Monday, August 18, 2014

Donald Barthelme, Forty Stories (1987)

Man, I adore Donald Barthelme, and I've read Sixty Stories and all four novels, so why the heck did it take me so long to get to the second omnibus of his short fiction?  I think I must be some kind of asshole.

Regardless, here we go.  It must be said, describing Barthelme's charms is not an easy task.  The ways in which he breaks down story structure, dialogue, character are idiosyncratic, let's say, and his constant restlessness--the urge to always be doing something new, always innovating further--makes him very difficult to pin down.  It must be said, and I will say it freely: there are a fair few Barthelme stories that simply don't work, in which the concept (which may only ever have been wholly apparent to the author himself) is not supported by the execution.  But that's part of the charm, really: you're hacking your way through these literary thickets, and they are consistently wild.  If Barthelme played it safe, if none of his experiments failed, then the ones that work (and there are a lot of them that work!) wouldn't be as spectacular as they are.

I had previously read a small handful of Forty Stories' stories, but never the whole enchilada.  Now, Sixty Stories was published six years prior to Forty, and that means that it was probably one hundred percent totally inevitable that it would be a stronger set.  Is Greatest Hits Volume II EVER as good as Volume I?  That said, there are a lot of gems here.  My favorites: "Concerning the Bodyguard," an elliptical story almost entirely in question form; "Bluebeard," a very funny rendition of (obviously) the Bluebeard story; "The Temptations of St. Anthony," a postmodern take on the story that somewhat reminded me of Buñuel's Simon of the Desert; the wonderfully-titled "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby," a morbidly funny little number with a clear anti-capital-punishment theme; "Lightning," a charming story about a magazine journalist who sets out to interview people have been struck by lightning (and was this influenced by the association-for-people-struck-by-lightning bit in Gravity's Rainbow?  It is a mystery); the hilarious, self-explantorily-titled "Porcupines at the University;" "110 West Sixty-First Street," a surprisingly sensitive portrait of a couple who have lost their young child; and the totally ineffable sweetness of "The Baby."

And YES, there are a number of things that try one's patience.  But, as noted above, that's part of the charm.  Some people grumble a little about these collected Barthelme books, to the effect that putting together a bunch of stories from different parts of his career like this prevents us from properly observing his literary development; there may be some validity to this, but it's never stopped me from being a fan.  The place you want to start is Sixty Stories: read "A Shower of Gold," "Game," "Report," "The Indian Uprising," "Paraguay," "City Life," "A City of Churches," "Daumier," "The School," and "The Emerald;" if those don't make you a fan--well, in one sense, I don't want to go so far as to say "fuck you," but in another, more accurate sense, I totally do.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Gregory pontificated to the effect that...

I read some Barthelme in high school, but got caught up trying to work out what his stories "meant" or symbolized, which I now think is probably not the ideal way to enjoy Barthelme. I should try him again; I really liked "Glass Mountain," I remember that much.

12:00 AM  
Blogger Regular GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

Yeah, if you get too hung up on concrete "meaning" you'll never get anywhere.

1:50 AM  

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