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.

Question 8: Why is Chapter 51 a Quiz?

February 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Bear v. Shark.

SPECIAL BONUS PREFATORIAL COMMENT: From now on, I’ll be advertising my next book a couple of days before I think I’ll get done with the book I’m reading now, as a service to my ginormous reading public. Something to whet your appetite, maybe even get you to pull the book off your shelf or out of your local library to look it over (if you’ve read it before). All 3 of you, get excited!

So, Reading next: The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron.

But for now, the wacky world of Bear v. Shark.

Today’s class: pop quizzes in postmodern literature. Chapter 51 here, “Discussion Questions,” takes the form of 7 essay questions intended to mimic (but not really) the kinds of things on high-school English tests. And it ends with a long, self- (and literary-) referential, 21-part question in reaction to this quote by Italo Calvino (or so Bachelder says–I haven’t looked it up): “Satire is not the approach [to comedy] that I find most congenial. One component of satire is moralism, and another is mockery. Anyone who plays the moralist thinks he is better than others, whereas anyone who goes in for mockery thinks he is smarter. In any case, satire excludes an attitude of questioning and of questing.”

Now, Bachelder is self-consciously mimicking at least two authors here: Donald Barthelme and DFW. My Barthelme is tragically trapped in boxes right now, so I can’t look this up, but the ever-so-reliable Internet tells me the quiz in his work appears in “Snow White.” (I feel like there’s another one. I could be wrong.) And in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the story “Octet” takes the form of “pop quiz” questions appearing after presentations of moral dilemmas–only it kind of spirals out of control, in DFW’s typically awesome spiralling-out-of-control-but-really-completely-in-control-but-no- seriously-spiralling-out-of-control fashion, and becomes a meta-narrative on a fiction writer debating the merits of trying to be completely honest about and in his work while also engaging the reader and not screwing around with form for screwing around with form’s sake and not just being a dick. It’s a great story. It totally pays off whereas, for an example from the same work, “The Depressed Person” makes you want to off yourself. (I recognize the merits of “TDP,” by the way–it’s a great piece of work–but it is brutal to read. I mean, just hard to put up with. I’d love to reread everything in BIWHM but that.)

Point being, Barthelme pretty much cornered the market on using pop quizzes solely as a formal pyrotechnic–that is, “lookit me, I’m writing a quiz in a work of fiction, inviting my readers to participate and engage with literature in new, exciting ways!” And DFW interrogated the form into bloody chunks, and specifically addressed the fact that the form and his metafictional tricks were neither new nor all that exciting in and of themselves anymore, but had to be put to a purpose, had to have a use. So where does Bachelder get off with using it again, a mere two years after BIWHM? And, especially, where does he get off using the same reflexive devices DFW used–i.e., using the final question to address the questions the reader has probably been asking about him, Bachelder, and his motives–“Aren’t satirists just sentimental and oversensitive cranks who just wish the world were a kinder place…”–and his sources–“Didn’t Barthelme do this quiz stunt back in like 1965 or something?”

Well, here’s the thing: DFW is a master. You come out of a DFW story which has interrogated itself to bloody chunks and you somehow feel that those bloody chunks have been rehabilitated, remade, somehow made whole. Now anyone who’s read him knows DFW goes on too long to furnish any kind of quotable snippet–the man is firmly anti-quotable-snippet, I’m guessing. You will have to take my word for it and please, please read the story for yourself. The thing is, in “Octet,” he (er, the fictional fiction writer–but come on) lays out the reasons for using the form in such interesting ways that you feel, at the end, “Well, yes, it was a very complicated, but very worth it. I’m glad I read this. I’m glad there was this weird quiz-story with a trademark gargantuan footnote acting as the story’s superego.” (Or at least that’s how I feel about it. You really should read it, if only to learn about “The Carson Maneuver.”)

Wow, that took a while. What we’re talking about here, I’m afraid, is rhetoric. The reasons for exposing the tricks as tricks (as Bachelder tries to do here) v. using the tricks in the first place (and my, are there tricks in this book) v. spurning the tricks for a Hemingwayish bare-bones prose (but then that’s a trick, ain’t it?). Bachelder meant his quiz to be read in the refracted light from Don B’s and DFW’s quizzes.  I am guessing he thought his quiz would a) be thought of as mind-blowing and edgy by the kids who hadn’t read DFW or Barthelme yet, especially in that it acknowledges that it isn’t mind-blowing or edgy anymore, b) provide a useful form for critiquing education (“how does this make you feel?” is a recurring phrase in the questions), and c) allow rubes like me, who’ve read DB and DFW and Barth and a whole mess of others, to feel superior and supposedly see through the “layers of jokes,” as he says, and see that he’s using this quiz form because it is so artificial, and so used-up that it comments on our constant need to be entertained by newness especially in avant-garde literature, supposed bastion of non-commercial motives and higher critical faculties, and so it provides a safe place to tell the honest truth as the author sees it about his own motivations and his reason for writing the book.

Wait, there’s more!  I’m going to break this into two parts for both of our sakes.

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