Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts
Comanches are invading the city. The hedges along the Blvd Mark Clark have been barbed with wire. “People are trying to understand.” This is “The Indian Uprising,” the finest story in Donald Barthelme’s new collection. There’s fruit on the table, books, and long-playing records. Sylvia, do you think this is a good life? Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts is the third and best of Barthelme’s books, and each of them has seemed unnatural; certainly none speaks. A captured Comanche is tortured. The work of Gabriel Fauré is discussed. The nameless narrator sands a hollow-core door he intends as a table. He has made such a table for each of the women he’s lived with. There’ve been five. So far. Barricades are made of window dummies, job descriptions, wine in demijohns. They are also made of blankets, pillows, cups, plates, ashtrays, flutes. The hospitals have run out of wound dusting powder. Zouaves and cabdrivers are rushed to the river.
This unit was crushed in the afternoon of a day that began with spoons and letters in hallways and under windows where men tasted the history of the heart, coneshaped muscular organ that maintains circulation of the blood.
It is impossible to overpraise such a sentence, and it is characteristic: a dizzying series of swift, smooth modulations, a harmony of discords. “With luck you will survive until matins,” Sylvia says, and then she runs down the Rue Chester Nimitz, uttering shrill cries. Or she runs down George C. Marshall Allée. Or…Miss R. is a school-teacherish type. She naturally appears for no reason. The only form of discourse she likes is the litany. Accordingly, the 7th Cavalry band plays Gabrieli, Boccherini. And…
In addition to the way he tells his stories, Barthelme habitually deals with unnatural apathy and violence—unnatural indeed, but not abnormal; so ordinary, in fact, that although we speak of killing by the countless, of lives indifferent, closed, and empty of any emotion, of cliché and stereospeech, of trademarks and hypocrisy, we speak so repetitiously, so often, so monotonously, that our discourse is purely formal (a litany). The words we hear are travelogues of gossip; they are slogans, social come-ons, ads, and local world announcements; phatic, filling our inner silence, they produce an appearance of communion, the illusion of knowledge. Counterfeit, they purchase jail.
The war is not going well. We’ve used love, wine, cigarettes, and hobbies, in our barricades, to shore against our ruin. Useless. The ghetto’s been infiltered. There’s a squabble in Skinny Wainwright Square. The narrator drinks deeply, and deeply feels the moreso of love. Sometimes the narrator is examining maps; sometimes he’s in bed, tracing scars on the back of his beloved; sometimes he’s pointing proudly to his table; sometimes he is garroting the testicles of an indian. Sometimes…
There are other names in this story: Jane, Block, Kenneth, and Miss R. Miss R., one feels, is not to be trusted. She recommends metal blinds for the windows; she arranges words in lines, in stacks. Perhaps she’s in the pay of the enemy. She also speaks for the author. That’s the trouble: everyone speaks for the author. “Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.” Nevertheless the war is not going well. We try to keep informed, but in the end we know nothing. “You feel nothing,” hectoring Miss R. says.
You are locked in a most savage and terrible ignorance…. You may attend but you must not attend now, you must attend later, a day or a week or an hour, you are making me ill.
But where are the indians by this time? “Dusky warriors padded with their forest tread into the mouth of the mayor.” With helicopters, a great many are killed in the south, but they are mostly children from the north, the east. Like the narrator, we are captured by these Comanches; taken to a white and yellow room. “This is the Clemency Committee,” Miss R. says, for it is she. “Would you remove your belt and shoelaces.” Now as ordered we’ve removed our belts and shoelaces, and we’ve looked.
(rain shattering from a great height the prospects of silence and clear, neat rows of houses in the subdivisions) into their savage black eyes, paint, feathers, beads.
The indians with their forest tread, through one aperture or another, have padded into all of us.
BARTHELME HAS MANAGED to place himself in the center of modern consciousness. Nothing surrealist about him, his dislocations are real, his material quite actual. Radio, television, movies, newspapers, books, magazines, social talk: these supply us with our experience. Rarely do we see trees, go meadowing, or capture crickets in a box. The aim of every media, we are nothing but the little darkening hatch they trace when, narrowly, they cross. Computers begin by discriminating only when they’re told to. Are they ahead that much? since that’s the way we end. At home I rest from throwing pots according to instructions by dipping in some history of the Trojan war; the fête of Vietnam is celebrated on the telly; my daughter’s radio is playing rock—perhaps it’s used cars or Stravinsky; my wife is telling me she loves me, is performing sexercises with a Yoga Monday, has accepted a proposal to be photo’d without clothing, and now wonders if the draft will affect the teaching of Freshman Chemistry. Put end to end like words, my consciousness is a shitty run of category errors and non sequiturs. Putting end to end and next to next is Barthelme’s method, and in Barthelme, blessed method is everything.
In his novel, Snow White, he tells us about the manufacture of buffalo humps.
They are “trash,” and what in fact could be more useless or trashlike? It’s that we want to be on the leading edge of this trash phenomenon, the everted sphere of the future, and that’s why we pay particular attention, too, to those aspects of language that may seem as a model of the trash phenomenon.
Much interest is also shown in “stuffing,” the words which fill the spaces between other words, and have the quality at once of being heavy or sludgy, and of seeming infinite or endless. Later we are told (Barthelme is always instructing the reader) that the seven dwarfs (for the novel is a retelling of the fairy story)
…like books that have a lot of dreck in them, matter which presents itself as not wholly relevant (or indeed, at all relevant) but which, carefully attended to, can supply a kind of “sense” of what is going on. This “sense” is not to be obtained by reading between the lines (for there is nothing there, in those white spaces) but by reading the lines themselves….
Dreck, trash, and stuffing: these are his principal materials. But not altogether. There is war and suffering, love and hope and cruelty. He hopes, he says in the new volume, “these souvenirs will merge into something meaningful.” But first he renders everything as meaningless as it appears to be in ordinary modern life by abolishing distinctions and putting everything in the present. He constructs a single plane of truth, of relevance, of style, of value—a flatland junkyard—since anything dropped in the dreck is dreck, at once, as an uneaten porkchop mislaid in the garbage.
In the second story of this volume, Barthelme imagines that a balloon has been inflated at some point along 14th Street and allowed to expand northward to the Park. Just as, in the novel, there are pages of dim-witted reaction to Snow White’s long black hair, so also in this case:
There was a certain amount of initial argumentation about the “meaning” of the balloon; this subsided because we have learned not to insist on meanings….
Eventually people take park-like walks on it, and children jump from nearby buildings onto it, or climb its sides. The story is fully of spurious facts and faked considerations typical of science-fiction. When the narrator’s girl returns from Bergen, the balloon is deflated and packed off to be stored in West Virginia, its inventor no longer a victim of sexual deprivation, the balloon’s suggested cause.
IF “The Indian Uprising” is a triumph of style, achieving with the most unlikely materials an almost lyrical grace and beauty, “The Balloon” is only charming; and a commercial bit like “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” (a spoof of the English Lord and Elizabeth Taylor lady-magazine interview, and stuffed with syrupy cliché and honeyed contradiction) is simply cheap. Here Barthelme’s method fails, for the idea is to use dreck, not write about it. Another short, properly savage piece, written in bureaucratic engineerese, is a “Report” on a recently developed secret word which, when “pronounced, produces multiple fractures in all living things in an area the size of four football fields.” Another tells of the Police. Band, which is designed to curb disturbances in the streets with its happy, loud arrival. The band is formed. It’s readied; but of course it never musicks. Still another concerns two mysteriously military men who are buried in a bunker. They watch a console and each other; they watch for breakdown, something strange. They do not know for which city their bird is targeted. They watch, and they wait for relief. While we are reading, none comes. Barthelme is often guilty of opportunism of subject (the war, street riots, launching pads, etc.), and to be opportune is to succumb to dreck. Two stories, written in a flat, affected style resembling a nervous tic that’s nonsignificant of nerves, both about cutouts named Edward and Pia, permit the reader to race to the finish ahead of the words, to anticipate effects, and consequently to appreciate a cleverness in the author almost equal to his own.
It was Sunday. Edward went to the bakery and bought bread. Then he bought milk. Then he bought cheese and the Sunday newspapers, which he couldn’t read. (It’s a Swedish newspaper.)
But cleverness is dreck. The cheap joke is dreck. The topical, too, is dreck. Who knows this better than Barthelme, who has the art to make a treasure out of trash, to see out from inside it, the world as it’s faceted by colored jewel-glass. A seriousness about his subject is sometimes wanting. When this obtains, the result is grim, and grimly overwhelming.
People were trying to understand. I spoke to Sylvia. “Do you think this is a good life?” The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. “No.”