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