The Magnificent Jumble of Donald Barthelme’s Stories

The Magnificent Jumble of Donald Barthelme’s Stories

Manhattan was the perfect subject for Barthelme’s comic fiction, a source of always-shifting relationships.

Decades after his premature death-in 1989 at the age of 58-Donald Barthelme might be the one indisputably minor American short story writer of the last century who remains a pleasure to read and reread. He focused primarily on surreal, unpredictable short stories that were often good but rarely great. He experimented with form restlessly and surprisingly from one story to another but rarely created anything that hadn’t been seen before in the works of those writers he admired-Samuel Beckett, Arthur Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein, Alain Robbe-Grillet and S.J. Perelman. He could amuse the heck out of readers but rarely made them laugh out loud. And he composed each story as if it were an idiosyncratic fling designed to please nobody but himself.

The Magnificent Jumble of Donald Barthelme’s Stories

At a time when American fiction was growing almost too ambitiously wild and unpredictable-with big, staggeringly imagined works coming from Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, William Gass, and William Gaddis-Barthelme remained true to his smaller, more easily graspable absurdities. He was, in fact, about as wild and wacky as the sometimes unbearably sensible New Yorker ever got. Which is to say-not that wild and wacky at all.

As his biographer and former student Tracey Daugherty recalled, when Barthelme taught creative writing at the University of Houston in the 1980s, he gave his students the following assignment:

Find a copy of John Ashbery’s “Three Poems,” read it, buy a bottle of wine, go home, sit in front of the typewriter, drink the wine, don’t sleep, and produce, by dawn, twelve pages of Ashbery imitation.

The intention was clear-to force his students to stop overthinking and over-managing their work and just let the words flow. These were all hallmarks of the Barthelme “method”-one that served him well enough to produce more than a hundred short stories, five novels, https://bestadultsites.org/es/friendfinder-x-review/ several failed marriages, and countless failed relationships, and a career-long ability to charm readers even when those readers had no idea what he was doing.

Of course, people who develop well-organized methods of “loosening up” are rarely very “loose” to begin with. The premier “de-loosener” in Barthelme’s life was probably his father, a Houston-based architect inspired by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. As Donald’s brothers Frederick and Steven described it in their grueling memoir, Doubling Down, the family home that their father designed was a wild agglomeration of wood and copper siding filled with “elegant Saarinen chairs, the bent birch of Aalto dining tables and chairs, almost every piece of furniture or fabric that Charles and Ray Eames ever designed.” It was the sort of house that would make a young man like Donald into something of a bricoleur, while at the same time teaching him to hate bricoleurs. Another Barthelme brother, Peter, described their father as a “verbal bully,” and it seems as if his imposing presence and intelligence both inspired his many talented children and cast a shadow that none of them ever escaped.

A girlfriend reported attending one of the father’s frequent slide shows in which he deliberately lingered over a photo of Donald’s first wife, just to see how it might affect her. He was continually berating Donald for his avant-garde tastes in art and literature, which probably only made Donald more determined to maintain them. The Barthelme house was such a discordant site in the Houston suburbs that people often stopped their cars and got out to stare, and at one point, the Barthelme family en masse came outside to perform high kicks in a chorus line until the annoying looky-loos drove off home to their boring modular lives. It’s hard not to see the entire Barthelme oeuvre-now canonized in a Library of America edition-as a similar sort of performative jeering at the conformist 1950s in which Barthelme was raised.

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