“Repent, Barthelme!” Said the Imperialistas of Realism

Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) sold his first story to New Yorker in 1961. John Updike sold his first to New Yorker in 1954. Donald Barthelme won the National Book Award, for a children's book. John Updike won two National Book Awards, three National Book Critics Awards, and two Pulitzers. Donald Barthelme was a prolific writer of short stories. John Updike is a prolific writer of short stories, novels, verse, criticism and other non-fictions. In one essay, Updike asked where all the Don B. acolytes are now. It's a good question. He also brought it up in an interview at Salon.com when he's asked what will happen to his generation:

“Donald Barthelme? Is he read now, by people of your age...? He's become a curiosity.... There are fads in critical fashion, but a writer at his peril strays too far from realism. Especially in this country, where realism is kind of our thing.”

I happen to be a big fan of both Updike and Barthelme, but in that old-fashioned spirit of devil's advocation, let's call "a writer at his peril strays too far from realism" the attitude of the Imperialistas of Realism. Of course, Updike has not necessarily advocated this attitude of realism-only, but he does recognize it's existence. Non-realism does win awards: if you're an uncivilized savage (i.e. non-American) or you're writing children's books in any non-realistic form. (How do the Imperialistas of Realism respond to people who don’t read fiction because it isn’t real? Oh, the irony.)

Instead, let’s speculate on why Don B. has lodged in Updike’s brain: Don B. was hip in the 60s and 70s. He reinvented language, form, and function. And Updike, well, Updike is a damn fine writer. I own all his collections and a handful of novels. And Rabbit Is Rich deserved all the attention lavished upon it. And yet there’s that Harlequin phenomenon:

You’re the All-American quarterback, the All-American center of the basketball team, the State record holder in the 400m dash, and the most popular clean-cut of all the teachers and the principal... but damn that sass-mouthed class-clown, in the jester suit! How does he get all the babes?

But even now, though Don B. has passed on to the other side of longevity, you still wonder what all the girls--girls of today, tomorrow and the day after--think of him, the idea of him, molding six feet under.

We could also speculate on the reasons why the most interesting thing to happen to Realism--though the Imperialistas are loathe to admit it--happened under the editorial helm of experimentalist Gordon Lish: Raymond Carver and Minimalism. When the Imperialistas found out who was truly responsible, they said, “Always knew them minimals was sour sentences. Carver only got good when he wrote like the rest of us.”

But one thing is certain: the lifeblood and longevity of any empire depends on its flexibility. Hindsight won’t treat too kindly the latter twentieth century’s rigidity of Realism if it doesn’t learn how to adapt in the twenty-first (you mean it ain’t the twentieth no more?). Don B. taught us much about what fiction can do that we promptly forgot because “in this country... realism is our thing.”

Fortunately, we have the texts here with us. The Imperialistas were kind enough not to burn the Pagan Library. Renaissance scholars may again learn and bring us out of the Dark Ages, resurrecting the Barthelme corpus of literature (which is not to say that realism doesn’t have its place in literature; we need not reciprocate with our own brand imperialism. Should the unbelievable occur, you'll find me in a jester suit promoting Realism).


At his Peril: Don B. Shadow-Boxes in a Savage Tongue

Donald Barthelme was no stranger to the world of savage children, making his start in the pulps under various pseudonyms at $500 a pop until the big break in the New Yorker.

Whether Judith Merril, one of Don B.’s first anthologists, noticed him much before 1965 is unknown at present, but that is the date she formally introduced him to the speculative community in the Year’s Best SF gala sans pseudonymous costume: "The Game," is just one of Don B.’s many games. James Sallis later reprinted the story for War Book and Jonathan Lethem for Vintage Book of Amnesia (two titles to help you interpret the story for yourself).

Two men have been underground longer than they were supposed to be: Shotwell--aptly named before we know why aptly named--and the narrator. The narrator is jealous that Shotwell’s playing jacks, alone, and occupies himself, therefore, scratching six thousand words about a baseball bat on the wall. If either acts strangely, they are supposed to shoot one another; if either acts strangely...:

"If he decides I am behaving strangely he will shoot me not with the .45 but with the Beretta. Similarly Shotwell pretends to watch my .45 but he is really watching my hand resting idly atop my attaché case, my hand resting idly atop my attaché case, my hand. My hand resting idly atop my attaché case."

Here we see Don B. trying out technique--a technique that, if the reader isn’t careful, he will dismiss its contribution to the overall theme and get irate at the author for being difficult without pausing to think why, a difficulty that lesser authors might imitate but come up with not art but the surreal for surreality’s sake. The characters are repetitious to make sure accidents don’t happen, but they slip into insanity when they’re forgotten. Like the cold war stand-off, they are antagonists with the power to destroy through their insanity.

Too often readers who don’t understand a thing--like metafiction, like New Wave, like literary experiments--and like to blame their impatience on that thing, claim it means nothing or possibly anything. Perhaps this misperception is due to the well-intentioned definers of the then new fiction like Philip Stevik who anthologized the above story in Anti-Story under the heading “Against Meaning.” Much as I like Jessamyn West’s website, her subtitle misleads as well. It simply isn’t the case. Take the "The Balloon," where Don B. fills us full of his hot air:

"The balloon... the exact location of which I cannot reveal..., expanded... I stopped it... experienced a faint irritation at stopping..., seeing no reason the balloon should not be allowed to expand upward.... But it is wrong to speak of 'situations,' implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension; there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there.... A deliberate lack of finish.... we have had a flood of original ideas in all media, works of singular beauty as well as significant milestones in the history of inflation, but at that moment there was only this balloon.... There were reactions. Some people found the balloon 'interesting.' As a response this seemed inadequate to the immensity of the balloon."

He goes on to elaborate on various failed attempts at interpretation of the balloon. Failed attempts at interpretation? I must have been wrong then, and the Imperialista detractors right. There is no situation, no resolution, no meaning, no escape from tension, no... But hold on. You have to read it with a double-mind: two meanings at once, for Don B. has been lying like a sack of compost, ending:

"on the occasion of your return.... The balloon, I said, is a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence.... it is no longer necessary... is now stored in West Virginia, awaiting some other time of unhappiness, some time, perhaps when we are angry with one another."

T. Coraghessen Boyle is one of those Pen/Faulkner-winning Barthelme acolytes that Updike wondered where they were now. Boyle picked “The School” in You’ve Got to Read This as his favorite since it escalates "--a progression from trees to snakes to fish to mammals--and...presents the author with his biggest dilemma: how to get out [of]... painting himself into a corner."

But my favorite to pick apart--although my true favorites might be "Me and Miss Mandible" and "For I'm the Boy Whose Only Joy Is Loving You"--is the oft-reprinted "Indian Uprising," a story that savagely messes with your sense of reality, among other things:

"We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds. The war clubs clattered on the soft, yellow pavements. There were earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark and the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire. People were trying to understand."

Understand what? This is a regular cowboy-indian showdown, no? The paragraph continues:

"I spoke to Sylvia. 'Do you think this is a good life?' The table held apples, books, long-playing recordes. She looked up. 'No.' "

What a sec. Records? When does this story take place? This is a difficult story, I admit. It took me several reads to figure it out. But I strongly disagree with Ann Charters’ and Donald Hall’s (nonetheless intelligent editors) interpretation of linking it to Vietnam. Although that note may be struck, it is a minor key. Consider that more than one war is taking place here. The narrator describes his camp’s torture of a Comanche, then says (juxtaposition is everything), "I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love. We talked," but the "we" discuss a long-playing record of Gabriel Fauré’s "Dolly," which Sylvia describes her playing it "requires four hands.... [managed by accelerating,] ignoring the time signature."

How many hands was that? How many hands do the "we" have? Yet she plays it alone. How? Sort of how Don B. tells his tale, don’t you think? The joy of Barthelme is in the discovery. I have unveiled only a few of his bag o’ tricks. The rest is up to you.

So what will become of our daring hero Don B., poised over the South American tar pit of realist oblivion? Will he "become a curiosity?" Or will writers one day learn from the one who reinvented the form? Or will all the experimental Americans expatriate themselves to write the stories they want to and allow the Imperialista pool to stagnate? You, dear readers and writers, shall decide his and our fate. Stay tuned....

Caveat Lector: The article’s author is a slut. He often whores with books by Imperialistas and expatriate savages alike. Tonight he dreams of a ménage-a-trois with both Updike and Barthelme: their covers in disarray: creased and well-worn. Mmm, baby. Variety is the spice.

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