In August 1968 The New Yorker published Donald Barthelme’s short story “Eugénie Grandet,” a two-page absurdist parody of Balzac’s 1833 novel about a wealthy provincial miser’s only child and her tragic efforts to defy him. A bit like Borges in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Barthelme takes a hefty canonical text and runs it through his particle accelerator of an imagination. All that remains of Balzac’s intricate psychological drama is a series of faux-naïf fragments. One of them is a quotation from The Thesaurus of Book Digests summarizing the novel’s plot; another the single sentence, “A great many people are interested in the question: Who will obtain Eugénie Grandet’s hand?”; another the word “butter” repeated 113 times. By condensing Balzac’s opus to a few paragraphs, Barthelme was having a laugh not just at his predecessor’s genteel circumlocution—his tendency to describe buildings and manufacturing procedures and family trees in lavish detail—but also at the conventions of novelistic mimesis itself. Dialogue, character development, the illusion of a frictionless causal continuity between one scene and the next: more than a century after the zenith of realism, Barthelme seemed to be asking, Weren’t we all getting a little old for this kind of thing?
Barthelme makes a brief appearance in Jenny Offill’s widely beloved second novel, Dept. of Speculation (2014), when its narrator, a promising young writer whose creative ambitions have been interrupted by the exigencies of motherhood, recalls the following exchange:
A student asked Donald Barthelme how he might become a better writer. Barthelme advised him to read through the whole history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics up through the modern-day thinkers. The student wondered how he could possibly do this. “You’re probably wasting time on things like eating and sleeping,” Barthelme said. “Cease that, and read all of philosophy and all of literature.” Also art, he amended. Also politics.
Like Barthelme, Offill is a writer who has read widely and intelligently enough to understand just how much the contemporary reader can do without (and how little time he has to spare). At less than 180 pages, Dept. of Speculation is the result of an inspired demolition job. After spending years on a longer, more traditional novel that refused to come together, Offill stopped trying to force it; instead, she wrote out what she considered the best bits on index cards, then shuffled them around until she arrived at something she was happy with. The streamlined version, made up of elliptical yet propulsive fragments, many of them no more than a sentence long, tells the story of a marital crisis with the efficiency of a comic strip. Suggestive snippets of dialogue and description are juxtaposed with surreal factoids and literary quotes; Offill trusts the reader will know how to put these pieces together.
The index-card approach wasn’t simply a way out of a…
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