In 2009, Donald Barthelme was described as “[...] a dead, twisted branch on the evolutionary tree of American letters” (Lev Grossman for TIME, 2009). That can’t be right. I will grant that his absurdism, his surreal and un-referenced realities can rewrite the level at which a reader is forced to connect to the word, but I almost always see that as a reader’s problem, rather than the writer’s. He wields an ability to poke fun at the weirdness of art while also skewering the blank minded system that supposes to educate students but which does not itself understand the purpose or content of art. In his world, everyday was a hilariously cruel April 1st. Though he found humor in the impossible burdens of artists and teachers, he never apologized for thinking about art, for teaching it, writing about it. He found art essential to a vital culture and believed that teaching students to think about art was the obligation of all teachers everywhere.
Himself a beloved and respected teacher as well as a prolific and celebrated author, Donald Barthelme, whose major works appeared between 1968 and 1990, has been credited with enlarging the contemporary conception of short fiction. Known for innovation in convention and cross-genre works, Barthelme draws disparate ideas together in mosaic to create dimensionally rich stories that comment on personal relationships, politics, economy, art, and existing and theoretical social and psychological constructs. Though Barthelme treats the complex and abstract as subject and form, the detailed imagery of his writing eases even the most complex arrangement of elements into a natural tone, a palpable realism.
In “Sinbad”, one of several stories in the Forty Stories collection that features a pirate motif, the reflections of a self-effacing teacher who is experiencing a professional assignment outside of his usual, comfortable schema are accompanied by the story of a great and grizzled pirate. While the pirate’s story is far-flung in terms of its immediate impact on plot, Sinbad is nonetheless rendered with solid physicality, as when he first appears, shipwrecked and washed ashore half-drowned: “His right hand, marvelous upon the pianoforte, opens and closes. His hide is roasted red, his beard white with crusted salt” (Barthelme 18). While Barthelme is not necessarily writing a story about a pirate—but rather using the pirate as a fulcrum around which the larger story is geared—Sinbad is not cheated of his reality; he is a bedraggled ruffian with an artist’s touch upon the piano, a man of more than fiction and some depth of history. The teacher, in turn sharing his observations concerning the various forces and façades of academic life, is voiced with the same level of descriptive roundness, as when he describes the feeling of addressing a particularly difficult student dynamic: “[…]they turned in their seats and began talking to each other, the air grew loud, it is rather like a cocktail party except that everybody was sitting down […] a waiter came in with drinks on a tray followed by another waiter with water chestnuts wrapped in bacon […]” (21). Though the business of the moment might be drolly ironic, the vividness of the imagery stages itself so that it wins a bit of literalness; such care goes into crafting the scene that it produces meaning that transcends both irony and absolute reality to deliver an emotional merger of the two principle characters experientially—based upon exacting proofs of their shared tenacity in the face of grittily unfavorable conditions, the teacher and the pirate voyage on.
The narrator of “Bluebeard”, another story with a pirate motif, is related from the point of view of the old pirate’s seventh wife. Here, a series of surreal circumstances and details are related with the faithful fullness of a competent and observant narrator; the young wife depicts her piratical husband, his secretive demands, and her dalliances with equal exactitude—her meeting with Pancho Villa reads with the certainty of a deposition: “[…] Pancho Villa […] was indeed in Paris […] but I had little contact with him and certainly not yet his lover although he had pressed my breasts and tried to insinuate his hand underneath my skirt at the meeting of 23 July at my aunt Thérèse Perrault’s house in the Sixteenth […]” (85). Though the situation is incalculably strange, her recapitulation rings with rational detail and clear imagery, qualities accustomed to realistic portrayal and thus evocative of that familiar sense of the real. So specifically does Barthelme draw her that even in unlikely scenes in which she imagines driving over Bluebeard’s palace rose bushes in an early model Daimler in order to assuage her husband’s ego (83), the story projects her shrewdness and her husband’s myopic tyranny equally as soundly as the bizarre parade of its impossible hosts.
By the end of her story, the complexity of the wife’s efforts to avoid her husband’s wrath is a legible path through unusual terrain. Eventually, it is revealed that Bluebird’s most secret possessions are seven decayed zebra carcasses dressed in designer evening gowns, hanging from meat hooks (87). The scene in which this image is revealed is steeply surreal, but the narrator’s anticipation and then her reaction seem perfectly emotionally sound: “My husband appeared at my side, ‘Jolly, don’t you think?’ he said, and I said, ‘Yes, jolly,’ fainting with rage and disappointment….” (87). Juggling a reasonable fear of his unpredictable wrath and the disappointment of discovering his ridiculous and idiotic perversion strikes her with a sense of futility that surmounts the oddity of the picture she has so clearly presented and makes her a woman, again of this world, who has lost her own interests in the shadow of circumstances.
Barthelme’s work is surreal, but his voice is comfortable, brimming with humor. In the strangest turns and most outlandish environs, he is able to calmly look about and capture with precise pitch of these odd worlds as he unfolds them. This combination of the unreal and the exact, the fantastical and the precise works to create a transcendent sense in which Barthelme can play in relaxed fashion with almost any subject of any depth, and strangeness and normalcy alike are characterized in the company, shaped in the shadows, scrutinized in the details.
Barthelme, Donald. Forty Stories. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, USA, 1987.