American writer who was at the forefront of the reinvention of contemporary American short fiction of the 1970s and 80s. Most famous for his short stories which appeared frequently in the New Yorker, but also several short novels and a children's book.

Barthelme is often compared to Thomas Pynchon or John Barth for the postmodern, freewheeling style of his prose. In a sense his writing is utterly impossible to categorize, because he felt free to disregard virtually every convention of prose writing. One story, "Sentence", is a single run-on sentence without a beginning. Another one, "Concering the Bodyguard", is entirely made up of questions. Several of his stories have large graphics liberally interspersed with the text. One is just a numbered list. Yet all of this should not be taken merely as literary playfulness, but a carefully constructed commentary on the fragmentation of modern life in the best traditions of postmodernism. The Houston Chronicle wrote: "The prose of Donald Barthelme is a classy rag and bone shop of sophisticated prose...a national resource of renewal, a kind of Save the Whale of language up on the beach of mindless overuse and clichés."

Barthelme loved the absurd, and its interaction with language and the way stories are told. His characters frequently find themselves catapulted into the middle of impossible, unbelievable, even surreal situations. In one of his most well-known stories, "Me and Miss Mandible", a grown man finds himself enrolled in a grade school class:

Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates, because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal's office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven't quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I've been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind.

Barthelme's true genius, however, is his ear for people's inner and outer dialogues, whether it be in a conversation, an innner monologue or an entry in a journal. His writing has a way of going directly to the heart of human experience, and part of the joy of reading them is that despite the sometimes absurd situations he creates, they are instantly recognizable. His characters find themselves lost in a fragmented, deconstructed world, assembling bits of meaning and trying to relate to one another. Barthelme draws homo postmodernus as he sees it: confused, defensive, self-aggrandizing, brooding, searching for love, meaning and friendship. But he is always very careful to let the humanity show through the struggle, and the results are sometimes quite touching. The beginning of "Chablis":

My wife wants a dog. She already has a baby. The baby's almost two. My wife says the baby wants the dog.

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. This may be true. The baby is very close to my wife. They go around together all the time, clutching each other tightly. I ask the baby, who is a girl, "Whose girl are you? Are you Daddy's girl?" The baby says, "Momma," and she doesn't just say it once, she says it repeatedly, "Momma momma momma". I don't see why I should buy a hundred-dollar dog for that damn baby.

Those looking for an introduction to his work should pick up a copy of Forty Stories (1987) and Sixty Stories (1982); the latter is a "best of" compilation of his short fiction writing. Also of interest are his novels The Dead Father (1975) and Snow White (1965).

Donald Barthelme died of cancer on July 23, 1989, aged 58, way too soon.

Well, I opened the door. The Doberman came at me raging and snarling and generally carrying on the way he felt was expected of him. I threw him a fifty-five pound reinforced-concrete pork chop which knocked him silly. I spoke to Constanze. We used to walk down the street together bumping our hipbones before God and everybody. I wanted to float in the air again some feeling of that. It didn't work. I'm sorry. But I guess, as the architects say, there's no use crying over spilt marble. She will undoubtedly move on and up and down and around the world, New York, Chicago, and Temple, Texas, making everything considerably better than it was, for short periods of time. We adventured. That's not bad.

Chorus:
Oh Constanze oh Constanze
What you doin' in that se-rag-li-o?
How I miss you
How I miss you

-From "The Abduction from the Seraglio" in Great Days, 1979

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