Donald Barthelme’s relationship with the New Yorker began in March 1963 and hasn’t ended yet, more than thirty years after his death. Every so often one of his stories pops up on the magazine’s monthly Fiction Podcast, in which writers are asked to choose a favourite piece from the archive to read and discuss. Many admit that they began their careers trying to emulate Barthelme but soon gave up. ‘He makes you think you can do it,’ Salman Rushdie confided in 2011, ‘and actually you can’t do it.’
Barthelme himself grew up reading and imitating his favourite New Yorker writers, which is one reason he slotted so well into its pages. His heroes were the great humourists of the 1940s, James Thurber and S.J. Perelman, and, like them, he often wrote of beleaguered men who struggle with a world that seems to be ‘sagging, snagging, scaling, spalling, pilling, pinging, pitting, warping, checking, fading, chipping, cracking, yellowing, leaking, stalling, shrinking’. The battle of the ‘little man’ with daily disobligingness is a classic New Yorker trope; the self-generating litany pure Barthelme.
This example comes from ‘Down the Line with the Annual’, a story from 1964 about a couple who turn to consumer reports to anchor themselves when everything else seems to be ‘falling apart at an accelerated rate’. Barthelme directed his satire at ‘coffee mills that adversely affect the flavour of the beverage’ and wristwatches that give ‘no assurance of reliable performance or durable construction’. But the New Yorker advertising department was far from his only target. ‘L’Lapse’, his first piece for the magazine, is a pastiche of the stylised dialogue of Antonioni’s hit movie L’Eclisse, but the joke is less on the filmmaker than on the reviewers, and their strenuous efforts to make sense of it. The protagonists are critics as well as lovers, and Marcello is teaching Anna how to be bored ‘in a certain way. Like brilliantly.’ That means taking his red pencil to phrases such as ‘penetratingly difficult’, but letting ‘eerily symbolic’ survive. (Barthelme’s biographer, Tracy Daugherty, points out that in the same issue as ‘L’Lapse’, a reviewer can be found complaining that West Side Story was ‘inhumanly overproduced’.)
These parodic set-pieces – the New Yorker called them ‘casuals’ – were Barthelme’s way in, but he soon began to submit more bizarre and challenging work: collages constructed from snippets of philosophy, pop culture, literary criticism and political theory, meditations on an extended conceit (a city of churches, say, or porcupines at the university), Q&As, fairy tales, even illustrated pieces. He was determined not to bore anyone, especially himself. Although many at the New Yorker were sceptical that readers could cope with his ‘bottomless et cetera’, Barthelme’s editor, Roger Angell, knew that what kept them coming back was the brilliant unexpectedness of the conceit or assemblage.
The 1950s and 1960s were a great era of collage in all sorts of media: not just Robert Rauschenberg, but also John Ashbery and Bob Dylan. For Barthelme, it wasn’t simply a matter of playing with found forms or language. That was ‘cheapo surrealism’. Instead his stories explore situations (‘The Party’, ‘Brain Damage’, ‘City Life’) that are experienced as collage. In ‘The Indian Uprising’, a story Barthelme described as a ‘response’ to the Vietnam War, a wise woman observes that ‘young people … run to more and more unpleasant combinations as they sense the nature of our society.’ The narrator visits her for advice after trying to ‘defend the city’ from invaders by constructing a barricade out of frying pans, wine bottles, ‘a woven straw wastebasket’, ‘two ashtrays, ceramic, one dark brown and one dark brown with an orange blur at the lip’, ‘a Yugoslavian carved flute’, can-openers, corkscrews and some ‘thoughtfully planned job descriptions’. The impetus to all this is not just satirical; it is a knowingly futile attempt to do on the page what contemporary painters were doing on canvas. A writer could produce a litany of bourgeois detritus, could borrow from various ‘discourses’, but, as the narrator of another story puts it, a painter can simply ‘pick up a Baby Ruth wrapper in the street, glue it to the canvas (in the right place, of course, there’s that), and lo! People crowd about and cry, “A real Baby Ruth wrapper, by God, what could be realer than that!”’ It was a ‘fantastic metaphysical advantage. You hate them, if you’re ambitious.’
Barthelme was certainly raised to be ambitious. Born in Philadelphia in 1931, he grew up in Houston, the eldest of five kids; two of his brothers, Frederick and Steven, also became writers. Their father, Donald Senior, was a prominent and famously uncompromising modernist architect; he once told an interviewer that ‘the customer is never right in architecture.’ In their memoir, Double Down, Steven and Frederick describe him as the hero of a ‘self-created myth’, the great man ‘brought down by them, the venal and stupid people with whom he had to deal’. Nothing was ever quite right, from the family home (‘things were forever changing, being perfected’) to the children in it. ‘To be stupid, to disappoint him, would make us just like them.’ At the same time, the family mode was ‘appearing to be blasé – indifferent, relaxed, casual, unconcerned’.
Barthelme grew up listening to cool jazz and going to the movies, but also attending Catholic school and, from his mid-teens, getting drunk: these things also fed into his fiction. In 1949, he enrolled at the University of Houston, where he spent most of his time writing for and then editing the student newspaper; before he was 21, he had a regular arts column at the Houston Post. When he was drafted and sent to Korea in 1953, he thought he’d been given a terrific literary opportunity – Norman Mailer had launched his career with The Naked and the Dead a few years earlier – but Barthelme’s unit arrived the day the truce was signed. Given a job in the Public Information Office, he had plenty of time to write, and soon reported that ‘THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL is moving forward steadily.’ His letters home noted the growing word count, but although he eventually hit fifty thousand words, he knew they were ‘terribly bad’. That was the end of his own big book ambitions. Nevertheless, as his nine-page ‘Eugénie Grandet’ and even briefer ‘At the Tolstoy Museum’ suggest, big books continued to loom large. Faced with collected works that run to 640,086 pages and a monumental building which ‘suggests that it is about to fall on you’, the narrator of the Tolstoy story wonders if he shouldn’t leave the museum. If he stays, though, ‘something vivifying’ might happen. Barthelme never entirely gave up on the novel. He published four and attempted others, though they ‘always seem to fall apart in my hands’. The most successful is The Dead Father (1975), in which the children of a dead-but-very-much-alive father transport his massive body for burial. In case readers thought they were reading an updated As I Lay Dying, Barthelme interrupts the narrative with a standalone ‘Manual for Sons’, which insists that ‘dead’ is not the right word for fathers: they are like ‘blocks of marble’ that can’t be ‘climbed over’ or ‘slithered past’. Oedipal struggles, personal and literary, were a persistent preoccupation.
On his return from Korea, Barthelme took a job as a speechwriter for the university president, divorced his first wife, remarried, and immersed himself in the Houston arts scene. He was supposed to be completing his degree – he had fallen in love with phenomenology – but there was too much else to do. He founded a university quarterly called Forum, and set about publishing everyone he admired, including Walker Percy, William Gass and the not yet famous Marshall McLuhan. In 1960, he joined the board of Houston’s Contemporary Arts Association and the following year became the museum’s temporary director. He remained there for just over a year. It was a period of extraordinary activity during which the museum hosted off-Broadway productions of Beckett and Albee, a two-week course in painting from Elaine de Kooning, Lightnin’ Hopkins in concert and a festival of poetry featuring Kenneth Koch, W.D. Snodgrass and Robert Bly. Most fun of all, Barthelme organised an exhibition, New American Artefacts: The Ugly Show, which included all sorts of bits and pieces he’d found in junk shops: plastic flowers and fruit, a giant jar of Vaseline, back issues of Reader’s Digest, a tube of denture adhesive, a TV antenna, and several reproductions of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. Following complaints, the stuffed head of a Jesus doll and a plastic US flag had to be removed. He also invited one of his great heroes, the art critic Harold Rosenberg, to give a lecture. Rosenberg was in the process of establishing a new arts magazine, Location, and in 1962 he asked Barthelme to come to New York as its managing editor. Give me thirty minutes to pack, Barthelme replied.
The partnership only lasted for two issues, partly because Barthelme’s writing career took off, and partly because, while he enjoyed clever, boozy lunches with Rosenberg and his co-editor, Tom Hess, he disagreed with their editorial choices. Barthelme didn’t want to curate a ‘love-feast’ to the stars of modernism’s ‘achieved revolution’; he wanted to lead the one in progress. The second issue (Summer 1964) made some progress in that direction, with pieces by Gass and Ashbery, as well as Barthelme’s story ‘For I’m the Boy Whose Only Joy Is Loving You,’ and an essay of his called ‘After Joyce’. The latter is a manifesto of blasting and blessing whose villains include Mary McCarthy, for limiting her ‘medium’ (McLuhan’s word) to the ‘socially minded’ novel, the nouveaux romanciers for being ‘leaden’ and ‘humourless’, and the conventional short story for its devotion to the ‘mousetrap’ capture of ‘a tiny insight typically having to do with innocence violated’. Its heroes are Roy Lichtenstein, whose blown-up comic strips, Barthelme says, ask us to question ‘a society in which these things are seen as art’; Norman O. Brown, for championing eros and play; and, above all, Samuel Beckett. Barthelme’s whole career can be seen as an attempt to find a way of extending Beckett’s ‘comic turn of endless virtuosity’ on the high wire of pessimism.
‘For I’m the Boy’ is both a comic turn and a self-conscious exemplar of the kind of medium-is-the-message art that Barthelme was advocating. It’s the story of a break-up, a situation he would often revisit, and its ‘message’ lies in the collage of styles and tones. It begins at an airport. Martha has ‘elected to fly away’ from her husband, Bloomsbury. Two ‘friends of the family’ drive him home and, in dry-as-dust tones, interrogate him about the marriage. The deadpan is interrupted by glimpses of a semi-surreal landscape (‘Cows flew by the windows in both directions’); flashbacks to Bloomsbury’s life with Martha, relayed as a Joycean stream of consciousness in cod-Irish brogue; and a strange moment in which the actress Tuesday Weld seems to speak to Bloomsbury directly from the movie screen. The friends keep pressing. They don’t just want information, they want him to convey ‘the feel of the event’, and even offer a hundred dollars for the privilege. When Bloomsbury (a good modernist) insists that he can discuss ‘the meaning but not the feeling’ of the experience, they stop the car and beat him with a brandy bottle and tyre iron, ‘until at length the hidden feeling emerged’. With its slapstick violence and high-low cultural mash-up, the story is an introduction to what we now know as postmodernism. It’s also, more specifically, anti-modernist, if we understand modernism as the kind of art that encourages ‘encrustations of interpretation’, as Susan Sontag put it a few months later. Like Sontag, Barthelme wanted his readers to accept ‘not-knowing’ and to ‘feel more’, not less.
Both agreed, too, that the literary text should be considered ‘an object in the world rather than a commentary’ on it. But that didn’t mean it was separate from the world. Rather, as the phenomenologists and Rosenberg insisted, it was the object’s ‘function in a given human environment’ that mattered. A story was ‘like a rock or a refrigerator’, Barthelme said, because he could imagine a reader approaching it, ‘tapping it, shaking it, holding it to his ear to hear the roaring within’; in other words, ‘reconstituting’ it ‘by his active participation’. Many of his stories dramatise, as well as encourage, that kind of participation.
The best known is ‘The Balloon’. The ‘situation’ (as the narrator reluctantly calls it) is simple: for 22 days, a helium-filled ‘concrete particular’ hangs over 45 blocks of Manhattan, its indeterminate colour, ‘rough’ surface and ‘varied motions’ in striking contrast to the ‘flat, hard skin’ of the city’s distinctive grid and, it’s suggested, the ‘rigidly patterned’ lives of its inhabitants. At first, some of them venture interpretations, but the artist-narrator notes approvingly that this soon subsides, because ‘we have learned not to insist on meanings.’ What interests him rather are ‘reactions’: the way people hang lanterns on the balloon’s underside, write messages on its surface, climb onto it from nearby buildings and adjust their days to its shifting shape. In a final, unexpected ‘autobiographical disclosure’, the narrator addresses his lover, who has been away. Now that she’s returned, he says, the balloon can be dismantled and packed off to West Virginia, ‘awaiting some other time of unhappiness, sometime, perhaps, when we are angry with one another’. A piece of public art, the balloon was also an expression of individual desire and loneliness. But balloons do more than swell and heave erotically. They also deflate rapidly, and in this final image Barthelme draws on the short story’s predisposition towards ‘some escape of tension’ even as he mocks it.
Fantasies of heft and public impact recur in many of his stories, but deflation (political, personal, aesthetic) is the usual end point. Thomas Pynchon once described Barthelme’s melancholy as ‘specifically urban’, but it’s also the mood of a particular time and class. His protagonists fret about la vie quotidienne (they use the French) – ‘What made us think that we could escape things like bankruptcy, alcoholism, being disappointed, having children?’ – as well as their feelings of political powerlessness. ‘I make small campaign contributions to the candidate of my choice and turn my irony against the others. But I accomplish nothing. I march, it’s ludicrous.’ In spite of it all, they remain optimistic, even expectant, convinced that ‘opportunities for beginning again’ will appear: ‘There are always openings, if you can find them. There is always something to do.’
Although Barthelme produced more than his fair share of Nixon satires, most of his energy was directed towards literary rather than national politics. An active member of PEN America from the early 1970s, he organised conferences, led protests against library censorship, wrote letters in support of imprisoned foreign writers and an op-ed in support of his Greenwich Village neighbour Grace Paley after she was arrested for protesting on the White House lawn. He liked to think of himself as ‘chipping away … a consistent effort, year in and year out’. This attenuated, not-unhopeful politics aligned with his aesthetic. Between the Scylla of mass commercial culture (in which everyone is given only ‘as much art as his system can tolerate’) and the Charybdis of the modernist fathers, there was nothing to do, he said, but accept a ‘paler, weaker’ belatedness. ‘Minor is as minor does.’ But that had its problems too. As a contracted New Yorker author who was often in debt to the magazine, Barthelme knew he had to keep coming up with fresh ‘distractions’. He wrote admiringly of Rauschenberg’s ability ‘to pull this off, year after year’, without succumbing to ‘mere run-of-the-mill outrageousness’, knowing that he himself didn’t always pull it off. ‘I Bought a Little City’ (1974) is partly a parable about the temptations and dangers of being ‘too imaginative’ for your audience. ‘It suited me fine,’ says the man who bought Galveston, Texas, ‘so I started to change it.’ But the pre-emptive strike didn’t work. By this point, even the New York Times complained that Barthelme’s style had become ‘a mannerism, self-duplicating, an automatic reflex’. He responded by dialling back the jokes. In some stories, he moved closer to a realism of recognisable things and feelings; in others, he abandoned realism altogether for stripped-to-the-bone dialogue. ‘Abstraction’, however, remained ‘a little heaven’ that (unlike Beckett) he couldn’t ‘quite get to’.
Barthelme was always short of money. His books didn’t sell and, although the New Yorker paid well, Roger Angell increasingly turned down his stories. He took on a series of university creative writing jobs and in 1981 joined the faculty at Houston. He impressed his colleagues with his institutional commitment, while privately resenting the role of ‘damn father-figure’ (‘I want to be the baby’). It was a moment of consolidation. He was fifty, with a new wife and a child on the way. Sixty Stories, his own selection of published and unpublished work, had just come out, with a second, Forty Stories, in 1987, taking the curated total to a neat one hundred. His revolution had been achieved, and there was nothing left but valediction. On the one hand, Barthelme welcomed this. He spent a lot of time planning his ‘Postmodernists Dinner’ of 1983, with guests including John Barth, William Gass, John Hawkes, Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis, Robert Coover, Walter Abish and Kurt Vonnegut. Sontag was the only woman writer invited, Pynchon the only writer not to turn up. Vonnegut’s wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, recorded the event for posterity. On the other hand, the final words of ‘January’, the last of the Forty Stories, are those of a theologian who reflects on ‘how little’ he has achieved and wonders if he’s spent ‘35 years of persistence in error’.
Barthelme died in 1989 from throat cancer, exacerbated by his heavy smoking and drinking (‘his only untransformed cliché’, Paley said). He was 58. Since then, he has been ‘rediscovered’ with every new edition of his work. The Teachings of Don B, which brought together his ‘satires, parodies, fables and illustrated stories’, appeared in 1992, followed five years later by Not-Knowing, which did the same for his essays and interviews, and Flying to America, for 45 previously uncollected stories. The early 2000s saw reissues of the ‘sixty’ and ‘forty’ collections, the latter with an introduction by Dave Eggers, who marvelled that such challenging work was once in the mainstream. And now we have the Library of America’s Collected Stories, which, while it doesn’t include what Pynchon called the full ‘Barthelmismo’, recreates the feel of the original short story volumes and confirms once and for all Donald Jr’s status as an unassailable block of marble. Given his concern with questions of literary succession, Barthelme would have enjoyed the different ways contemporary writers climb over or slither round him. David Foster Wallace claimed ‘The Balloon’ made him want to be a writer; Miranda July keeps Flying to America on her bedside table; Jenny Offill returns regularly to ‘Not-Knowing’; and George Saunders has filled the slot for a satirical ‘vaudevillian’ at the New Yorker. In different ways, they are all figuring out what it means to come after Barthelme.
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