Mini-Whoppers

Patrick Parrinder

  • Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme
    Secker, 256 pp, £10.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 436 03424 7
  • Tiny Lies by Kate Pullinger
    Cape, 174 pp, £9.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 224 02560 0
  • Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
    Cape, 146 pp, £9.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 224 02529 5
  • After the War by Frederick Raphael
    Collins, 528 pp, £11.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 00 223352 5

There are not many facts available about Donald Barthelme, at least on this side of the Atlantic. He has been hailed as a leading Post-Modernist, but Post-Modernism (to the extent that it has a credo) stresses the unreliability of facts and the supremacy of fictions. He has also been viewed as a pungent satirist. One thing that can be stated is that Barthelme’s literary career has mostly been pursued in the pages of the New Yorker. For at least twenty-five years his stories and novels have first appeared under the imprint of America’s best-dressed literary magazine.

Nor is this as incongruous as it might sound. Barthelme is never less than a sophisticated entertainer and an elegant stylist. If it seems paradoxical to think of his surrealist fantasies threading their way between the costume-jewellery ads, mail-order announcements and other forms of supreme fiction which keep the New Yorker subsidised, we should think of the great tradition of New Yorker cartoons. These, too, regularly satirise the enterprise culture and register the spiritual emptiness of consumerist values. There are New Yorker captions which would look at home in Barthelme’s dialogue, just as there are lines in his stories which the cartoonists might envy. From the beginning of Forty Stories: ‘My wife has been wanting a dog for a long time. I have had to be the one to tell her that she couldn’t have it. But now the baby wants a dog, my wife says.’

Forty Stories is a retrospective collection, obviously intended to introduce Barthelme’s work to English readers. (Its US equivalent was Sixty Stories.) He is a dedicated experimentalist, so that each story is sui generis and formally different from any of the others. Yet the thought of those cartoonists persists. Barthelme’s more realist stories have much the same cast of over-indulgent husbands, bored couples and cut-throat executives. Then there are the horror tales, of which the one thing one can say with absolute certainty is that they never refer to the more horrific parts of New York City. Instead, they tend to be reports from the suburban battlefront (‘On our street, fourteen garbage cans are now missing ...’) and from the groves of academe. In ‘Porcupines at the University’, a Dean armed with a Gatling gun confronts a vast herd of sinister rodents bearing down on his campus. They look like ‘badly engineered vacuum-cleaner attachments’. The Dean’s wife suggests that they could take Alternate Life-Styles, but the Dean knows that the course is already fully enrolled. The dust-jacket to Forty Stories mentions Pynchon and Beckett, but this is the world of Thurber and Charles Addams.

Barthelme’s more serious intentions were made clear from the start. In ‘Marie, Marie, hold on tight’ (a story not to be found here but in his first book Come back, Dr Caligari) three protestors picket a New York church, in order to demonstrate against the human condition. The title-quotation from The Waste Land seems gratuitous until we realise that there are Eliot references scattered throughout Barthelme’s writings. He is a Post-Modernist in a very literal sense, treating the Modernist inheritance in much the same way as Eliot himself bagged decorative fragments from earlier cultures. The Dead Father, his best-known novel, is a Pop Art resumé of a central theme from Finnegans Wake.

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