Donald Barthelme
Donald Barthelme; drawing by David Levine

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.” The narrator is not content: “It seemed to proclaim itself a mystery but one there was no point in solving—an ongoing low-grade mystery.” Thereupon “We began the descent (into? out of?) Paraguay,” the parentheses offering a riddle of Oedipal complexity.

At moments Barthelme may well be disclosing something of his usually unexpressed point of view. “Fragments are the only forms I trust,” says someone in “See the Moon?” Georges Poulet is quoted on the value of instants in themselves, quite apart from the value of the line which, added together, they compose, in “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning.” A line would presumably signify a sustained and lengthy narrative, with protractedly examined characters, and Barthelme clearly prefers dense brevities instead.

Within these brevities neither sequence nor causation need operate, though no assumptions may be made in advance. Two stories may run side by side, as in “Views of My Father Weeping,” for fathers, like Wallace Stevens’s blackbirds, may be regarded in different lights. As Kevin says in Barthelme’s novel, Snow White, “Everyone wanders around having his own individual perceptions. These, like balls of different colors and shapes and sizes, roll around on the green billiard table of consciousness….” There is room also for indulged miscellany, since, as the narrator in the same novel expresses it, “We 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.” In “The Dolt” the main character composes a story which, his wife complains, has no middle; Barthelme is equally likely to leave out some other element. The world appears to him as disjunctive, and he declines to tidy it up.

It is a secular world. In “On Angels” Barthelme describes the unfortunate effect on these beings of their recognition that God is dead. Uncertain what to do next, they consider being silent, but angels don’t much like silence; they begin to work out five proofs for the existence of chaos, on the theory that this may occupy as many centuries as the attempt to prove the existence of God has done. They also try, since God is not any longer to be adored, adoring each other. But these are “not enough.” On a happier note, Barthelme occasionally refers to what Snow White calls “our essential mutuality, which can never be sundered or torn, or broken apart, dissipated, diluted, corrupted or finally severed, not even by art in its manifold and dreadful guises.” This view is shared by Peterson in “A Shower of Gold”; he may be expressing Barthelme’s own position when he asks, “How can you be alienated without first having been connected?”


One element of mutuality is humor, which ranges in Barthelme from farce and parody to irony. “Me and Miss Mandible” offers a thirty-five-year-old hero who, as the result of a conspiracy, has been obliged to take his oversized, oversexed part among prepubescent pupils in Miss Mandible’s class. The farce here is a little like that in Anstey’s Vice Versa, where a father and son mysteriously change places in a school; but Barthelme works it out with a keen sense of the nuances of child and adult sexualities.

Barthelme delights in parody. Sometimes it is hilariously muted, as in “How I Write My Songs,” where the songwriter displays a complacent humility in explaining his mindless procedures. It can be berserk, as when in “The Indian Uprising,” the captured Comanche, forced to talk by electric wires attached to his testicles, confesses that his name is Gustave Aschenbach. Another character echoes Eliot by saying, “You gave me heroin first a year ago,” and someone else gravely summarizes, “The rest is silence.” Psychoanalysis comes in for its share of parody in “The Sandman.”

But such straightforward examples somewhat belie Barthelme’s ambiguous attitudes. Like the speaker in “The Leap,” he is in many ways “an incorrigibly double-minded man.” The question of irony seems to bother him: in one improbably named story, “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” he refuses to agree with Kierkegaard that Schlegel’s irony is self-vitiating. If one doesn’t always know where to have Barthelme, he would perhaps reply that unresolved opaqueness is one of the principal features of experience.

Another element of mutuality is language, which thrives on the questionable or contingent, and is always on the verge of flicking, with its terrible claw, a red rose into a red nose. Few writers are so adroit in mixing or conjoining dialects, interposing the highfalutin into the low, stylizing speech in a dozen ways, or just mimicking ordinary talk. Some of his most brilliant effects come in stichomythia:

—Did you have a good time?

—The affair ran the usual course. Fever, boredom, trapped.

—Hot, rinse, spin dry.

Yet the amusement Barthelme offers is itself equivocal. Behind the scene, or sometimes in it, is something which, if we stop laughing for a moment, we recognize as terror. Bloomsbury daydreams of an erotic encounter in “For I’m the Boy,” while his friends press him, with growing insistence, to tell them in detail how his marriage broke up; when he refuses, they beat him until he does. “Game” is about two men underground whose job is to watch a console. If certain events take place on it, each must insert his key in the appropriate lock and turn it; each is to shoot the other if the other acts strangely. It’s a game which Kafka might have asked to join.

How are we to feel about the scholarly remark attributed to King Kong in another story: ” ‘Human experience is different in some ways from ape experience,’ he acknowledged, ‘but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like perfumed nights, too.’ ” Perhaps the best example is “A Manual for Sons,” in which every line is funny, and yet the ensemble is dreadful: “Fathers have voices, and each voice has a terribilità of its own. The sound of a father’s voice is various: like film burning, like marble being pulled screaming from the face of a quarry, like the clash of paper clips by night, lime seething in a lime pit, or batsong.” And the sample speeches of fathers that follow are enough to make any child, or reader, quail reminiscently.

Barthelme’s talent is high-pitched and unbending. Someone might say, “Now that we have learned to fly, teach us, respected master, how to walk.” But Barthelme will have nothing to do with mere ambulation, and we, so freshened, ask only that he continue to dip, wheel, and hover.


This Issue

January 21, 1982