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American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction

Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology

by Roland Barthes
Beacon Press

S/Z

by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Miller
Hill and Wang

The Pleasure of the Text

by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Miller
Hill and Wang

The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers

by Joe David Bellamy
University of Illinois Press

Come Back, Dr. Caligari

by Donald Barthelme
Little, Brown, Anchor paperback (paper)

Snow White

by Donald Barthelme
Atheneum, Bantam paperback (paper)

Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

City Life

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Sadness

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Bantam paperback (paper)

Guilty Pleasures

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Dell paperback (paper)

The Dead Father

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Men and Women at Love

by Grace Paley
Viking, NAL paperback (paper)

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

by Grace Paley
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Omensetter’s Luck

by William Gass
NAL

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

by William Gass
Harper and Row

The Floating Opera

by John Barth
Doubleday, revised edition, Bantam paperback (paper)

The End of the Road

by John Barth
Doubleday, revised edition, Bantam paperback (paper)

The Sot-Weed Factor

by John Barth
Doubleday, revised edition, Bantam paperback (paper)

Giles Goat-Boy

by John Barth
Doubleday, Fawcett paperback (paper)

Lost in the Funhouse

by John Barth
Doubleday, Bantam paperback (paper)

Chimera

by John Barth
Random House

V.

by Thomas Pynchon
Lippincott, Bantam paperback (paper)

The Crying of Lot 49

by Thomas Pynchon
Lippincott, Bantam paperback (paper)

Gravity’s Rainbow

by Thomas Pynchon
Viking, Bantam paperback (paper)

The New Novel is close to forty years old. Although forty is young for an American presidential candidate or a Chinese buried egg, it is very old indeed for a literary movement, particularly a French literary movement. But then what, recently, has one heard of the New Novel, whose official vernissage occurred in 1938 with Nathalie Sarraute’s publication of Tropismes? The answer is not much directly from the founders but a good deal indirectly, for, with characteristic torpor, America’s Departments of English have begun slowly, slowly to absorb the stern aesthetics of Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet, not so much through the actual writing of these masters as through their most brilliant interpreter, the witty, meta-camp sign-master and analyst of le degré zéro de l’écriture Roland Barthes, whose amused and amusing saurian face peers like some near-sighted chameleon from the back of a half dozen slim volumes now being laboriously read in Academe.

Barthes has also had a significant (or signifying) effect on a number of American writers, among them Mr. Donald Barthelme. Two years ago Mr. Barthelme was quoted as saying that the only American writers worth reading are John Barth, Grace Paley, William Gass, and Thomas Pynchon.1 Dutifully, I have read all the writers on Mr. Barthelme’s list, and presently I will make my report on a kind of writing that derives from, variously, Gertrude Stein, Joyce, and Beckett; from the American University itself, as fact and metaphor; from Dada, Zero Degree French novelists, and Roland Barthes himself. But, first, a look at M. Barthes.

For over twenty years Barthes has been a fascinating high critic who writes with equal verve about Charlie Chaplin, detergents, Marx, toys, Balzac, structuralism, and semiology. He has also put the theory of the New Novelists rather better than they have themselves, a considerable achievement since it is as theoreticians and not as practitioners that these writers excel. Unlike Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, and Butor, Professor Barthes is much too clever actually to write novels himself, assuming that such things exist, new or old, full of signs or not, with or without sequential narratives. Rather, Barthes has remained a commentator and a theoretician, and he is often pleasurable to read though never blissful, to appropriate his own terminology.

Unlike the weather, theories of the novel tend to travel from east to west. But then, as we have always heard (sometimes from the French themselves), the French mind is addicted to the postulating of elaborate systems in order to explain everything (including the inexplicable), while the Anglo-American mind tends to shy away from unified-field theories. We chart our courses point to point; they sight from the stars. The fact that neither really gets much of anywhere doesn’t mean that we haven’t all had some nice outings over the years.

Nine years ago I wrote an exhaustive and, no doubt, exhausting account of the theory or theories of the French New Novel. Rejected by the American literary paper for which I had written it (subject not all that interesting), I was obliged to publish in England at the CIA’s expense. Things have changed since 1967. Today one can hardly pick up a Serious literary review without noting at least one obligatory reference to Barthes, or look at any list of those novelists currently admired by American English departments without realizing that although none of these writers approaches zero degree, quite a few are on the chilly side. This is not such a bad thing. Twice, by the way, I have used the word “thing” in this paragraph. I grow suspicious, as one ought to be in zero-land, of all things and their shadows, words.

Barthes’s American admirers are particularly fascinated by semiology, a quasi-science of signs first postulated by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics (1916). For some years the school of Paris and its American annex have made much of signs and signification, linguistic and otherwise. Barthes’s Elements of Semiology (1964) is a key work and not easy to understand. It is full of graphs and theorems as well as definitions and puzzles. Fortunately, Susan Sontag provides a useful preface to the American edition of Writing Degree Zero, reminding us that Barthes “simply takes for granted a great deal that we do not.” Zero degree writing is that colorless “white” writing (first defined and named by Sartre in his description of Camus’s L’Etranger). It is a language in which, among other things and no-things, metaphor and anthropomorphizing are eliminated. According to Sontag, Barthes is reasonable enough to admit that this kind of writing is but “one solution to the disintegration of literary language.”

As for semiology or the “science” of signs, Barthes concedes that “this term, sign, which is found in very different vocabularies…is for these very reasons very ambiguous.” He categorizes various uses of the word “from the Gospels to Cybernetics.” I should like to give him a use of the word he seems not to know. The word for “sign” in Sanskrit is “lingam,” which also means “phallus,” the holy emblem of our Lord Shiva.

In S/Z (1970) Barthes took “Sarrasine,” a Balzac short story, and subjected it to a line by line, even a word by word analysis. In the course of this assault, Barthes makes a distinction between what he calls the “readerly text” and the “writerly text” (I am using Mr. Richard Miller’s translation of these phrases). Barthes believes that “the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce…between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and its customer, between its author and its reader. This reader is thereby plunged into a kind of idleness—he is intransitive; he is, in short, serious. Opposite the writerly text, then, is its countervalue, its negative, reactive value: what can be read but not written: the readerly. We call any readerly text a classic text.” Then “the writerly is the novelistic without the novel, poetry without the poem…. But the readerly texts? They are products (and not productions), they make up the mass of our literature. How [to] differentiate this mass once again?”

Barthes believes that this can be done through “interpretation (in the Nietzschean sense of the word).” He has a passion, incidentally, for lizard-like dodges from the direct statement by invoking some great reverberating name as an adjective, causing the reader’s brow to contract. But then the lunges and dodges are pretty much the matter as well as the manner of Barthes’s technique as he goes to work on Balzac’s short story of a man who falls in love with a famous Italian singer who turns out to be not the beautiful woman of his dreams but a castrated Neapolitan boy.

I do not intend to deal with Barthes’s “interpretation” of the text. It is a very elaborate and close reading in a style that seems willfully complicated. I say willfully because the text of itself is a plain and readerly one in no need of this sort of assistance, not that Barthes wants to assist either text or reader. Rather he means to make for his own delectation or bliss a writerly text of his own. I hope that he has succeeded.

Like so many of today’s academic critics, Barthes resorts to formulas, diagrams; the result, no doubt, of teaching in classrooms equipped with blackboards and chalk. Envious of the half-erased theorems—the prestigious signs—of the physicists, English teachers now compete by chalking up theorems and theories of their own, words having failed them yet again.

Fair stood the wind for America. For twenty years from the east have come these thoughts, words, signs. Let us now look and see what our own writers have made of so much exciting heavy weather, particularly the writers Mr. Donald Barthelme has named. Do they show signs of the French Pox?

Two years ago, I had read some of Gass, tried and failed to read Barth and Pynchon. I had never read Mr. Barthelme and I had never heard of Grace Paley. I have now made my way through the collected published works of the listed writers as well as through Mr. Barthelme’s own enormous output. I was greatly helped in my journey through these texts by Mr. Joe David Bellamy’s The New Fiction, a volume containing interviews with most of the principals and their peers.

Over the years I have seen but not read Donald Barthelme’s short stories in The New Yorker. I suppose I was put off by the pictures. Barthelme’s texts are usually decorated with perspective drawings, ominous faces, funny-looking odds and ends. Let the prose do it, I would think severely, and turn the page, looking for S.J. Perelman. I was not aware that I was not reading one who is described in The New Fiction as, “according to Philip Stevick…’the most imitated fictionist in the United States today.’ ” Mr. Stevick is plainly authority to the interviewer, who then gets Barthelme to say a number of intelligent things about the life of a “fictionist” today. Mr. Barthelme tells us that his father was “a ‘modern’ architect.” Incidentally, it is now the fashion to put quotes around any statement or word that might be challenged. This means that the questionable word or statement was not meant literally but ironically or “ironically.” Another way of saying, “Don’t hit me. I didn’t really ‘mean’ it.” As son of a School of Barnstone architect, Barthelme came naturally by those perspective drawings that so annoyed (and still annoy) me. He has worked as an editor and “I enjoy editing and enjoy doing layout-problems of design. I could very cheerfully be a typographer.”

Barthelme’s first book, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, contains short stories written between 1961 and 1964. This was the period during which Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet and Barthes were being translated into English. Although Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel was not translated until 1965, Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropismes was translated in 1963 as were such essential novels as Le Planétarium, Fruits d’or, Jalousie, and Le Voyeur. I note the fact of translation only because Barthelme admits to our common “American lack-of-language.” Most American and English writers know foreign literature only through translation. This is bad enough when it comes to literature but peculiarly dangerous when it comes to theory. One might put the case that without a French education there is no way of comprehending, say, Roland Barthes (Sontag suggests as much). One can only take a piece here, a piece there, relate it to the tradition that one knows, and hope for the best. There is comfort, however, in knowing that the French do not get the point to us either.

The stories in Come Back, Dr. Caligari are fairly random affairs. Barthelme often indulges in a chilling heterosexual camp that is, nevertheless, quite a bit warmer than zero degree centrigrade. There are funny names and cute names. Miss Mandible. Numerous nonsequiturs. Dialogue in the manner not only of Ionesco but of Terry Southern (another Texas master). One can read any number of Barthelme’s lines with a certain low-keyed pleasure. But then silliness stops the eye cold. ” ‘You’re supposed to be curing a ham.’ ‘The ham died,’ she said.” The Marx Brothers could get a big laugh on this exchange because they would already have given us a dozen other gags in as many minutes. Unhappily one small gag on its own shrivels and dies. ” ‘You may not be interested in absurdity,’ she said firmly, ‘but absurdity is interested in you.’ ”

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    I am told that Mr. Barthelme later, sensibly, denied having made such an exclusive pronouncement.

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