters through horror and pain to places of hope and redemption. He loves the characters, and he wants us to love them too. And here, I think, is perhaps the biggest failure of “Little St. Don” — Saunders loves his reader too much. The story wants to make us feel comfortable now, comfortable, at minimum, in our own moral agency and our own moral righteousness. But comfort now will not do.

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“Rebecca,” a very short story by Donald Barthleme

“Rebecca”

by

Donald Barthelme


Rebecca Lizard was trying to change her ugly, reptilian, thoroughly unacceptable last name.

“Lizard,” said the judge. “Lizard, Lizard, Lizard, Lizard. There’s nothing wrong with it if you say it enough times. You can’t clutter up the court’s calendar with trivial little minor irritations. And there have been far too many people changing their names lately.

Changing your name countervails the best interest of the telephone comany, the electric company, and the United States goverment. Motion denied.”

Lizard in tears.

Lizard led from the courtroom. A chrysanthemum of Kleenex held under her nose.

“Shaky lady,” said a man, “are you a schoolteacher?”

Of course she’s a schoolteacher, you idiot. Can’t you see the poor woman’s all upset? Why don’t you leave her alone?

“Are you a homosexual lesbian? Is that why you never married?”

Christ, yes, she’s a homosexual lesbian, as you put it. Would you please shut your face?

Rebecca went to the damned dermatologist (a new damned dermatologist), but he said the same thing the others had said. “Greenish,” he said, “slight greenishness, genetic anomaly, nothing to be done, I’m afraid, Mrs. Lizard.”

“Miss Lizard.”

“Nothing to be done, Miss Lizard.”

“Thank you, Doctor. Can I give you a little something for your trouble?”

“Fifty dollars.”

When Rebecca got home the retroactive rent increase was waiting for her, coiled in her mailbox like a pupil about to strike.

Must get some more Kleenex. Or a Ph.D. No other way.

She thought about sticking her head in the oven. But it was an electric oven.

Rebecca’s lover, Hilda, came home late.

“How’d it go?” Hilda asked, referring to the day.

“Lousy.”

“Hmmm,” Hilda said, and quietly mixed strong drinks of busthead for the two of them.

Hilda is a very good-looking woman. So is Rebecca. They love each other–an incredibly dangerous and delicate business, as we know. Hilda has long blond hair and is perhaps a shade the more beautiful. Of course Rebecca has a classic and sexual figure which attracts huge admiration from every beholder.

“You’re late,” Rebecca said. “Where were you?”

“I had a drink with Stephanie.”

“Why did you have a drink with Stephanie?”

“She stopped by my office and said let’s have a drink.”

“Where did you go?”

“The Barclay.”

“How is Stephanie?”

“She’s fine.”

“Why did you have to have a drink with Stephanie?”

“I was ready for a drink.”

“Stephanie doesn’t have a slight greenishness, is that it? Nice, pink Stephanie?”

Hilda rose and put an excellent C & W album on the record player. It was David Rogers’s

“Farewell to the Ryman,” Atlantic SD 7283. It contains such favorites as “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Great Speckled Bird,” “I’m Movin’ On,” and “Walking the Floor Over You.” Many great Nashville personnel appear on this record.

“Pinkness is not everything,” Hilda said. “And Stephanie is a little bit boring. You know that.” “Not so boring that you don’t go out for drinks with her.”

“I am not interested in Stephanie.”

“As I was leaving the courthouse,” Rebecca said, “a man unzipped my zipper.”

David Rogers was singing “Oh please release me, let me go.”

“What were you wearing?”

“What I’m wearing now.”

“So he had good taste,” Hilda said, “for a creep.” She hugged Rebecca, on the sofa. “I love you,” she said.

“Screw that,” Rebecca said plainly, and pushed Hilda away. “Go hang out with Stephanie Sasser.”

“I am not interested in Stephanie Sasser,” Hilda said for the second time.

Very often one “pushes away” the very thing that one most wants to grab, like a lover. This is a common, although distressing, psychological mechanism, having to do (in my opinion) with the fact that what is presented is not presented “purely,” that there is a tiny little canker or grim place in it somewhere. However, worse things can happen.

“Rebecca,” said Hilda, “I really don’t like your slight greenishness.”

The term “lizard” also includes geckos, iguanas, chameleons, slowworms, and monitors. Twenty existing families make up the order, according to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life, and four others are known only from fossils. There are about twenty-five hundred species, and they display adaptations for walking, running, climbing, creeping, or burrowing. Many have interesting names, such as the Bearded Lizard, the Collared Lizard, the Flap-Footed Lizard, the Frilled Lizard, the Girdle-Tailed Lizard, and the Wall Lizard.

“I have been overlooking it for these several years, because I love you, but I really don’t like it so much,” Hilda said. “It’s slightly–”

“Knew it,” said Rebecca.
Rebecca went into the bedroom. The color television set was turned on, for some reason.

In a greenish glow, a film called Green Hill was unfolding.

I’m ill, I’m ill.
I will become a farmer.
Our love, our sexual love, our ordinary love!

Hilda entered the bedroom and said, “Supper is ready.”

“What is it?”

“Pork with red cabbage.”

“I’m drunk,” Rebecca said.

Too many of our citizens are drunk at times when they should be sober–suppertime, for example. Drunkenness leads to forgetting where you have put your watch, keys, or money clip, and to a decreased sensitivity to the needs and desires and calm good health of others. The causes of overuse of alcohol are not as clear as the results. Psychiatrists feel in general that alcoholism is a serious problem but treatable, in some cases. AA is said to be both popular and effective. At base, the question is one of willpower.

“Get up,” Hilda said. “I’m sorry I said that.”

“You told the truth,” said Rebecca.

“Yes, it was the truth,” Hilda admitted.

“You didn’t tell me the truth in the beginning. In the beginning, you said it was beautiful.”

“I was telling you the truth, in the beginning. I did think it was beautiful. Then.”

This “then,” the ultimate word in Hilda’s series of three brief sentences, is one of the most pain-inducing words in the human vocabulary, when used in this sense. Departed time! And the former conditions that went with it! How is human pain to be measured? But remember that Hilda, too… It is correct to feel for Rebecca in this situation, but, reader, neither can Hilda’s position be considered an enviable one, for truth, as Bergson knew, is a hard apple, whether one is throwing it or catching it.

“What remains?” Rebecca said stonily.

“I can love you in spite of–”

Do I want to be loved in spite of? Do you? Does anyone? But aren’t we all, to some degree?

Aren’t there important parts of all of us which must be, so to say, gazed past? I turn a blind eye to that aspect of you, and you turn a blind eye to that aspect of me, and with these blind eyes eyeball-to-eyeball, to use an expression from the early 1960s, we continue our starched and fragrant lives. Of course it’s also called “making the best of things,” which I have always considered a rather soggy idea for an Americal ideal. But my criticisms of this idea must be tested against those of others–the late President McKinley, for example, who maintained that maintaining a good, in not necessarily sunny, disposition was the one valuable and proper course.

Hilda placed her hands on Rebecca’s head.

“The snow is coming,” she said. “Soon it will be snow time. Together then as in other snow times. Drinking the busthead ’round the fire. Truth is a locked room that we knock the lock off from time to time, and then board up again. Tomorrow you will hurt me, and I will inform you that you have done so, and so on and so on. To hell with it. Come, viridian friend, come and sup with me.”

They sit down together. The pork with red cabbage steams before them. They speak quietly about the McKinley Administration, which is being revised by revisionist historians. The story ends. It was written for several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm tympanic page.

(Via)

“Game” — Donald Barthelme

“Game”

by

Donald Barthelme


 

Shotwell keeps the jacks and the rubber ball in his attaché case and will not allow me to play with them. He plays with them, alone, sitting on the floor near the console hour after hour, chanting “onesies, twosies, threesies, foursies” in a precise, well-modulated voice, not so loud as to be annoying, not so soft as to allow me to forget. I point out to Shotwell that two can derive more enjoyment from playing jacks than one, but he is not interested. I have asked repeatedly to be allowed to play by myself, but he simply shakes his head. “Why?” I ask. “They’re mine,” he says. And when he has finished, when he has sated himself, back they go into the attaché case.

It is unfair but there is nothing I can do about it. I am aching to get my hands on them.

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. Shotwell’s behavior with the jacks is strange. Is it strange? I do not know. Perhaps he is merely a selfish bastard, perhaps his character is flawed, perhaps his childhood was twisted. I do not know.

Each of us wears a .45 and each of us is supposed to shoot the other if the other is behaving strangely. How strangely is strangely? I do not know. In addition to the .45 I have a .38 which Shotwell does not know about concealed in my attaché case, and Shotwell has a .25 caliber Beretta which I do not know about strapped to his right calf. Sometimes instead of watching the console I pointedly watch Shotwell’s .45, but this is simply a ruse, simply a maneuver, in reality I am watching his hand when it dangles in the vicinity of his right calf. If he decides I am behaving strangely he will shoot me not with the .45 but with the Beretta. Similarly Shotwell pretends to watch my .45 but he is really watching my hand resting idly atop my attaché case, my hand resting atop my attaché case, my hand. My hand resting idly atop my attaché case. Continue reading ““Game” — Donald Barthelme”