Is Donald Barthelme a Pleasure to Feel Guilty About?

November 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Guilty Pleasures, by Donald Barthelme.

Reading next: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.

Don B gets my vote for coolest writer of the century: he’s like the Miles Davis of literature, unassailable in his hipness and his knack for finding the joy in (and audience for) experimentation.  But coolness is not an unalloyed good.  Some prefer warmth, after all.  Or sincerity.  Or finely drawn character.

I love Barthelme, have ever since I first read him in college.  I can’t even hold it against him that he was the New Yorker‘s darling for so long; that’s how much I love him.  I can remember reading “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” and thinking it was the greatest thing ever.  In this collection, we get “And Now Let’s Hear It for the Ed Sullivan Show!”, which is simply a recitation of the events of an episode.  Proto-TV fiction, in other words.  These TV-episode stories are still delightful examinations of how TV was fun and how it was banal (it’s both fun and banal differently now, 40 years down the road, of course).  I love the staccato incantation in “Ed Sullivan,” the flat judgments of the everymannish narrator, and the weirdnesses of people being on camera that it exposes.  (These, of course, are still weird, for all their seeming less weird to us: we are so used to the mannerisms and rhetoric that TV inflicts on us, now.)

But somehow these are less impressive to me, now, though I certainly see them as crucial for American experimental lit’s development.  I love Don B when he’s in pure play mode, especially: when he’s messing around, creating narratives around his collages of old engravings and illustrations, or compiling lists of real and/or imaginary things (“Games Are the Enemies of Beauty, Truth, and Sleep, Amanda Said” is an absolute classic of this type), or when he’s throwing his narrative and/or argument off the rails (or at least onto a sidetrack) just because it pleases him to do so (like the old-style s confusion in “An Hesitation on the Bank of the Delaware”). Is it weird that this is when he seems most important to me — not when he’s being “topical,” or “satirical”?

Mostly I love his mimicry: his perfect synthesis of tone, form, and vocabulary.  His story “That Cosmopolitan Girl,” an extended parody of an ad for Cosmopolitan magazine, is quite funny at first just for its silly exaggeration of the ad’s own rhythms and mannerisms and utter emptiness.  But it stays funny due to phrases like “pure unshirted hell” and its gonzo plot: when it moves beyond satire into surrealism.  He was a perfect sounding board for his time, was Don B.

There’s guilt to be had in the inconsequentiality of so much of his subject matter, I suppose, but Barthelme always seemed to get in at least one sentence that actually made you consider why he was writing what he was writing, or see why he loved what he was doing.  Sometimes he can seem a little too smooth for his own good — all of those seemingly tossed-off New Yorker pieces must have grated on his less fortunate contemporaries.  But hey, people love Kind of Blue for a reason, too.

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