In the world of Magritte and Michaux, which is also the world of Donald Barthelme, the familiar arrives without its usual credentials of expectations raised and satisfied. People and things either lack their usual outlines or else keep them in a frame against which they suddenly appear distorted. Clouds mingle freely with not-clouds. We are neither here nor there.
Barthelme has been here with us for some time now, as his sixty stories, selected from eight books and several magazines, happily indicate. Jackanapes and Jeremiah, he keeps even old readers busy guessing what will happen next, as well as what’s happening now. Say that he has no relation to the real world, and then open the volume at the first story, “Margins.” It’s fantastic enough, about handwriting analysis, yet the conversation of a black man and a white on this ostensibly colorless subject develops more and more vicious assumptions about them until it explodes. Words not only lead to blows, they are blows. Say that Barthelme has no moral standards, and “ethical corollaries” fly about like midges, exasperatingly present if hard to swat. In a way every story is a parable, a parable without a lesson, at least a statable lesson. And all those philosophical worthies—Marcel, Buber, Kierkegaard, Poulet—have only an uncertain standing as he invokes them. They portentously hold up a firmament that doesn’t quite exist, and their grip may be slipping.
One thing Barthelme does guarantee for us is that reality is real, real as a fairy tale. That balloon over lower Manhattan is filled with the helium of myth, and the myth of helium, and can be variously interpreted. But there is no doubt that it is, or was, there: “I met you under the balloon, on the occasion of your return from Norway; you asked if it was mine, I said it was. The balloon, I said, is a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence, and with sexual deprivation, but now that your visit to Bergen has been terminated, it is no longer necessary or appropriate. Removal of the balloon was easy. …” Peterson in “A Shower of Gold” announces, “My mother was a royal virgin, and my father was a shower of gold,” and “although he was, in a sense, lying, in a sense he was not.”
Barthelme’s travelogues also describe countries in which we cannot hope to be naturalized. “This Paraguay is not the Paraguay that exists on our maps. … This Paraguay exists elsewhere.” Paraguayan local customs are marvelous: “Each citizen is given as much art as his system can tolerate.” “Silence is also available in the form of white noise.” “Everyone in Paraguay has the same fingerprints. There are crimes but people chosen at random are punished for them. Everyone is liable for everything.” There is red snow; when the meaning of it is asked, the answer is banal: “Like any other snow, it invites contemplation and walking about in …