Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part X

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

Stories 12-7

In this post, stories 6-1, the beginning/end.

6. “The Balloon” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

I’ve read “The Balloon” more than any other Barthelme story. I’ve read it at least three times a year, every year, for the past ten years, in the context of an American Literature after 1865 course I teach every Fall-Spring-Summer. It’s widely-anthologized. It’s over-anthologized. It’s probably most folks only exposure to Barthelme, which I think is strange—I think it’s a particularly challenging Barthelme story, even though it’s the Barthelme story I’ve read more than any other Barthelme story.

My students are often exasperated by the story, which seems to lack any traditional plot or character—but I think that’s kind of the point. “The Balloon” is about the creation of “The Balloon.” It’s a story about a story, as much as Barthelme would have protested the notion. This interpretation is not particularly radical. Just earlier this month, the writer Donald Antrim did a reading of “The Balloon” for The New Yorker’s fiction podcast. After the reading, fiction editor Deborah Treisman engages (or tries to engage) Antrim in a discussion of the meaning of the balloon. Antrim insists on rebuking the balloon’s metaphoricity, repeatedly claiming it’s a “real” balloon. Treisman points out that it’s just a story.

Le Ballon, 1862 by Édouard Manet

In his Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty spends several pages explaining allusions to Édouard Manet’s 1862 lithograph Le Ballon and the scandal that erupted when Manet showed his painting Olympia in 1865. Daugherty writes,

As many readers have observed, Don’s story considers public responses to art. But besides this general theme, he had in mind a specific set of reactions, in a crucial time.

In invoking Manet’s balloon and the Olympia scandal, Don encoded in his story an early chapter of the art that nourished him throughout his career; an art inseparable from social change, resistant to strict ordering, and opposed to the narrowing of perceptions required by commodification.

Daugherty’s analysis encapsulates what I take to be the signal passage of “The Balloon,” which passage you can read here.

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5. “Will You Tell Me?” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

One of Barthelme’s more formally challenging stories, “Will You Tell Me?” begins strange (“Hubert gave Charles and Irene a nice baby for Christmas”) and gets even stranger. It’s a subtle satire on soap operas and convoluted prize (“The French countryside (the countryside of France) was covered with golden grass”) shot through anarchic glee:

In the cellar Paul continued making his bombs, by cellarlight. The bombs were made from tall Schlitz cans and a plastic substance which Paul refused to identify. The bombs were sold to other boys Paul’s age to throw at their fathers.

Note the ever-present oedipal theme in Barthelme’s work.

4. “For I’m the Boy” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

Like most of Barthelme’s stories, “For I’m the Boy” is a rewarding re-read. Among the stories in Sixty Stories culled from Come Back, Dr. Caligari, “For I’m the Boy” has a somewhat straightforward plot: A man named Bloomsbury has divorced his wife. He takes his two friends Whittle and Huber with her to the airport to see her off so that there will be no “weeping.” They then drive home, stopping for a bottle of brandy on the way. Whittle and Huber demand details of the divorce from Bloomsbury:

It would be interesting as well as instructive Whittle said casually, to know for instance at what point the situation of living together became untenable, whether she wept when you told her, whether you wept when she told you, whether you were the instigator or she was the instigator, whether there were physical fights involving bodily blows or merely objects thrown on your part and on her part, if there were mental cruelties, cruelties of what order and on whose part, whether she had a lover or did not have a lover, whether you did or did not, whether you kept the television or she kept the television, the disposition of the balance of the furnishings including tableware, linens, light bulbs, beds and baskets, who got the baby if there was a baby, what food remains in the pantry at this time, what happened to the medicine bottles including Mercurochrome, rubbing alcohol, aspirin, celery tonic, milk of magnesia, No-Doze and Nembutal, was it a fun divorce or not a fun divorce, whether she paid the lawyers or you paid the lawyers, what the judge said if there was a judge, whether you asked her for a “date” after the granting of the decree or did not ask, whether she was touched or not touched by this gesture if there was such a gesture, whether the date if there was such a date was a fun thing or not a fun thing – in short we’d like to get the feel of the event he said.

Give us the feeling,” they insist, but Bloomsbury refuses. At the end of the story Whittle and Huber literally beat it out of him with a brandy bottle and tire iron. The feeling emerges in the form of tears and blood.

In Hiding Man, Daugherty makes a strong argument that “For I’m the Boy” serves as an early aesthetic statement from Barthelme: art is “our most refined public expression of what is private, unreachable, unsayable…it fails–words cannot do the trick–but it is the best we have…art’s value lies in the fact that it offers forms for our experiences.”

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3. “Me and Miss Mandible” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

“Me and Miss Mandible” is an excellent and absurd story told by an adult man who is “officially a child.” Here is the story’s opening:

Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal’s office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven’t quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I’ve been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind.

Our narrator handles the mix-up (if it could be called a mix-up) with bemused aplomb. Unlike the hero of Barthelme’s 1976 story “The Sergeant,” who similarly awakes to find himself affixed with the wrong identity, the narrator of “Mandible” seems to find opportunity in his predicament. There’s nothing especially sinister here; the situation is Kafkaesque, but the tone isn’t. The narrator gets to see the American educational system through the eyes of an experienced adult: “Everything is promised my classmates and I, most of all the future. We accept the outrageous assurances without blinking.”

As the story develops, the narrator comes to understand that these promises are perhaps undeliverable:

We read signs as promises. Miss Mandible understands by my great height, by my resonant vowels, that I will one day carry her off to bed. Sue Ann interprets these same signs to mean that I am unique among her male acquaintances, therefore most desirable, therefore her special property as is every thing that is Most Desirable. If neither of these propositions work out then life has broken faith with them.

I myself, in my former existence, read the company motto (“Here to Help in Time of Need”) as a description of the duty of the adjuster, drastically mislocating the company’s deepest concerns. I believed that because I had obtained a wife who was made up of wife-signs (beauty, charm, softness, perfume, cookery) I had found love. Brenda, reading the same signs that have now misled Miss Mandible and Sue Ann Brownly, felt she had been promised that she would never be bored again. All of us, Miss Mandible, Sue Ann, myself, Brenda, Mr. Goodykind, still believe that the American flag betokens a kind of general righteousness.

But I say, looking about me in this incubator of future citizens, that signs are signs, and that some of them are lies. This is the great discovery of my time here.

2. “A Shower of Gold” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

In “A Shower of Gold,” we find Peterson, “a minor artist” with a bad liver, mulling over whether or not to sell out by appearing on the television show Who Am I? He’s tormented by a series of absurd “punishments” for even considering selling out, including having the President of the United States show up and destroy one of his pieces of art. Finally though, broke and beerless, he condescends to the appearance. The tale ends with an epiphanic monologue:

I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not believing in it. I affirm the absurdity. On the other hand, absurdity is itself absurd. Before the emcee could ask the first question, Peterson began to talk. “Yesterday,” Peterson said to the television audience, “in the typewriter in front of the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue, I found a recipe for Ten Ingredient Soup that included a stone from a toad’s head. And while I stood there marveling a nice old lady pasted on the elbow of my best Haspel suit a little blue sticker reading THIS INDIVIDUAL IS A PART OF THE COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY FOR GLOBAL DOMINATION OF THE ENTIRE GLOBE. Coming home I passed a sign that said in ten-foot letters COWARD SHOES and heard a man singing “Golden earrings” in a horrible voice, and last night i dreamed there was a shoot- out at our house on Meat Street and my mother shoved me in a closet to get me out of the line of fire.” The emcee waved at the floor manager to turn Peterson off, but Peterson kept talking. “In this kind of world,” Peterson said, “absurd if you will, possibilities nevertheless proliferate and escalate all around us and there are opportunities for beginning again. I am a minor artist and my dealer won’t even display my work if he can help it but minor is as minor does and lightning may strike even yet. Don’t be reconciled. Turn off your television sets,” Peterson said, “cash in your life insurance, indulge in a mindless optimism. Visit girls at dusk. Play the guitar. How can you be alienated without first having been connected? Think back and remember how it was.” A man on the floor in front of Peterson was waving a piece of cardboard on which something threatening was written but Peterson ignored him and concentrated on the camera with the little red light. The little red light jumped from camera to camera in an attempt to throw him off balance but Peterson was too smart for it and followed wherever it went. “My mother was a royal virgin,” Peterson said, “and my father a shower of gold. My childhood was pastoral and energetic and rich in experiences which developed my character. As a young man I was noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in form express and admirable, and in apprehension…” Peterson went on and on and although he was, in a sense, lying, in a sense he was not.

Peterson takes up the mantle Perseus, an ironic hero for an absurd world.

1. “Margins” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

“Margins” is one of only two stories collected in Sixty Stories to directly address race relations in the United States (the other one is “The Sandman”). Interestingly, the “first” story of Sixty Stories is close to pure dialogue, the form that that Barthelme would land on almost exclusively in his latter years. The dialogue here is between Edward, a white man, and Carl, a black man. Edward is critiquing the margins and handwriting of a sandwich board Carl is wearing. This is the text of the sandwich board:

I Was Put In Jail in Selby County Alabama For Five Years For Stealing A Dollar and A Half Which I Did Not Do. While I Was In Jail My Brother Was Killed & My Mother Ran Away When I Was Little. In Jail I Began Preaching & I Preach to People Wherever I Can Bearing the Witness of Eschatological Love. I Have Filled Out Papers for Jobs But Nobody Will Give Me a Job Because I Have Been In Jail & The Whole Scene Is Very Dreary, Pepsi Cola. I Need Your Offerings to Get Food. Patent Applied For & Deliver Us From Evil.

Edward’s microaggressions swell to macroaggressions: “You look kind of crummy,” he tells Carl, and then asks, “Do you think I’m a pretty color…Are you envious?” When Carl replies, “No,” Edward pauses before offering a baffled, “but I’m what.” Carl tries to shift the conversation to something of substance: “Let’s talk about values or something.” Carl recommends a few books to Edward: Italo Svevo’s As a Man Grows Older and John Hawkes’s The Cannibal and The Beetleleg. But Edward isn’t interested in making connections. He demands to know Carl’s “inner reality.” But like Bloomsbury in “For I’m the Boy,” Carl keeps that inner reality for himself: “‘It’s mine,’ Carl said quietly.”

The aggression mounts: Edward accuses Carl of having lied on his sign about stealing a dollar and a half. Carl protests, but does admit to being a biblioklept:

“Mostly in drugstores, ” Carl said. “I find them good because mostly they’re long and narrow and the clerks tend to stay near the prescription counters at the back of the store, whereas the books are usually in those little revolving racks near the front of the store. It’s normally pretty easy to slip a couple in your overcoat pocket, if you’re wearing an overcoat ”

“But…”

“Yes, ” Carl said, “I know what you’re thinking. If I’ll steal books I’ll steal other things. But stealing books is metaphysically different from stealing like money. Villon has something pretty good to say on the subject I believe.

At the end of the story, Carl asks Edward to put on his sign for a minute so Carl can use a nearby restroom. “Boy, they’re kind of heavy aren’t they?” Edward declares, to which Carl replies, “They cut you a bit.” Barthelme notes Carl delivers the line with “a malicious smile.”

“Margins” might seem oblique on a first read, but rereading it there’s a lack of subtlety to Barthelme’s approach–the trading of the sign is a bit heavy handed. But the final strange image saves the story: “When Carl returned the two men slapped each other sharply in the face with the back of the hand-that beautiful part of the hand where the knuckles grow.”

Summary thoughts: Everything here is pretty strong. “Margins” and “Shower of Gold” have an energy that might make up for some zany misteps and heavyhanded symbolism, and “Will You Tell Me?” is a difficult but rewarding read. “Me and Miss Mandible” is Essential Barthelme (as is “The Balloon,” of course). Rereading “Mandible” simply confirmed its excellence. In contrast, I’ll admit that I didn’t remember “For I’m the Boy” at all, but found it to be surprisingly strong and unexpectedly moving for something that didn’t stick with me when I first read Sixty Stories. 

Going forward (in reverse): At some point early in this reverse reread I thought, Hey, maybe I’ll do the same thing with Forty Stories, but now, no, no, no. Maybe next year, maybe never. I will have one final post though. I’ll read David Gates’s introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of Sixty Stories and offer my own edits: Thirty StoriesFifteen Stories, and Ten Stories. 

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.

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.”

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part VII

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.

This post covers stories 24-19.

24. “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” (Sadness, 1972)

A cruel cruel story bristling with venomous punchlines, “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” takes its title from Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s 1947 book of the same name. The story is a caustic satire of quotidian domesticity, showing the dissolution of a marriage through the perspective of an alcoholic narrator who very much resembles Barthelme. It begins ugly:

While I read the Journal of Sensory Deprivation, Wanda, my former wife, read Elle. Elle was an incitement to revolt to one who had majored in French in college and now had nothing much to do with herself except take care of a child and look out of the window.

And continues ugly:

Our evenings lacked promise. The world in the evening seems fraught with the absence of promise, if you are a married man. There is nothing to do but go home and drink your nine drinks and forget about it.

There’s a deep anger and contempt toward domesticity that Barthelme’s narrator sustains throughout the story while also pulling the rhetorical trick of quickly retreating into the second-person you, a conceit that never fully absolves the narrator from his intrinsic horribleness:

Slumped there in your favorite chair, with your nine drinks lined up on the side table in soldierly array, and your hand never far from them, and your other hand holding on to the plump belly of the overfed child, and perhaps rocking a bit, if the chair is a rocking chair as mine was in those days, then it is true that a tine tendril of contempt – strike that, content – might curl up from the storehouse where the world’s content is kept, and reach into your softened brain and take hold there, persuading you that this, at last, is the fruit of all your labors, which you’d been wondering about in some such terms as, “Where is the fruit?”

The narrator quickly divides himself from the you, the horrible man who cannot live the quotidian life:

 …you look, as I say, to your wife, as the cocktail hour fades, there being only two drinks left of the nine (and you have sworn a mighty oath never to take more than nine before supper, because of what it does to you), and inquire in the calmest tones available what is for supper and would she like to take a flying fuck at the moon for visiting this outrageous child upon you.

Ultimately, “Quotidienne” is too mean and ugly (borderline misogynistic, perhaps); it lacks the kernel of heart that beats in Barthelme’s best satires.

23. “The Glass Mountain” (City Life, 1970)

Look, it might take you ten minutes to read it, so read it.

The story is a list numbered to one hundred. Most of the numbered points are a solitary sentence, with exceptions coming from a handful of citations Barthelme includes.

“The Glass Mountain” fits neatly into City Life. It’s a city story transported into the realm of the mock-heroic. With the aid of two plumber’s friends (plunger, you might call them), the narrator (a mock hero) climbs the titular mountain, which “stands at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Eighth Avenue.” It’s a skyscraper, of course:

7. I had strapped climbing irons to my feet and each hand grasped sturdy plumber’s friend.

8. I was 200 feet up.

9. The wind was bitter.

10. My acquaintances had gathered at the bottom of the mountain to offer encouragement.

11. “Shithead.”

12. “Asshole.”

13. Everyone in the city knows about the glass mountain.

His “acquaintances” continue to berate him as he climbs (“24. “Dumb motherfucker.” / 25. I was new in the neighborhood.”)

As he climbs, the heroic arc swells, enriched by a riff on symbolism and signs, which is the story’s main theme. And yet at the end, Barthelme’s “hero” rejects symbolism the minute it transubstantiates into sign:

97. I approached the symbol, with its layers of meaning, but when I touched it, it changed into only a beautiful princess.

98. I threw the beautiful princess headfirst down the mountain to my acquaintances.

99. Who could be relied upon to deal with her.

The mob rules.

22. “The Policemen’s Ball” (City Life, 1970)

In his Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty links “The Policeman’s Ball” to the eruptions and disruptions of May ’68:

In Don’s story, Horace, a policeman with the “crack of authority” in his voice, takes his girlfriend Margot to a policemen’s ball, hoping she will surrender to his force–the “force of the force.” At the balll, she is drawn to a fireman named Vercingetorix. Finally, though, she returns home with Horace and gives him what he wants…All the while, the “horrors lurk outside Horace’s apartment…The story’s smirk at authority is clear. The names Horace and Vercingetorix come to us from Roman history. Vercingetorix was a Gallic rebel noted for building barricades to thwart Roman soldiers. Shortly after vanquishing Vercingetorix, Caesar was assassinated. Horace, an irreverent poet and satirist, fell under Brutus’s sway, and joined him in a hopeless attempt to establish a republic.

The historical referents–to a decadent empire and rebellions against it–make Don’s story, in the context of the May Days, an extended utopian slogan, as playful, sly, and funny as much of the graffiti in the Latin Quarter.

(A version of) Vercingetorix shows up in “City Life” (in City Life).

I think “The Policemen’s Ball” is more relevant than ever, as we (who is we?) contest against the force of the force.

(Hear Barthelme read the story here.)

21. “The Falling Dog” (City Life, 1970)

Another story about writing a story—and again, Barthelme displaces the creative act to fine art—and again (in reverse), he chooses a sculptor as his artist. The sculptor achieved a thin bare fame with his YAWNING MAN statues, but when a dog falls on him, he finds new inspiration. (And puns. Lots of lots of puns.)

(I keep thinking about another Don here, although it’s in no way related—Don DeLillo’s Running Dog (1978) and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007).)

(doG is God backwards—can you even fucking believe?)

20. “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” (City Life, 1970)

There’s a tension that runs throughout much of Barthelme’s short fiction: professed leftist idealism set against the writer’s urbane bourgeoisie (or bourgeoisie-proximal) reality as an arbiter and curator of Modernist culture. Barthelme’s aesthetic describes technological postwar American culture–often through a mythological lens, often through the spectacle of both pop art and Pop Art (which becomes American mythology in his writing). His satires, pastiches, and parodies set a funhouse mirror up to America’s hypermediated massculture reality. At the same time, Barthelme’s stories tend to eschew direct action, direct engagement with the realities of the age his stories (not so much document but) describe: the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and other social inequalities. A passage in the Q&A story “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” shows Barthelme perhaps a bit defensive about these elisions:

Q: You’re not political?

A: I’m extremely political in a way that does no good to anybody.

Q: You don’t participate?

A: I participate. I make demands, sign newspaper advertisements, vote. I make small campaign contributions to the candidate of my choice and turn my irony against the others.

Here, we get Barthelme declaring the political scope of his literature: it is an irony against the others. Much of the story is given over to the answerer’s summary and analysis of Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony, followed by a defense of Friedrich Schlegel’s novel Lucinde, which Kierkegaard regards as a moral failure because it does not instruct its readers how to live. The answerer says Kierkegaard fails to attend to the novel’s “objecthood” — its aesthetics. At the end he remains ambivalent: Kierkegaard is both fair and not fair to Schlegel:

…What is interesting is my making the statement that I think Kierkegaard is unfair to Schlegel. And that the whole thing is a damned shame! Because that is not what I think at all. We have to do here with my own irony. Because of course Kierkegaard . was “fair” to Schlegel. In making a statement to the contrary I am attempting to… I might have several purposes-simply being provocative, for example. But mostly I am trying to annihilate Kierkegaard in order to deal with his disapproval.

Q: Of Schlegel?

A: Of me.

(There’s also a deep strain of horniness to the story that I will not comment on at this time.)

19. “City Life” (City Life, 1970)

The title story of Barthelme’s 1970 collection is a weird, oblique love letter to a version of NYC. The Houston-native seems to finally earn his New Yorker stripes. It’s an unusually long story, rich with meanings that I won’t bother to plumb here, because I’ve had a long day, and I doubt anyone is actually reading this (I can live in doubt). The basic plot of “City Life” is the whole Virgin Birth thing, with the city-as-father—which is par for Barthelme’s oedipal course. It has some wonderful passages, including this one.

Summary thoughts: “City Life” and “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” strike me as seminal Barthelme texts, but neither make a good starting point to his fiction. “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,” the story in this batch from Sadness is sad, mean stuff, and also likely relatable for any dad who’s ever wanted to hop in his car and go out for a pack of cigarettes or a carton of milk or whatever your deadbeat idiom is. “The Falling Dog” is okay. Both “The Policemen’s Ball” and “The Glass Mountain” would make nice starting places for anyone interested in Barthelme’s stuff.

Going forward (in reverse): A few more from City Life and then we crack into what might be Barthelme’s best collection, 1968’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part VI

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

This post covers stories 30-25.

30. “The Party” (Sadness, 1972)

A messy bright drunken satire on academia and parties involving academics and pseudointellectuals in general. It opens with assholery, with unnecessary incorrect corrections:

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.

Essential services are being maintained cracked me up this go around. (I too have been sometimes exhausted by vodka.)

King Kong shows up at the party! Barthelme pulls a few Robert Coover moves, but is less comfortable parodying film than he is parodying modern art (or Modern Art, I mean).

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

“The Party” is a sad story, a bad scene with some good cruel jokes. Near the end, our narrator—some ironic extrapolation of Barthelme his own damn self—internally remarks:

What made us think that we could escape things like bankruptcy, alcoholism, being disappointed, having children?

Yuck.

29. “Daumier” (Sadness, 1972)

Probably my favorite story so far in this reverse re-read. “Daumier” is the best sort of metafictional postmodernism: wry, occasionally mean, and fun with a tight little heart, the story never displays its plumage or winks at the reader.

On the outside of “Daumier” is the ostensible narrator who is playing around with a psychological gadget he calls surrogation, a concept the rest of us would identify as identifying with characters we create, avatars we write into being. He causes to be, via surrogation, in his mind’s narrative eye, a Western scene. A band of misunderstood rustlers are herding a herd of French au pairs across the Western plains. There are chili dogs and villainous priests and at least one muskateer. In case we get confused, Barthelme’s narrator offers a resume of the plot:

Ignatius Loyola XVIII, with a band of hard-riding fanatical Jesuits under his command, has sworn to capture the herd and release the girls from the toils so-called of the Traffic, in which Daumier, Mr. Hawkins, and Mr. Bellows are prominent executives of long standing. Daumier meanwhile has been distracted from his proper business by a threat to the queen, the matter of the necklace (see Dumas, The Queen’s Necklace, pp. 76-1 05).

“Daumier” sees Barthelme quick switching between genres, moods, and registers. The story showcases some of the best bits of his midseventies ironic-epic mode. When his metatextual narrative moves back to the “ordinary,” contemporary world, Barthelme paints the scene with heroic bravado:

Immature citizens in several sizes were massed before a large factorylike structure where advanced techniques transformed them into true-thinking right-acting members of the three social classes, lower, middle, and upper middle. Some number of these were engaged in ludic agon with basketballs, the same being hurled against passing vehicles producing an unpredictable rebound. Dispersed amidst the hurly and burly of the children were their tenders, shouting. lnmixed with this broil were ordinary denizens of the quarter-shopmen, rentiers, churls, sellers of vicious drugs, stum-drinkers, aunties, girls whose jeans had been improved with applique rose blossoms in the cleft of the buttocks, practicers of the priest hustle, and the like.

The image of the children “engaged in ludic agon with basketballs” made me laugh aloud.

A penultimate section parodying modern food production surpasses this section, but also ends in a sweet if weird resolution—Barthelme’s surrogate commits to sweet marriage with a character. The last section, simply labeled “Conclusion” blows the phantasy apart. The narrator assures us that he has folded and wrapped up his characters and stuffed them tidily into desk drawers. He will take them out again in the future when he needs them again, “someday when my soul is again sickly and full of sores.” It is the exact same ending of Barthelme’s most-anthologized story, “The Balloon,” wherein the titular balloon is sent off to, what is it, West Virginia, to be stored for a future time, etc. etc. But this later story — “Daumier,” I mean — concludes in a strangely sadly depressive affirmation of life as doing, despite the pain of being:

The self cannot be escaped, but it can be, with ingenuity and hard work, distracted. There are always openings, if you can find them, there is always something to do.

28. “A City of Churches” (Sadness, 1972)

“A City of Churches” is one of Barthelme’s more straightforward satires. A woman named Cecelia plans to move to a new city where she hopes to open a car rental place. The name of the city, Prester, is likely an allusion to Prester John, the mythical Christian king of a lost Christian city. A certain Mr. Phillips shows Cecelia around, informing her that not only do all the citizens of Prester live in churches, but also all businesses are housed in churches. Irreligious Cecelia realizes that she cannot fit into such conformist confines.

27. “The Rise of Capitalism” (Sadness, 1972)

An essentially sad story in a book called Sadness, “The Rise of Capitalism” begins cryptically:

The first thing I did was make a mistake. I thought I had understood capitalism, but what I had done was assume an attitude — melancholy sadness — toward it. This attitude is not correct.

What follows is a pastiche of critical essay and parodic riffs; there’s no real plot but there are plenty of gags. In one memorable passage, capitalism becomes personified and literally rises, presumably to work. But the narration gives way to lamenting the alienation we feel under late capitalism, before shifting into absurdity:

Capitalism arose and took off its pajamas. Another day, another dollar. Each man is valued at what he will bring in the marketplace. Meaning has been drained from work and assigned instead to remuneration. Unemployment obliterates the world of the unemployed individual. Cultural underdevelopment of the worker, as a technique of domination, is found everywhere under late capitalism. Authentic self-domination by individuals is thwarted. The false consciousness created and catered to by mass culture perpetuates ignorance and powerlessness. Strands of raven hair floating on the surface of the Ganges…Why can’t they clean up the Ganges? If the wealthy capitalists who operate the Ganges wig factories could be forced to install sieves, at the mouths of their plants….And now the sacred Ganges is choked with hair, and the river no longer knows where to put its flow, and the moonlight on the Ganges is swallowed by the hair, and the water darkens. By Vishnu! This is an intolerable situation! Shouldn’t something be done about it?

I think something should be done about it.

26. “Träumerei” (Sadness, 1972)

Calling them “the most formally complex pieces” in Sadness, Barthelme’s biographer Tracy Daugherty notes that both “Träumerei” and “Sandman” were rejected by The New Yorker. I read “Träumerei” twice (reread, I suppose) and have no idea what it’s “about.” Formally, it’s a sort of monologue, a tirade even, addressed to “Daniel”:

So there you are, Daniel, reclining, reclining on the chaise, a lovely picture, white trousers, white shirt, red cummerbund, scarlet rather, white suede jacket, sunflower in buttonhole, beard neatly combed, let’s have a look at the fingernails. Daniel, your fingernails are a disgrace. Have a herring. We are hungry, Daniel, we could eat the hind leg off a donkey.

The narrator continues on and on, riffing on music and film and art, dropping composer names (Hadyn, Spontini, Glazunov), and decrying “the damned birds singing.” The title “Träumerei” is perhaps a reference to Schumann’s piece from Scenes from Childhood, as well as an invocation of the word’s translation as dream or reverie. It’s enjoyable as an accretion of images, but a bit frustrating if approached as a puzzle to figure out, which is not how one should necessarily approach it, but which, nevertheless, I did.

25. “The Sandman” (Sadness, 1972)

Another monologue, this time in epistolary form. The unnamed narrator writes a contempt-laden letter to his girlfriend’s psychoanalyst; she wants to terminate the analysis and buy a piano, but the shrink can only see this desire as a displacement. The narrator assures him that sometimes a piano is just a piano. In Hiding Man, Daugherty calls “The Sandman” an “unusually autobiographical story,” noting that the tale reflects Barthelme’s own disenchantment with analysis. The story also includes a scene cribbed from Barthelme’s early days writing for The Houston Post back in the mid-fifties. In it, the narrator describes police brutality:

There was a story that four black teenagers had come across a little white boy, about ten, in a vacant lot, sodomized him repeatedly and then put him inside a refrigerator and closed the door…and he suffocated. I don’t know to this day what actually happened, but the cops had picked up some black kids and were reportedly beating the shit out of them in an effort to make them confess.

The narrator makes a number of calls and finally gets enough pressure on the police force to hold them accountable:

So the long and short of it was that the cops decided to show the four black kids at a press conference to demonstrate that they weren’t really beat all to rags, and that took place at four in the afternoon. I went and the kids looked OK, except for one whose teeth were out and who the cops said had fallen down the stairs.

He concedes that “we all know the falling-down-the-stairs story,” but ultimately decides that,

Now while I admit it sounds callous to be talking about the degree of brutality being minimal, let me tell you that it was no small matter, in that time and place, to force the cops to show the kids to the press at all. It was an achievement, of sorts.

Barthelme’s work rarely—rarely is too big a word—almost never directly addressed the Civil Rights Movement in the same way that it engaged the Youth Movement, the Vietnam War, and second wave feminism. The notations here read almost like a mea culpa, a “this is the best we could do.” There’s no rage there (although there’s little rage in Barthelme—mostly melancholy). The only other story I recall directly addressing racial issues in America is the first story in the collection, “Margins” (which I should be getting to soon).

Another autobiographical detail that Daugherty unpacks in his biography Hiding Man comes from Karen Kennerly, a writer whom Barthelme had an affair with, “Don’s story ‘The Sandman’ is all true. I’m the woman in that story.” In the story, the woman receives a late-night call from another man she was seeing. Kennerly claims that that man was Miles Davis, whom she claimed to be involved with between 1966-1979. She describes an awkward meeting between the two at Elaine’s in NYC. Davis’s nickname for Barthelme was “Texas.” I don’t think it was affectionate.

Ultimately, the narrator of “The Sandman” realizes that the “world is unsatisfactory,” and that depressions are a fine response to this problem. There are solutions, including this one: “Put on a record.”

Summary thoughts:  The weakest story here is “Träumerei.” “A City of Churches” would be a nice starting point for anyone interested in Barthelme, but it’s a bit on-the-nose for me. Both “The Rise of Capitalism” and “The Sandman” seem like attempts at oblique mission statements. “Daumier” is the best of the bunch.

Going forward (in reverse): One more from “Sadness” (maybe the saddest one in the collection—and also an autobiographical jam, for sure), and then we get into 1970’s City Life.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part V

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

This post covers stories 36-31.

36. “The Captured Woman” (Amateurs, 1976)

Simultaneously creepy and funny, “The Captured Woman is narrated by an unnamed man who has, as the title suggests, captured a woman. The story begins with a double capturing: “The captured woman asks if I will take her picture.” The narrator shoots four rolls of film and develops them in his darkroom. He and the woman have consensual sex. She demands to go to church. She writes a letter to her husband, offering him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rescue her on a white horse. The husband refuses, and the angered captured woman commands the narrator to “Take me to my room and tie me up…I’m going to hate him for a while.”

In the meantime, the narrator commiserates with his pals who have also captured women. He lays out their techniques:

It is true that Q. will never get one. His way of proceeding is far too clumsy. He might as well be creeping about carrying a burlap sack.

P. uses tranquilizing darts delivered by a device which resembles the Sunday New York Times.

D. uses chess but of course this limits his field of operations somewhat.

S. uses a spell inherited from his great-grandmother.

F. uses his illness.

T. uses a lasso. He can make a twenty-foot loop and keep it spinning while he jumps in and out of it in his handmade hundred-and-fifty-dollar boots — a mesmerizing procedure.

C. has been accused of jacklighting, against the law in this state in regard to deer. The law says nothing about women.

X. uses the Dionysiac frenzy.

L. is the master. He has four now, I believe.

I use Jack Daniels.

Is “The Captured Woman” a faintly-sexist satire? Barthelme’s metaphor for his own repeated failures with women? No clue, but one of the story’s late punchlines suggest a depressive view of relationships:  “The trouble with capturing one is that the original gesture is almost impossible to equal or improve upon.”

35. “Rebecca” (Amateurs, 1976)

“Rebecca” is another melancholy “love story.” It begins with poor Rebecca Lizard “trying to change her ugly, reptilian, thoroughly unacceptable last name.” She then visits a dermatologist who can’t help her skin’s greenish hue, before going home to her girlfriend, Hilda:

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.

Hilda’s been out for a drink with another woman—just a friend—spiking an argument between the pair that’s not ameliorated by drinking too many busthead cocktails. The resolution is simple and domestic—unusually sweet by Barthelme’s standards. He punctures it with a final note:

The story ends. It was written or 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 it tattooed upon the warm tympanic page.

34. “At the End of the Mechanical Age” (Amateurs, 1976)

Like“Our Work and Why We Do It,” another story from Amateurs, “At the End of the Mechanical Age” is another riff on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Both stories are successful, but “Mechanical Age” is divine—a phantasy-romance that turns the mundane into the heroic. The narrator meets Mrs. Davis, who owns a Mexican restaurant, in a supermarket. The pair takes up with each other, becoming first lovers, and then married partners. Meanwhile, God is in the basement, measuring the electric meter. There’s a flood, but our heroic couple survive it. They sing songs to each other recounting enormous mythical figures to come—giants with the mundane names Ralph and Maude. Like “Rebecca,” this story is a love story, but a melancholy one:

“The mechanical age is drawing to a close,” I said to her.

“Or has already done so,” she replied.

“It was a good age,” I said. “I was comfortable in it, relatively. Probably I will not enjoy the age to come quite so much. I don’t like its look.”

“One must be fair. We don’t know yet what kind of an age the next one will be. Although I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort, and that is what I like, personal well-being and comfort.”

“Do you suppose there is something to be done?” I asked her.

“Huddle and cling,” said Mrs. Davis. “We can huddle and cling. It will pall, of course, everything palls, in time…”

Huddle and cling is an elegant, simple, and perhaps sad solution.

In Hiding Man, his Barthelme biography, Tracy Daugherty points out that Barthelme viewed an exhibition at the MoMA in 1968 called “The Machine, as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” which likely influenced the title and content of the story.

 

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33. “A Manual for Sons” (The Dead Father, 1975)

“A Manual for Sons” is the second-longest piece in Sixty Stories (after “The Emerald”), and reads like an oddity among oddities. It’s an excerpt from The Dead Father, but feels ancillary to that novel (possibly Barthelme’s best). And yet, like its progenitor novel, “A Manual for Sons” is a big fat webbed up concretization of the oedipal anxieties that course through so much of Barthelme’s work. There’s a section with three “sample” voices of fathers, all stern, cruel even. One of these fathers enlists his son’s aid in building a deck—an echo perhaps of Barthelme’s architect father:

Now run me a line down that form with the pencil. I gave you the pencil. What’d you do with the goddamn pencil? Jesus Christ kid find the pencil. OK go in the house and get me another pencil. Hurry up I can’t stand here holdin’ this all day. Wait a minute here’s the pencil. OK. I got it. Now hold it straight and run me a line down that form. Not that way dummy, on the horizontal. You think we’re buildin’ a barn? That’s right. Good. Now run the line. Good. OK, now go over there and fetch me the square. Square’s the flat one, looks like a L. Like this, look. Good. Thank you. OK now hold that mother up against the form where you made the line. That’s so we get this side of it square, see? OK now hold the board and lemme just put in the stakes. HOLD IT STILL DAMN IT. How you think I can put in the stakes with you wavin’ the damn thing around like that? Hold it still. Check it with the square again. OK, is it square? Now hold it still. Still. OK. That’s got it. How come you’re tremblin’? Nothin’ to it, all you got to do is hold one little bitty piece of one-by-six straight for two minutes and you go into a fit? Now stop that. Stop it. I said stop it. Now just take it easy. You like heppin’ me with the patio, don’tcha? Just think ’bout when it’s finished and we be sittin’ out here with our drinks drinkin’ our drinks and them jackasses ‘cross the street will be havin’ a hemorrhage. From green envy. Flee from the wrath to come, boy, flee from the wrath to come. He he.

The chuckle after the line Flee from the wrath to come is particularly menacing. For the most part though, “A Manual for Sons” balances the seriousness of its subject with humorous absurdity and swelling rhetoric:

Fathers are teachers of the true and not-true, and no father ever knowingly teaches what is not true. In a cloud of unknowing, then, the father proceeds with his instruction. Tough meat should be hammered well between two stones before it is placed on the fire, and should be combed with a hair comb and brushed with a hairbrush before it is placed on the fire. On arriving at night, with thirsty cattle, at a well of doubtful character, one deepens the well first with a rifle barrel, then with a pigsticker, then with a pencil, then with a ramrod, then with an icepick, “bringing the well in” finally with needle and thread. Do not forget to clean your rifle barrel immediately. To find honey, tie a feather or straw to the leg of a bee, throw him into the air, and peer alertly after him as he flies slowly back to the hive.

 

32. “Nothing: A Preliminary Account” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

In a 1982 interview, Barthelme described using this story in his writing classes:

Occasionally I’ll read something that has some pedagogic value. For example, there’s a story called “Nothing,” which I also use as an assignment. When somebody is stuck, I’ll say, well, do me a piece that describes “nothing.” Sometimes if I give that to a whole class, when they’re finished reading theirs, I’ll read mine just to show how I dealt with it.

“Nothing” is a list that tries to describe “nothing.” It begins thus:

It’s not the yellow-curtains. Nor curtain rings. Nor is it bran in a bucket, nor bran, nor is it the large, reddish farm animal eating the bran from the bucket, the man who placed the bran in the bucket, his wife, or the raisin-faced banker who’s about to foreclose on the farm. None of these is nothing.

(Rereading the lilt here, I’m reminded of Big Thief’s jam “Not.”)

The list is a mix of absurd fun, a few great punchlines (“Nor is it lobster protected from its natural enemies by its high price”), and a heavy dose of Barthelme’s beloved existentialists:

Heidegger points us toward dread. Having borrowed a cup of dread from Kierkegaard, he spills it, and in the spreading stain he finds (like a tea-leaf reader) Nothing.

Like much of Barthelme’s seventies stuff, “Nothing” is a piece that strives to find meaning in failure:

But if we cannot finish, we can at least begin. If what exists is in each case the totality of the series of appearances which manifests it, then nothing must be characterized in terms of its nonappearances, no-shows, incorrigible tardiness. Nothing is what keeps us waiting (forever).

31. “Eugénie Grandet” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

Eugénie Grandet” is the only story included in Sixty Stories that uses literal images—photographs and drawings—incorporating them into a collage distillation of Balzac’s 1833 novel of the same name. The story offers a parodic summary of a 200-page novel in just a few paragraphs, including this notorious one:

Butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter

Here, the conflict between Eugénie and her miserly father over Eugénie’s using too much butter in preparing her cousin’s eclairs is compressed into 78 butters. 

“Eugénie Grandet” isn’t just a parodic summary though. It’s also a send-up of middle-twentieth century values. In Hiding Man, Daugherty spends two whole pages on the story, arguing that it should be read within the context of its composition—namely, after the fall out of May ’68.

Daugherty writes,

In parodying this particular novel in the context of May 1968, [Barthelme] composed a potent political document. It not only touched on the rebellion’s seminal issues, but invoked the reinvigorated Sartre…[the story], firmly attached to modernist history, and appearing, as it did, in a mainstream weekly, tucked among ads for glittering cars, watches, and diamonds, is a remarkable American artifact.”

Ultimately though, “Eugénie Grandet” is a strong enough story that one can appreciate it without any knowledge of Balzac or May ’68.

Summary thoughts:  “The Captured Woman” is apt for misreading and “Rebecca” is a bit of a trifle, but it’s a tender trifle. “At the End of the Mechanical Age” is as good as anything Barthelme ever wrote. “A Manual for Sons” is wonderful, and I guess I’m glad it’s included in Sixty Stories, but it does feel out of place–but maybe that’s just because I’ve read The Dead Father. “Nothing” might make a great starting place for anyone interested in Barthelme.” “Eugénie Grandet” is great stuff.

Going forward (in reverse): The next six stories are all from 1972’s Sadness—including a favorite of mine, “Daumier.”

 

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part IV

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

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.”

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part III

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first. I wrote about stories 60-55 here and stories 54-49 here,

This post covers stories 48-43.

48. “The Death of Edward Lear” (Great Days, 1979)

Like many of the stories culled from Great Days, the humor in “The Death of Edward Lear” is tinged with melancholy. Perhaps it’s because of its subject matter, or perhaps it’s knowing that Great Days was the last collection of originals Barthelme would write, but “The Death of Edward Lear” feels like the work of a much older man. In fact, it was first published in The New Yorker in 1971, when Barthelme was forty, barely middle aged. (For whatever reasons, Barthelme didn’t include the piece in his collections Sadness (1972) or Amateurs (1976.))

The story begins in the most straightforward manner:

The death of Edward Lear took place on a Sunday morning in May 1888. Invitations were sent out well in advance. The invitations read:

Mr. Edward LEAR
Nonsense Writer and Landscape Painter
Requests the Honor of Your Presence
On the Occasion of his DEMISE.
San Remo 2:20 a.m.
The 29th of May Please reply

One can imagine the feelings of the recipients. Our dear friend! is preparing to depart! and such-like. Mr. Lear! who has given us so much pleasure! and such-like. On the other hand, his years were considered. Mr. Lear! who must be, now let me see… And there was a good deal of, I remember the first time I (dipped into) (was seized by)…But on the whole, Mr. Lear’s acquaintances approached the occasion with a mixture of solemnity and practicalness…

Lear treats his many guests to a strange spectacle of rants, rhymes, and mandolin-playing. He also delivers a “short homily on the subject of Friendship.” Then he dies.

His audience is initially confused, before realizing that Lear had crafted his death into a piece of absurdist art:

People who attended the death of Edward Lear agreed that, all in all, it had been a somewhat tedious performance. Why had he seen fit to read the same old verses, sing again the familiar songs, show the well-known pictures, run through his repertoire once more? Why invitations? Then something was understood: that Mr. Lear had been doing what he had always done and therefore, not doing anything extraordinary. Mr. Lear had transformed the extraordinary into its opposite. He had, in point of fact, created a gentle, genial misunderstanding.

And Lear’s performance engenders future performances:

The death of Edward Lear can still be seen, in the smaller cities, in versions enriched by learned interpretation, textual emendation, and changing fashion. One modification is curious; no one knows how it came about. The supporting company plays in the traditional way, but Lear himself appears shouting, shaking, vibrant with rage.

That final angry image is sad, haunting even. It recalls that other Lear, mad on the heath, as well as Dylan Thomas’s most famous villanelle.

In his biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty speculates that the idea for “Lear” might be attributed in part to the “farewell parties” Susan Sontag hosted in the mid-seventies when she thought she might die from cancer. There’s a human reality coursing under the story’s apparent absurdity that makes it a memorable, enjoyable tale about making art out of life and death.

Edward Lear’s actual death sounds much sadder. According to the Edward Lear Society, “Lear’s funeral was said to be a sad, lonely affair by the wife of Dr. Hassall, Lear’s physician, not one of Lear’s many lifelong friends being able to attend.”

47. “Morning” (Great Days, 1979)

In Hiding Man, Daugherty claims that “Morning” is about “the limits of the educational system,” but I don’t see it. It’s an absurdist dialogue, almost impenetrable in its obliquity—which would be fine if the sentences were better. There had to have been better stories in Great Days than “Morning” — the superior “Concerning the Bodyguard” is from that collection, and eventually ended up in Forty Stories—but I’m sure Barthelme had his reasons for including it. Those reasons, like the story, are inscrutable to me.

46. “The King of Jazz” (Great Days, 1979)

A great little ditty told (almost) entirely in dialogue, “The King of Jazz” takes place over the first few minutes of Hokie Mokie’s reign as the new, um, king of jazz. Hokie’s tenure comes under threat almost immediately when Hideo Yamaguchi, a stranger from Tokyo, appears seemingly from nowhere to challenger the new king. A musical duel ensues, helpfully described by one of the musicians in attendance:

“What’s that sound coming in from the side there?”

“Which side?”

“The left.”

“You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of life? That sounds like polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans? That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea? That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mt. Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees in an Appalachian marsh? That sounds like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk? That sounds like a mule deer wandering a montane of the Sierra Nevada? That sounds like prairie dogs kissing? That sounds like witchgrass tumbling or a river meandering? That sounds like manatees munching seaweed at Cape Sable? That sounds like coatimundis moving in packs across the face of Arkansas? That sounds like – ”

“Good God, it’s Hokie! Even with a cup mute on, he’s blowing Hideo right off the stand!”

Barthelme here and elsewhere excels at pushing and pulling language in ways with which we are unfamiliar. There’s a synesthetic quality to his best writing, writing which so frequently attempts to engage with and evoke other arts—visual, arts, poetry.

“The King of Jazz” also continues the thread of Oedipal anxiety that courses throughout Barthelme’s work. That anxiety here is not necessarily father-son oriented, but rather the anxiety of the outsider who becomes established, the experimenter who succeeds—and then finds his work challenged by new comers.

45. “The Zombies” (Great Days, 1979)

“The Zombies” is another fun story—and one of the rare late stories not told entirely in dialogue. I’m not really sure if “The Zombies” is a specific parody or just a goof, but it makes me laugh:

In a high wind the leaves fall from the trees. The zombies are standing about talking. “Beautiful day!” “Certainly is!” The zombies have come to buy wives from the people of this village, the only village around that will sell wives to zombies. “Beautiful day!” “Certainly is!” The zombies have brought many cattle. The bride price to a zombie is exactly twice that asked of an ordinary man. The cattle are also zombies and the zombies are in terror lest the people of the village understand this.

There are good zombies and bad zombies. Gris Grue is the hero of the good zombies. There’s a Bishop involved. Watch out: “The kiss of a dying animal, a dying horse or dog, transforms an ordinary man into a zombie.”

And watch out too for bad zombies: “If a bad zombie gets you, he will scarify your hide with chisels and rakes. If a bad zombie gets you, he will make you walk past a beautiful breast without even noticing.”

44. “The New Music” (Great Days, 1979)

“The New Music”: Another dialogue, another synesthetic excursion into Oedipal territories—this time focused on the mother:

–She had a lot on her mind. The chants. And Daddy of course.

–Let’s not do Daddy today.

Two brothers discuss “the new music,” which both is and is not music. As in much of Barthelme’s work, elements of art and culture might be patched and pasted in new designs, new collages.

–The new music burns things together, like a welder. The new music says, life becomes more and more exciting as there is less and less time.

–Momma wouldn’t have ‘lowed it. But Momma’s gone.

With their disallowing mother out of the way, the boys can now move forward into the new music.

43. “Cortés and Montezuma” (Great Days, 1979)

“Cortés and Montezuma” is the strongest tale in this batch. The story tells a version of the “friendship” between the Spanish conquistador and the Aztec emperor. Unlike the quippy, often absurd dialogue pieces, “Cortés and Montezuma” is told in a simple, direct (even flat) third-person voice. Here’s how the story opens:

Because Cortés lands on a day specified in the ancient writings, because he is dressed in black, because his armor is silver in color, a certain ugliness of the strangers taken as a group-for these reasons, Montezuma considers Cortés to be Quetzacoatl, the great god who left Mexico many years before, on a raft of snakes, vowing to return.

Montezuma gives Cortés a carved jade drinking cup.

Cortés places around Montezuma’s neck a necklace of glass beads strung on a cord scented with musk.

Montezuma offers Cortés an earthenware platter containing small pieces of meat lightly breaded and browned which Cortés declines because he knows the small pieces of meat are human fingers.

The story repeats the image of Cortés and Montezuma walking and holding hands, exchanging gifts, and not really trusting each other. There is plenty of intrigue and paranoia. Cortés is sleeping with his translator, but she’s also taken a high-ranking Aztec for a lover. The nobles are starting to turn on Montezuma. Various folks employ detectives to trail other folks. Assassination plots loom.

Much of the strength of “Cortés and Montezuma” derives from Barthelme’s decision to tactically employ the occasional anachronism. Consider the “powdered wigs” and “limousines” here:

Montezuma writes, in a letter to his mother: “The new forwardness of the nobility has come as a welcome relief. Whereas formerly members of the nobility took pains to hide among the general population, to pretend that they were ordinary people, they are now flaunting themselves and their position in the most disgusting ways. Once again they wear scarlet sashes from shoulder to hip, even on the boulevards; once again they prance about in their great powdered wigs; once again they employ lackeys to stand in pairs on little shelves at the rear of their limousines. The din raised by their incessant visiting of one another is with us from noon until early in the morning.”

These anachronisms highlight language’s inability to accurately translate reality. Barthelme gives us images that we identify with wealth and power — “powdered wigs” and “limousines” — but they do not fit within the historical context of Montezuma’s Aztec Empire, and they do not square historically with each other. The anachronisms do offer the contemporary reader an idea of the power of the Aztec aristocracy, and at the same time, their inclusion highlights how incomplete our picture of historical reality is—absurdly incomplete.

Indeed, Barthelme was working from a translation when he crafted “Cortés and Montezuma.” His fourth (and final) wife, the writer Marion Knox, had brought home a copy of Bernal Diaz del Castillo book about Spain’s invasion of the Aztec Empire. Barthelme translated that translation into a new translation, adding a postmodern wink to his story in the process: “Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who will one day write The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, stands in a square whittling upon a piece of mesquite.”

Behind the metatextual cleverness and intentionally-flat tone though, there is a strong, sympathetic core to “Cortés and Montezuma,” a deep sorrow summed up in the final line:

The pair walking down by the docks, hand in hand, the ghost of Montezuma rebukes the ghost of Cortés. “Why did you not throw up your hand, and catch the stone?”

Summary thoughts: It was a bit of an unexpected relief to get out of the dialogue stories. I appreciate what Barthelme did with them, but they are too often constrained but their form, despite highlights like “The Emerald,” “The Leap,” and “The King of Jazz,” which is the strongest dialogue in this batch. I found “Morning” an ugly irritation, some sub-Gertrude-Stein stuff, and “The New Music,” while better, is not especially strong. “Cortés and Montezuma” was the highlight of the six for me.

Going forward (in reverse): One last Great Days stories, and we get into the (stronger) collection Amateurs. 

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part II

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first. I wrote about stories 60-55 here, stories collected in 1981.

This post covers stories 54-49.

54. “How I Write My Songs” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Like his postmodernist contemporaries Robert Coover and William H. Gass, many of Donald Barthelme’s stories are, on at least some level, about the act of writing itself. “How I Write My Songs,” is, as its title suggests, a story about writing. Our narrator the songwriter offers tips and advice, most of it pretty straightforward, and he peppers his monologue with recitations of his own songs. Each time he offers up a song though, we’re treated to copyright notice at the end—little interjections from a faceless corporate voice. The copyright notices are ironic, especially given that the narrator’s songs are clearly based in folk traditions like blues and Appalachian music. The narrator acknowledges these traditions, positing his writing as a synthesis:

Songs are always composed of both traditional and new elements. This means that you can rely on the tradition to give your song “legs” while also putting in your own experience or particular way of looking at things for the new.

In the end, the story’s ironies don’t bite too hard—it it’s a parody of teaching creative writing, it’s loving, and full of practical advice. The narrator’s revelation of his name—Bill B. White—is also a nice punchline.

53. “The Emerald” (previously uncollected, 1981)

I love “The Emerald.”

It’s the longest story in Sixty Stories, a 29-page epic that Barthelme culled from an aborted novel, according to Tracy Daugherty’s biography Hiding Man. Unless I’m wrong, it’s the only piece Barthelme published in Esquiremost of his stories showed up in The New Yorker, whose editor Roger Angell was an early champion of Barthelme. Angell rejected “The Emerald” though. In his biography, Daugherty points out that Angell initially did not like Barthelme’s turn toward stories composed entirely in dialogue.

“The Emerald” (and the other stories discussed in this riff) is such a story. Barthelme adeptly commands the various voices here, but without exposition or stage directions of any kind, the story is challenging the first time around. Repeated readings reveal a rich, funny, strange fable.

Here’s what happens: Our hero Mad Moll, a bearded witch, is impregnated by “the man in the moon,” Deus Luna (she has a three-hour orgasm). After a seven-year pregnancy, she gives birth to a sentient emerald. This strange birth attracts the attention of the news media as well as hordes of would-be kidnappers who are after the emerald. Most of the bandits after the emerald want him because, well, he’s an enormous emerald. The emerald understands that they “want to cut me up and put little chips of me into rings and bangles.” When the emerald asks Moll if she values him, she replies that he’s “Equivalent I would say to a third of a sea.” However, our villain, a mage named Vandermaster, has different designs. Vandermaster wants to imbibe the emerald to obtain a second life: “Emerald dust with soda, emerald dust with tomato juice, emerald dust with a dash of bitters, emerald dust with Ovaltine.” He’s discovered a formula, “Plucked from the arcanum,” which will let him live again—and hopefully, find love. Oh, and Vandermaster has a secret weapon: The Foot, a sentient reliquary with devastating powers.

The final moments of “The Emerald” are lovely. Hero Moll gives an exit interview to Lily (“a member of the news media”) in which the young witch states that the gods are not done with us yet:

But what is the meaning of the emerald?  asked Lily.  I mean overall?  If you can say.

I have some notions, said Moll.  You may credit them or not.

Try me.

It means, one, that the gods are not yet done with us.

Gods not yet done with us.

The gods are still trafficking with us and making interventions of this kind and that kind and are not dormant or dead as has often been proclaimed by dummies.

Still trafficking.  Not dead.

Just as in former times a demon might enter a nun on a piece of lettuce she was eating so even in these times a simple Mailgram might be the thin edge of the wedge.

Thin edge of the wedge.

Two, the world may congratulate itself that desire can still be raised in the dulled hearts of the citizens by the rumor of an emerald.

Desire or cupidity?

I do not distinguish qualitatively among the desires, we have referees for that, but he who covets not at all is a lump and I do not wish to have him to dinner.

Positive attitude toward desire.

Yes.  Three, I do not know what this Stone portends, whether it portends for the better or portends for the worse or merely portends a bubbling of the in-between but you are in any case rescued from the sickliness of same and a small offering in the hat on the hall table would not be ill regarded.

Moll’s final questioner though is her child the emerald:

And what now?  said the emerald.  What now, beautiful mother?

We resume the scrabble for existence, said Moll.  We resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now.

52. “Aria” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Another monologue, this time in two paragraphs. Like “Grandmother’s House,” (story #60), “Aria” is an oblique reflection on parenting. In a 1982 interview, Barthelme claimed that the story was a mother’s monologue, but it could just as easily be a father. The monologue condenses the parent’s experience of parenting after the children have left home into an often absurd catalog of pleas, mixed metaphors, and bits of received wisdom. Like a lot of the later work, there are tinges of an empty nester’s melancholy here.

51. “The Leap” (Great Days, 1979)

Another dialogue–however, I think that this piece can actually be read as an internal dialogue–a central consciousness engaging in self-debate. That debate centers (“centers” is a very loose verb here) on whether or not to take the titular leap of faith. As David Gates points out in his explanatory notes for Sixty Stories,

In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments (1846),
Kierkegaard rejects the notion of a ladder of logical steps to spiritual certainty in favor of a “leap of faith” toward the Absolute.

Those familiar with Barthelme will know his early deep engagement with existentialism, and with Kierkegaard in particular. (In his biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty makes a strong case that it was not just Kierkegaard’s ideas that informed Barthelme’s work, but Kierkegaard’s style as well—disparate voices, pseudonyms, juxtapositions, aesthetic and literary references deployed ironically, etc.)

The interlocutor(s) of “The Leap” begin by trying to catalog the glories of the creator before realizing that the task is impossible. They eventually work themselves into the existential crises of the day (some of which seem dated, and dare I say, downright lovely compared to our current, ahem, climate).

In the final moments of the story, one of the speakers—or, in my estimation, one of the singular speaker’s internal voices—declares “Can’t make it, man.” What can’t he make? The leap. And again: “Can’t make it. I am a double-minded man.” (The latter phrase underlines the notion that a single voice authors this dialogue.) And so well: “What then?” Barthelme echoes lines of one of his other heroes, Samuel Beckett:

–Keep on trying?

–Yes. We must.

The conclusion is sad and beautiful, a list of earthly consolations that can inspire the leap:

-Try again another day?

-Yes. Another day when the plaid cactus is watered, when the hare’s-foot fern is watered.

-Seeds tingling in the barrens and veldts.

-Garden peas yellow or green wrinkling or rounding.

-Another day when locust wings are baled for shipment to Singapore, where folks like their little hit of locust-wing tea.

-A jug of wine. Then another jug.

-The Brie-with-pepper meeting the toasty loaf.

-Another day when some eighty-four-year-old guy complains that his wife no longer gives him presents.

-Small boys bumping into small girls, purposefully.

-Cute little babies cracking people up.

-Another day when somebody finds a new bone that proves we are even ancienter than we thought we were.

-Gravediggers working in the cool early morning.

-A walk in the park.

-Another day when the singing sunlight turns you every way but loose.

-When you accidentally notice the sublime.

-Somersaults and duels.

-Another day when you see a woman with really red hair. mean really red hair.

-A wedding day.

-A plain day.

-So we’ll try again? Okay?

-Okay.

-Okay?

-Okay.

50. “On the Steps of the Conservatory” (Great Days, 1979)

I initially started rereading Sixty Stories in reverse order as a fluke, but I quickly found it interesting to think about Barthelme’s development as a thinker and writer by going backwards instead of forwards. I think I would have enjoyed “The Farewell” (story #55) much more if I had read it after “On the Steps of the Conservatory,” to which it is the sequel. It’s a neat little parody, but I think the sequel is even funnier, even meaner.

49. “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (Great Days, 1979)

A postmodern riff on Mozart’s opera Abduction from the Seraglio. Barthelme told an interviewer the story originated from an assignment he gave to his writing class that he ended up doing himself. We have pure monologue here; the speaker seems to be a sculptor. He crafts “welded-steel four-thousand-pound artichokes” and plays around on his “forty-three-foot overhead traveling crane which is painted bright yellow.” He occasionally breaks into song.

There are a number of references to architecture and architects in “Abduction.” Again, it’s tempting to read for autobiographical traces here. Barthelme’s father, Donald Barthelme Sr., was a modernist architect who cast a large shadow over his son’s life. But I’m not too tempted by those traces—or, rather, I’m not sure what to make of them, just as I’m not sure of what to make of “Abduction.”

Summary thoughts: “The Emerald” is a fabulous late-period Barthelme–the best in this batch for sure. It’s much, much longer than most of Barthelme’s stories though, so my other pick would be “The Leap.” I didn’t remember “The Abduction from the Seraglio” even as I was rereading it, and I reread it once more before writing about it, and I don’t really think Barthelme pulls it off here.

I’ve enjoyed these late-period dialogue stories, but I’m also looking forward to some new (older) flavors ahead (behind).

I will keep going forward (in reverse) and resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now.

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).

“Pretty Fly” | Scene from + short riff on The Night of the Hunter

I watched  The Night Of The Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton, 1955) last night for the first time in at least fifteen years. Robert Mitchum’s Bluebeard-preacher figure is the main thing that stuck with me from earlier viewings. He’s the awful, captivating, horrifying and paradoxically ever-moving center of dread in a film that is essentially about despair and hope (qualities simplified to tattoos of “LOVE” and “HATE” on his hands). Watching it last night though, I was surprised at how beautiful, even tranquil the film is at times–a kind of tranquility underpinned by the natural world’s flat indifference to humanity’s suffering coupled with Mitchum’s character’s sinister avarice. The long scene of the children escaping on the river at night, guided in part by their own music is particularly moving, a strange interplay of chiaroscuro expressionism and documentary naturalism. The voyage echoes the film’s direct allusions to Moses’ escape in the ark of bulrushes (as well as hinting at Twain’s Huck Finn). It’s a lovely transition to the film’s final third, wherein Lillian Gish’s stern but loving maternal presence overtakes the narrative. My memory had swallowed her eminence, but I don’t think I’ll forget this time that it’s her character who gets the last hopeful words: “ They abide, and they endure.”

Spilling my life story, I try to do that all the time. Nobody ever wants to listen | Notes on some Thomas Pynchon letters I have not read

I’m sure this is old news to long-time Pynchon fanatics, but I came across two articles earlier this week while searching archives for something else (which I did not find). Both articles were composed by the late theater critic Mel Gussow. The first article, “Pynchon’s Letters Nudge His Mask,” published 4 March 1998, details the then-recent Morgan Library’s acquisition of Pynchon’s correspondence to his former agent Candida Donadio. The collection apparently acquired more than 100 letters, composed from 1963 to 1982. Pynchon fired Donadio in early 1982:

Most of the letters are signed ”later, Tom,” one, ”love, Tom.” Then suddenly on Jan. 5, 1982, he writes, ”As of this date, you are no longer authorized to represent me or my work,” and signs the letter ”Cordially, Thomas Pynchon.” In a follow-up letter, he asks Ms. Donadio’s assistant to send him everything else of his that she still has. He does not mention the letters.

Donadio sold the letters to arts patron Carter Burden for $45,000 in 1984; a few years after his death, his family bequeathed the collection to the Morgan.

Mel Gussow appears to have had complete access to the letters. The first article includes a number of interesting observations. “He typed the letters single space on graph paper, until his Olivetti broke; then he switched to printing in longhand,” Gussow writes. The graph paper detail gels with some of the pics of letters from UT’s Harry Ransom archive. 

According to Gussow’s reading of the letters, Pynchon “moved from Mexico to California, from Texas to London, trying to preserve his anonymity and privacy.” Pynchon is of course well-aware of his reclusive reputation:

When he hears that the humorist H. Allen Smith has written an article for Playboy claiming to be both J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, he says, ”What no one knows is that Smith is actually Pierre Salinger, and I am H. Allen Smith.”

Pynchon writes of his hatred for Time magazine magnate Henry Luce and his admiration for James Agee’s A Death in the Family. He’s sickened by a 1964 profile by Dick Schaap published in The New York Herald Tribune, claiming it makes him feel “homicidal” — again though, these are private letters. (I have had no success tracking down Schaap’s article; I’m assuming that this Schaap is the same one who made his bones as a New York sportswriter.)

Gussow’s article notes Pynchon’s early self-assurance of his literary abilities:

In April 1964, Mr. Pynchon tells Ms. Donadio he is facing a creative crisis, with four novels in process. With a sudden bravado, he says, ”If they come out on paper anything like they are inside my head then it will be the literary event of the millennium.”

How many of those novels came to fruition? It’s hard to guess, I guess. It’s clear that Pynchon’s ideas might gestate for decades:

In a handwritten letter in January 1975, Mr. Pynchon mentions for the first time another work in progress, Mason & Dixon, 22 years before it was published.

Other points:

Pynchon refers to his second novel The Crying of Lot 49 as “a short story, but with gland trouble.” At one point, he hopes to sell both 49 and his first novel V. to Hollywood. We know Pynchon’s love for film, but Gussow underlines it:

He reveals himself as an avid moviegoer, offering capsule reviews. When the possibility of writing film criticism for Esquire arises, he says he would love to do it and explains: ”I can be crisp, succinct, iconoclastic, noncoterie, nonprogrammatic . . . also curmudgeonly, insulting, bigoted, psychotic and nitpicking. A boy scout’s decade of virtues.”

I’d love to see some of those capsule reviews.

I’d also love to see some of Pynchon’s responses to his peers’ work (if you can call the peers). Donadio sends Pynchon novels, and Gussow notes that, “He is generous in his responses, applauding John Cheever, John Hawkes, Bruce Jay Friedman and lesser-known writers.”

Gussow’s first article concludes with the alarm of Pynchon’s then-lawyer, Jeremy Nussbaum:

”It’s a rather startling event,” said Mr. Nussbaum. ”I’ve never heard of an agent selling letters of a client, except after the death of the client. They were entrusted to her in a relationship of confidence, and they were sold against his wishes.”

Nussbaum’s alarm (which is of course Pynchon’s alarm) bears fruit; a few weeks later (21 March 1998), Mel Gussow reports that “The Morgan Curtails Access to a Trove of Pynchon Letters.” The gist of the whole deal is that Pynchon’s letters to Donadio won’t be available until after his death, and even then with limited access.

Forgive me for indulging in this nonsense. Pynchon’s true contemporary William Gaddis put it best: “What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around. What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology?”

Pynchon prefigured the dregs sentiment by almost a decade, in a more self-deprecating mode. Gassow notes that Pynchon writes to his then-agent in ’78 about a suggestion he write his autobiography:

As for spilling my life story, I try to do that all the time. Nobody ever wants to listen, for some strange reason.

It’s all in the novels then.

Blog about some recent reading (Süskind/Shange/Dara/Walton/Cain)

Last time I did one of these silly blogs about recent reading—

–(a poor substitute for meaningful reviews, blogs about recent reading—but so and in some measure of fairness to myself, the last few weeks were larded with occasions—promotional ceremonies, out-of-town graduations, visits to new schools, and a triumvirate of family birthdays. So…)—

So last time I did one of these silly blogs about recent reading I was about halfway through Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (1985, in translation by John E. Woods). The novel is kinda sorta historical magical realism, if that makes sense, although it’s really straightforward in its telling (the good ole third-person omniscient/free indirect style). It’s pre-Revolutionary France and Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has a magical mystical murderous sense of smell. He’s born a freak and lives a freaky life. We follow Grenouille, a bastard abandoned to a quick near-death in a pile of fish guts, from a group home for orphans to a tanner’s factory to his time as an unrecognized perfume genius, concocting enchanting scents for not just Paris’s wealthiest, but the European elite. He becomes a journeyman, an ascetic hermit, and a serial killer. The novel culminates in twin orgies, ecstatic and then thanatopic. I wonder if Woods’s translation tamed things down a bit, or if Süskind’s original German is so…clinical…there’s something about the prose that elides the lurid abject rot under it all. (Oh, and I rewatched Tom Twyker’s 2006 film adaptation after finishing Süskind’s novel—it’s a fine effort, but simply can’t do what a novel can do—namely, take us convincingly into Grenouille’s estranging consciousness. We’re let with some lovely gross set pieces. Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman chew up all the scenery they can fit in their mouths.)

I picked up Ntozake Shange’s novel Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982) after finishing Perfume. It was Shange’s first novel, unless I’m mistaken, and there’s something wonderfully uneven to it. The titular trio are sisters hailing from Charleston, South Carolina and environs. The sisters (mythical muses, but also concrete people) are the daughters of Hilda Effania, a weaver. Hilda’s children appreciate her craft, but they long for newer, stranger art. Sassafrass seeks to elevate weaving into fine art; Cypress flits from classical ballet to new forms of dance; the youngest, Indigo, is part musician, part magician—her fiddle conjures all kinds of charms. Here, Shange borrows touches of Gullah-Geechee culture, and the novel’s evocations of Charleston and the coastal Sea Islands to its east will resonate with anyone familiar with the terrain. (The novel might be read with/against Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut, Edisto, a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a white male teenager living in the titular South Carolina Sea Island.) Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo doesn’t exactly have a plot, per se, which is lovely—the novel seems to sprawl out in different tangles, a kind of diffident rejection of Hilda Effania’s skilled weaving. Each daughter rebels, but returns to the hearth. Shange loads the novel with recipes, letters, journal entries, and magic spells, and if the end result is wildly uneven, it’s also lots of fun and often moving.

I got Evan Dara’s Permanent Earthquake (2021) on my birthday, a few days ago. I read the first 30 or so pages. I will write more later.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev  (2021) is Dawnie Walton’s debut novel. It deserves its own long review, but the short of it is—good stuff. Opal & Nev takes the form of an oral history of the fictional titular early seventies rock-freak-soul outfit: a bald Afro-punk progenitor (Opal) and a pasty ginger Brit (Nev). The narrator is S. Sunny Shelton; her father, Jimmy Curtis, played drums on the first Opal & Nev record, and “was beaten to death by a racist gang during the riot” at a label showcase, as the novel’s astonishing opening paragraph attests. Nev carries Opal out on his back in the ensuing violent aftermath, and a photographer captures the moment. The photo becomes iconic, symbolic, and the touchstone of the oral history Shelton assembles. And that oral history: Walton adroitly ventriloquizes her cast—the aging British producer, the asshole label owner, the worried Christian sister, the “Hey-I’m-not-racist-but-look-I’m-actually-racist” Southern rocker-turned Trump supporter. Nev and Opal are particularly well-defined; as the novel develops, we start to see their masks crack. The diversity of perspectives on the novel’s central event–the murder of Shelton’s father Jimmy (and the subsequent photograph of Opal on Nev’s back)—leads to a compelling twist in the novel’s climax. The twist plays out in the book’s second half, as Opal & Nev undertake a reunion show at a big festival concert (something like Bonnaroo, I guess). The novel is set right before the 2016 election, leading to a number of ironies, and Shelton—telegraphing Walton, I suspect—is not shy of editorializing (nor should she be). Opal & Nev also contains lots of footnotes. Many of these footnotes flesh out the alternate reality of Walton’s imagined musicsphere, but some offer historical girding to the narrative proper. For example, Walton, through Shelton, lets us know who Josephine Baker was, and that George Wallace was a notorious racist, and that Stephanie St. Clair was an infamous Harlem racketeer. Etc. These footnotes made me feel old in the sense that they seem designed to help a younger audience navigate the mostly-real (and real in the ugliest, realest ways possible) of Opal & Nev, while also absorbing much that American history has sought to whitewash. Ultimately, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev kept me reading because the voices were so compelling. Watson lets her subjects speak, channeling all of their flaws and glories. Recommended.

Years ago someone—who was it, was it you?—told me to read James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). I got a copy of Three Complete Novels this weekend, and read Postman over two days. Cain’s novel is visceral, gross, violent, and fast fast fast. It’s a basic stranger-comes-to-town plot, only the town is reduced to a young wife dissatisfied with her husband (and the husband in question). It’s also told from the perspective of the stranger, a quippy drifter who reminded me more of Camus’ Mersault than anything else. (I think it would be fascinating to rewrite this novel from another character’s perspective, by the way.) The novel did for me exactly what I needed—sort of zapped me, reset my reading rainbow. Cain’s prose is so economical that I found myself having to go back to previous sentences at times to make sure that I was comprehending his camera-flow. An unhealthy juvenile puma shows up in a late courtroom scene. This novel is wonderfully grotesque. I’m ashamed that I’ve never seen the 1946 film version (starring Lana Turner)—but I have seen the 1945 adaptation of Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, so I look forward to reading that (and Double Indemnity). Great stuff, even if the postman never rings, not even once.

Blog about some recent reading

The last little bit of Spring trickles away here in North Florida, where beautiful days with highs of 82℉ promise to turn into burning sweaty hell in the next week or two. The Spring 2021 semester is behind me, and I’ve found a lot more time to read. So, re: pic, bottom to top:

Paul Kirchner’s latest collection Dope Rider: A Fistful of Delerium is dope goofy gorgeousness. I’ve been taking it a page a day or so and am about to run out of the stash. I hope to have a review of it soon (maybe in The Comics Journal, where I reviewed Kirchner’s last collection, Hieronymus & Bosch).

Paul Kirchner

I also read some comix by Drew Lerman, and wrote about them here.

Drew Lerman

I picked up Rachel Cusk’s much-lauded novel Outline a few weeks ago at a Friends of the Library Sale. It was not for me. The flat, “tell-don’t-show” style didn’t bother me—indeed the prose is very “readable” (whatever that means)—but I found myself rolling my eyes a lot. A lot of smart people like this novel (and the trilogy it initiates), so maybe I fundamentally misread it. And in fairness, the whole contemporary autoficiton thing has left me cold, with the possible exception of Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neopolitan Novels, which I loved.

I read four B.S. Johnson novels in something of a blur. Johnson was an English avant-gardiste writing primarily in the 1960s. I wrote a bit about some of the novels hereChristie Malry’s Own Double-Entry ended up being my favorite, with Albert Angelo a close second. I thought Trawl was extremely tedious. I broke down and ordered a copy of his “novel in a box,” The Unfortunates—maybe I’ll muster the energy for something bigger on Johnson.

I’m a little over half way through Patrick Suskind’s Perfume (trans. by John E. Woods), and I really dig it—it feels like a long time since I’ve read a good ole fashioned historical novel told in the third-person omniscient/free indirect style. Set in France in the mid-1700’sPerfume is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a perfume genius, a freak, a murderer. I’d seen Tom Twyker’s film adaptation years ago, but the novel is richer, taking us deeper into Grenouille’s strange mind. Great stuff.

I recently finished Norah Lange’s fragmentary memoir, Notes from Childhood (trans. by Charlotte Whittle). It’s a propulsive and rich read, a loving but unsentimental, magical without a trace of whimsy. I wrote about it a bit here.

A few sentences on every Thomas Pynchon novel to date

Today, 8 May 2021, is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 84th birthday. Some of us nerds celebrate the work of one of the world’s greatest living authors with something called Pynchon in Public Day. In the past I’ve rounded up links to Pynchon stuff on Biblioklept and elsewhere. Last year, that weird pandemic year, I finally finished all of Pynchon’s novels. I’d been “saving” Bleeding Edge for a while, but broke down and read it that spring. Having read all eight Pynchon novels (a few more than once), I’ll offer some quick scattershot thoughts.

V. (1963)

I reread Pynchon’s first novel for the first time last month and found it far more achieved than I had remembered. For years I’ve always recalled it as a dress rehearsal for the superior and more complex Gravity’s Rainbow. And while V. certainly points in GR’s direction, even sharing some characters, it’s nevertheless its own entity. I first read V. as a very young man, and as I recall, thought it scattershot, zany, often very funny, but also an assemblage of set pieces that fail to cohere. Rereading it two decades later I can see that there’s far more architecture to its plot, a twinned, yoyoing plot diagrammed in the novel’s title. The twin strands allow Pynchon to critique modernism on two fronts, split by the world wars mark the first half of the twentieth century. It’s a perfect starting point for anyone new to Pynchon, and its midpoint chapter, “Mondaugen’s Story,” is as good as anything else he’s written.

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Pynchon’s shortest novel is not necessarily his most accessible: Crying is a dense labyrinth to get lost in. At times Pynchon’s second novel feels like a parody of L.A. detective noir (a well he’d return to in Inherent Vice), but there’s plenty of pastiche going on here as well. For example, at one point we are treated to a Jacobean revenge play, The Courier’s Tragedy, which serves as a kind of metatextual comment on the novel’s plot about a secret war between secret armies of…letter carriers. The whole mailman thing might seem ridiculous, but Pynchon’s zaniness is always doubled in sinister paranoia: The Crying of Lot 49 is a story about how information is disseminated, controlled, and manipulated. Its end might frustrate many readers. We never get to hear the actual crying of lot 49 (just as we never discover the “true” identity of V in V.): fixing a stable, centered truth is an impossibility in the Pynchonverse.

Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Unbelievably rich, light, dark, cruel, loving, exasperating, challenging, and rewarding, Pynchon’s third novel is one of a handful of books that end up on “difficult novel” lists that is actually difficult. The difficulty though has everything to do with how we expect a novel to “happen” as we read—Gravity’s Rainbow is an entirely new thing, a literature that responds to the rise of mass media as modernist painters had to respond to the advent of photography and moving pictures. The key to appreciating and enjoying Gravity’s Rainbow, in my estimation, is to concede to the language, to the plasticity of it all, with an agreement with yourself to immediately reread it all.

Vineland (1990)

It took Pynchon a decade and a half to follow up Gravity’s Rainbow. I was a boy when Vineland came out—it was obviously nowhere on my radar (I think my favorite books around this time would probably have been The Once and Future King, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and likely a ton of Dragonlance novels). I do know that Vineland was a disappointment to many fans and critics, and I can see why. At the time, novelist David Foster Wallace neatly summed it up in a letter to novelist Jonathan Franzen: “I get the strong sense he’s spent 20 years smoking pot and watching TV.” Vineland is angry about the Reagan years, but somehow not angry enough. The novel’s villain Brock Vond seems to prefigure the authoritarian police detective Bigfoot Bjornsen of Inherent Vice, but Pynchon’s condemnation of Vond never quite reconciles with his condemnation of the political failures of the 1960s.  Vineland is ultimately depressing and easily my least-favorite Pynchon novel, but it does have some exquisite prose moments.

Mason & Dixon (1997)

If Mason & Dixon isn’t Pynchon’s best book, it has to be 1A to Gravity’s Rainbow’s 1. The novel is another sprawling epic, a loose, baggy adventure story chronicling Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon’s Enlightenment effort to survey their bit of the Western World. Mason & Dixon presents an initial formal challenge to its reader: the story is told in a kind of (faux) 18th-century vernacular. Diction, syntax, and even punctuation jostle the contemporary ear. However, once you tune your ear to the (perhaps-not-quite-so-trustworthy) tone of Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke (who tells this tall tall tale), Mason & Dixon somehow becomes breezy, jaunty, even picaresque. It’s jammed with all sorts of adventures: the talking Learned English Dog, smoking weed with George Washington, Gnostic revelations, Asiatic Pygmies who colonize the missing eleven days lost when the British moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar…Wonderful stuff. But it’s really the evocation of a strange, hedged, incomplete but loving friendship that comes through in Mason & Dixon.

Against the Day (2006)

Oof. She’s a big boy. At over a thousand pages, Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel. Despite its size, I think Against the Day is the best starting point for Pynchon. It offers a surprisingly succinct and clear summation of his major themes, which might be condensed to something like: resist the military-industrial-entertainment-complex, while also showing off his rhetorical power. It’s late period Pynchon, but the prose is some of his strongest stuff. The songs are tight, the pastiche is tighter, and the novel’s epic sweep comes together in the end, resolving its parodic ironies with an earnest love that I believe is the core of Pynchon’s worldview. I forgot to say what it’s about: It’s about the end of the nineteenth century, or, more accurately, the beginning of the twentieth century.

Inherent Vice (2009)

Inherent Vice is a leaner work than its two predecessors, but could stand to be leaner still. The book pushes towards 400 pages but would probably be stronger at 200—or 800. I don’t know. In any case, Inherent Vice is a goofy but sinister stoner detective jaunt that frags out as much as its protagonist, PI Doc Sportello. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation finds its way through those fragments to an end a bit different from Pynchon’s original (which is closer to an echo of the end of The Crying of Lot 49)—PTA’s film finds its emotional resolution in the restoration of couple—not the main couple, but adjacent characters—an ending that Pynchon pulled in his first novel V.

Bleeding Edge (2013)

While Bleeding Edge was generally well received by critics, it’s not as esteemed as his major works. I think that the novel is much, much better than its reputation though (even its reputation among Pynchon fans. Pynchon retreads some familiar plot territory—this is another detective novel, like Crying and Inherent Vice—but in many ways he’s doing something wholly new here: Bleeding Edge is his Dot Com Novel, his 9/11 Novel, and his New York Novel. It’s also probably his domestic novel, and possibly (dare I?) his most autobiographical, or at least autobiographical in the sense of evoking life with teenagers in New York City, perhaps drawing on material from his own life with wife and son in the city. It’s good stuff, but I really hope we get one more.

 

 

 

A review of Berg, Ann Quin’s grimy oedipal comedy of horrors

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Ann Quin’s 1964 novel Berg begins with one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read:

A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…

This opening line encapsulates the plot of Berg, its terminal ellipses pointing to the radical indecision that propels the novel’s central oedipal conflict—will Berg do it? Can he actually kill his father?

The “seaside town” mentioned in the opening line is presumably Brighton, where Quin was born and died. Quin’s Brighton is hardly a holiday-goer’s paradise though. Grimy and seedy, claustrophobic and cold, it’s populated by carousers and vagabonds. There’s a raucous, sinister energy to Quin’s seaside setting; her Brighton is a combative hamlet pinned against the monstrous swelling sea.

While we sometimes find ourselves in this seaside town’s drunken dancehalls, shadowy train stations, or under grubby piers, most of Berg takes place in a dilapidated boarding house. Here, Alistair Berg (going by Greb) has taken a room adjacent the room his father Nathaniel lives in with his younger mistress Judith. Nathan and Judith’s apartment is a strange horror of antiques and taxidermy beasts. Berg’s apartment is full of the wigs and hair tonics he ostensibly sells for a living. It’s all wonderfully nauseating.

Through the thin wall between these two spaces, Berg hears his father and mistress fight and fuck. He attends both animal grunting and human speech, an imaginative voyeur, and is soon entangled in their lives, as neatly summarized in a letter to his mother Edith, the fourth major character who is never-present yet always-present in the novel. Writing to thank Edith for a food parcel she’s mailed him (Berg is a mama’s boy), he reports:

How are you? Everything here is fine. I’ve seen my father, but so far haven’t revealed who I really am (how Dickensian can one get, and what can I really put—that he’s been fucking another woman next door, and probably a dozen others besides over the past fifteen years, is about to go on tour with some friend in a Vaudeville show, trailing a dummy around, that he’s in love with a budgie…?) Somehow I think you’re better off without him, he seems a bit the worse for wear, not at all like the photograph, or even like the ones you already have of him, and he still hasn’t any money, as far as I can make out he’s sponging left right and centre.

After promising to return home in time for Christmas, Berg signs off with this ambiguous and oedipal ending: “Meanwhile—meanwhile—well I’m going to fuck her too…”

As the novel progresses, the relationships tangle into a Freudian field day: Berg and his father Nathaniel; Berg and his mother; Berg and Judith; Judith and Nathaniel; Nathaniel and Edith. Desire is a funny floating thing in Berg, which plays at times like a horror story and at times like a demented closet farce. As the narrative voice tells us at one point, “no one is without a fetish or two.”

Berg’s desire to kill his father is explored, although his rationale is muddy. Certainly, Edith, whose voice ventriloquizes Berg’s memory, helps spur Berg’s oedipal impulse: “There you see that’s your father who left us both,” she tells him as a boy, pointing to a photograph, adding, “you’ll have to do a lot to overcome him Aly before I die.” So much is loaded into that word overcome. Quin’s novel is precise in its ambiguities, evoking a feeling of consciousness in turmoil.

Berg’s turmoil is indeed the central thrust of the novel. He can’t decide to patricide. Berg works through the justifications for murder, ultimately trying to root out the impetus of his desire to kill his father. “Of course it’s ridiculous to think the whole thing is simply a vehicle for revenge, or even resentment—hardly can it be called personal, not now, indeed I have never felt so objective,” he tells himself at one point, sounding like one of Poe’s maniacs. Quin’s narrative affords him several opportunities to go through with the murder, but, in the novel’s first half anyway, he stalls. “Yes, that’s what it amounts to, decide rather than desire,” he proclaims.

Like Prince Hamlet, Berg is terribly indecisive, spending much of the novel vacillating between action and inaction, letting his consciousness fly through every imaginative possibility. Indeed, the main setting of Berg is not really Brighton or the boarding house, but Alistair Berg’s mind. And yet consciousness is his biggest curse: “Definitely the supreme action is to dispose of the mind, bring reality into something vital, felt, seen, even smelt. A man of action conquering all.” Later, he tells us that “The conscience only sets in when one is static,” coaxing himself toward action. Berg aspires to more than Eliot’s Prufrock. He desires to be more than an attendant lord to swell a progress, start a scene or two.

Indeed, Berg is author, director, and star in this drama of his own creation—he just has to finally follow the call to action. When he finally does snap the mental clapperboard, he comes into the possession—or at least believes he comes into the possession—of his own agency: “How separated from it all he felt, how unique too, no longer the understudy, but the central character as it were, in a play of his own making.”

Throughout Berg, Quin employs a free-indirect style that emphasizes her character’s shifting consciousness. Whatever “reality” Berg experiences is thoroughly mediated by memories of his mother’s voice and his own projections and fantasies. Consider the shift from “he” to “I” in these two sentences:

Half in the light he stood, a Pirandello hero in search of a scene that might project him from the shadow screen on to which he felt he had allowed himself to be thrown. If I could only discover whether cause and effect lie entirely in my power.

Perhaps his dramatic flair comes from his father, a vaudevillian ventriloquist whose most prized possession is a dummy. The dummy is the tragicomic symbol at the heart of Berg, a totem of the way that other voices might inhabit our mouths and drive our desires in bizarre directions. Berg, desirer of the power to cause and effect, often sees others around him as mere props. “She’s not unlike a display dummy really,” he thinks about Judith, who accuses him as someone who’s “always playing a part.” Hefting (what he believes to be) his father’s body, Berg, “aware of the rubbery texture of the flesh,” thinks, “ah well the old man had never been a flesh and blood character really.”

Berg is both victim and hero in a mental-play that he aspires to make real. Consider this wonderful passage that collapses Berg’s monomania, prefigurations of guilt, and dramatic impulses into a courtroom trial:

Alistair Berg, alias Greb, commercial traveller, seller of wigs, hair tonic, paranoiac paramour, do you plead guilty? Yes. Guilty of all things the human condition brings; guilty of being too committed; guilty of defending myself; of defrauding others; guilty of love; loving too much, or not enough; guilty of parochial actions, of universal wish-fulfilments; of conscious martyrdom; of unconscious masochism. Idle hours, fingers that meddle. Alistair Charles Humphrey Greb, alias Berg, you are condemned to life imprisonment until such time you may prove yourself worthy of death.

Berg’s guilt fantasies are bound up in a sense of persecution as well as his notion that he is the real hero of this (his) world, in his belief that he is above “the rest of the country’s cosy mice in their cages of respectability”:

A parasite living on an action I alone dared committing, how can they possibly convict, or even accuse one who’s faced reality, not only in myself, but the whole world, that world which had been rejected, denounced, leaving a space they hardly dared interpreting, let alone sentence.

Although Berg takes place primarily in Our Boy Berg’s consciousness, Quin leavens the fantasy with a hearty ballast of concrete reality. Consider this icky sexual encounter between Berg and Judith, which involves hair tonic and a nosy landlady:

Berg shrank back, bringing Judith with him, she taking the opportunity of pressing closer; sticky, the tonic now drying—gum from a tree—almost making it impossible for Berg to tear himself away. He felt Judith’s warmth, her soft wet tongue in his ear, soon she became intent on biting all available flesh between hairline and collar. But the landlady’s demanding voice made her stop. Berg sank back, while Judith squirmed above him. But as soon as the landlady seemed satisfied that no one was about and closed the door, Judith began licking his fingers. He pulled sharply away, until he lay flat on the floor, his head resting against something quite soft. Judith began wiping his clothes down with a large handkerchief that distinctly smelt of wet fur and hard-boiled sweets. He tried getting up, but she leaned over him, and in the half light he saw her lips curl almost—yes almost—he could swear in a sneer, a positive leer, or was he mistaken and it was only the lustful gaze of a frustrated woman? He jerked sideways. Judith fell right across the body.

Ah, yes — “the body” — well, does Berg carry out his patricide? Of course, in his imagination, a million times—but does his mental-play map onto reality? Do you need to know? Read the book.

Read the book. There’s nothing I can do in this review that approaches the feeling of reading Ann Quin’s Berg. I can make lame comparisons, saying that it reminds me of James Joyce’s Ulysses (in its evocations of loose consciousness), or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (in its oedipal voyeuristic griminess), or Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (for its surreal humor and dense claustrophobia). Or I can point out how ahead of her time Quin was, how Berg bridges modernism to postmodernism while simply not giving a fuck about silly terms like modernism and postmodernism. Or I can smuggle in big chunks of Quin’s prose, as I’ve sought to do, and which I’ll do again, like, here, in this big passage wherein our hero dreams:

Two white-foaming horses with female heads and hooves of fire, with strands of golden mane—honey cones—bore him across a silken screen of sky, over many islands that floated away, and became clouds, a landscape of snow stretching below, and above a canopy of gold. But a harsh voice needled him, pin-pricked his heart, and three drops of blood poured out, extended across the canopy. From this whirlpool a shape formed, then a massive head appeared, without eyes. He turned to the horses, but they were now toads, squat and squeaking, leaping into the hissing pool. The face grew, the mouth opened, swallowing everything, nearer and nearer, until he felt himself being sucked in, down, down and yet farther down, into quicksands of fire and blood, only the dark mass left, as though the very centre of the earth had been reached. The sun exploded between his eyes. He stood up, practically hurling the rug over his shoulder, and jogged towards the station.

Or I can repeat: Read the book.

Of course Berg is Not for Everyone. Its savage humor might get lost on a first read, which might make the intense pain that underwrites the novel difficult to bear. Its ambiguities necessitate that readers launch themselves into a place of radical unknowing—the same space Berg himself enters when he comes to a seaside town, intending to kill his father.

But I loved reading Berg; I loved its sticky, grimy sentences, its wriggly worms of consciousness. I wanted more, and I sought it out, picking up The Unmapped Country, a collection of unpublished Quin stuff edited by Jennifer Hodgson and published by And Other Stories, the indie press that reissued BergHodgson is also a guest on the Blacklisted Podcast episode that focuses on Berg. That episode offers a rallying ringing endorsement, if you need voices besides mine. The Blacklisted episode also features a reading of most of novelist Lee Rourke’s 2010 appreciation for Ann Quin’s Berg. (Rourke had championed online as early as 2007.) Rourke should be commended for being ahead of the curve on resurfacing a writer who feels wholly vital in our own time. He concludes his 2010 piece, “Berg should be read by everyone, if only to give us a glimpse of what the contemporary British novel could be like.” Read the book. 

Quin wrote three other novels before walking into the sea in 1973 and never coming back. Those novels are Three (1966), Passages (1969), and Tripticks (1972). I really hope that And Other Stories will reissue these in the near future. Until then: Read the book. 

[Ed. note—Biblioklept first published this review in the summer of 2019.]

There’s no magic words. Not even I love you is magic enough | A short riff on (a short riff from) Thomas Pynchon’s first novel V.

 

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McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns” are two minor characters in Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. I will get back to them in a second.

But—

A novel crammed with minor characters (hundreds of them, I’d guess) V. pulsates with intersections, drive-bys, concordances and discordance. Characters crisscross and quick-change in ways that both parody and honor the authorial sleight-of-hand in play in V.

Pynchon repeatedly challenges his readers’ credulity–while its intersections are never as neat and tidy as its titular vee angle might suggest, V. is still a confusion of happenstance that both confounds and sanctifies coincidence, even as it ironizes those winds of fate.

The mode is necessarily postmodern. Pynchon repeatedly evokes Modernist poets by name—Pound and Eliot, especially—but it’s the immediate postwar (post, war, world, two) that he’s most concerned with in V. The novel critiques Modernist critiques (through a double lens of a critique of colonialism).

The great concern here is for the divergent angle of the second half of the twentieth century. As such, much of V. is a loving parody of the Beat scene (much more loving than Gaddis’s sustained attack on art poseurs in The Recognitions). In V., Pynchon creates a non-chorus in The Whole Sick Crew, an outcast cast of losers and would-bes and pseudointellectuals.

The Whole Sick Crew lards V.’s enormous, hard-to-follow cast. Two members of the nebulous Crew are

McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns.”

And so–

There’s a marvelous moment about two-thirds of the way through V. where McClintic and Paolo, erstwhile lovers (Paolo in the guise of “Ruby” — everyone here is a quick change artist)—where McClintic and Paolo transcend the quick-changing and irony and and sensory-cloggingness of the modern condition. They drive upstate, talk straight—the plot details don’t matter here, just read:

Maybe the only peace undisturbed that night was McClintic’s and Paola’s. The little Triumph forged along up the Hudson, their own wind was cool, taking away whatever of Nueva York had clogged ears, nostrils, mouths.

She talked to him straight and McClintic kept cool.

And then our man McClintic comes to something close to an epiphany, although epiphanies are always hedged, suspicious, constrained in Pynchon—but I think there’s something real here. Earlier in the novel, McClintic feels concern for the postwar “cool,” for the feeling that the world might flip or flop again, go from zero to binary in a weird heartbeat (that binary code theme pulsates through the rest of Pynchon’s work to date). Makes sense for machines, maybe, but people aren’t, or shouldn’t be, machines.

McClintic’s epiphany is a pragmatic resolution, and I take it to be Pynchon’s cautionary thesis:

…there came to McClintic something it was time he got around to seeing: that the only way clear of the cool/crazy flipflop was obviously slow, frustrating and hard work. Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool, but care. He might have known, if he’d used any common sense. It didn’t come as a revelation, only something he’d as soon not’ve admitted.

The epiphany is bitter, and Pynchon’s narrator refuses its epiphanic value (“It didn’t come as a revelation”), even as the narrative acknowledges its intrinsic power. A few lines later, McClintic addresses the Real Work to Be Done in the World:

Nobody is going to step down from Heaven and square away Roony and his woman, or Alabama, or South Africa or us and Russia. There’s no magic words. Not even I love you is magic enough. Can you see Eisenhower telling Malenkov or Khrushchev that? Ho-ho.”

“Keep cool but care,” he said. Somebody had run over a skunk a ways back. The smell had followed them for miles. “If my mother was alive I would have her make a sampler with that on it.”

The highway stinks, sticks skunky to fleeing motion, gummed up in the nostalgic emblems we’d imaginatively credit to our loving forebears. The grist, grit, and horror of the big postwar world will cling to the present. Nobody’s stepping down from heaven, or Heaven and there are no magic words—but there is a kind of love, a loving with your mouth shut, a kind of radical, earnest, transcendent love that Pynchon evokes, soils, and sanctifies here.