I doubt that Donald Barthelme’s new collection will alter significantly anyone’s perception of this accomplished miniaturist. His admirers can again enjoy the delicacy with which he picks his way through the detritus of our civilization, marvel at the many voices he commands, and renew their appetites for the surreal morsels he serves up. Those who have been less impressed in the past will find yet another occasion to shrug. The one really innovative feature of Great Days is Barthelme’s use, in seven of the pieces, of a staccato dialogue form in which two speakers bounce phrases off one another at high speed; sometimes the phrases answer each other, often they do not. Uninterrupted by narrative or description, the dialogues vibrate at high intensity, achieving a strobe-lit effect that can be pleasurably nerve-wracking. Fortunately, the pieces stop short of a sensory overload.
In “The Crisis,” the dialogue really consists of the juxtaposition of two monologues—one that comments on the progress of a rebellion, another that rambles on inanely, frequently mouthing platitudes.
—What have the rebels captured thus far? One zoo, not our best zoo, and a cemetery. The rebels have entered the cages of the tamer animals and are playing with them, gently.
—Things can get better, and in my opinion will.
—Their Graves Registration procedures are scrupulous—accurate and fair.
—There’s more to it than playing guitars and clapping along. Although that frequently gets people in the mood.
—Their methods are direct, not subtle. Dissolution, leaching, sand-blasting, cracking and melting of fireproof doors, condemnation, water damage, slide presentations, clamps and buckles.
—And scepticism, although absolutely necessary, leads to not very much.
Toward the end of “The Crisis,” the monologues converge slightly. Meanwhile, their incongruities have reflected that quality of twitchy contemporaneity to which Barthelme is so perfectly attuned.
The most ambitious of the dialogues is “The New Music,” in which riffs and flights of language create an extraordinary medley of sound effects that evoke nearly a century of ragtime, blues, and jazz. The two speakers shift voices frequently, but the voice that throbs most insistently is low-down Southern, as in the exchange which summons the image of a powerful, pistol-packing Momma. She makes her appearance after one of the speakers says, “I find the latest music terrific, although I don’t generally speaking care much for the new, qua new. But this new music! It has won from our group the steadiest attention”—a wonderfully priggish introduction to what follows:
—Momma didn’t ‘low no clarinet played in here. Unfortunately.
—Momma didn’t ‘low no clarinet played in here. Made me sad.
—Momma was outside.
—Momma was very outside.
—Sitting there ‘lowing and not-‘lowing. In her old rocking chair.
—’Lowing this, not-‘lowing that.
—Didn’t ‘low oboe.
—Didn’t ‘low gitfiddle. Vibes.
—Rock over your damn foot and bust it, you didn’t pop to when she was ‘lowing and not-‘lowing.
But Momma is also “lost in the Eleusinian mysteries and …