Donald Bartheleme: The Modernist Uprising
by John Domini

Published in Southwest Review, Vol. 75., No. 1, Winter 1990.
Copyright John Domini; appears with permission.

"Barthelme has managed to place himself," William Gass once declared, "in the center of modern consciousness." Gass of course meant "modern" in the sense of "up to the minute;" he was praising Donald Barthelme for what always strikes one first about this author's highly imaginative and wickedly ironic fiction, namely, its freewheeling use of contemporary culture in all its kitschy largesse. The majority of his closer critics -- Tony Tanner, Wayne B. Stengel, and Larry McCaffery, to name three -- have since seconded Gass's judgment, emphasising what that early reviewer called the author's "need for the new." In general the criticism has stressed how Barthelme revels in the dreck of contemporary culture -- how he delights in our brokeback and hopelessly modish contemporary language -- using the very elements of a civilization mad for superficial values in order to deride it. Robert A. Morace praises the author's "critique of the reductive linguistic democracy of the contemporary American mass culture," (in Critique), and Larry McCaffery adds: "Barthelme's stories can thus be viewed as allegorical presentations of the writer attempting to make fictions in an age of literary and linguistic suspicion" (in The Journal of Aesthetic Education). By now the point has been developed at book length more than once, perhaps best by Stengel's The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme.

Yet Gass had the original insight some twenty years ago. His essay, "The Leading Edge of the Trash Phenomenon," was a review of Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, a collection published in1968. More to the point, what he had to say pertained to work that must be counted as three Barthelme styles ago. The complexly written and showily strange prose of that book and the previous two (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964, and Snow White, 1966) was supplanted by the simpler address and less rococco imaginings of City Life (1970) and Sadness (1972), a simplification reflected in the differences between the later titles and the earlier. Indeed the directness of the writing and the explosive abruptness of the visions may make the two early-'70s collections the peak of Barthelme's career to date. But the writer has since moved on, first to the dialog format originally explored in his novel The Dead Father (1975) and dominant in his 1979 collection Great Days. These dialogs, often between nameless protagonists, and never between anything remotely like two developed characters, carry the stories further from the satisfactions of narrative than ever before -- indeed, further than in the decade since. His 1981 career retrospective, 60 Stories, offers occasional revisions of his earlier work, and those revisions, though slight, without exception smooth out the prose and clarify story purpose. His latest efforts demonstrate an amalgam of previous styles, most effective in the scrupulously arranged Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983), but his 1986 novel Paradise is by and large a return to accessibility (to hearty sexuality, for that matter) and to storyline.

This brief overview of his career and its changes, then, indicates that Barthelme's "modern consciousness" is in fact chameleonic, and by no means limited to the cultural choices or linguistic bricabrac of any one period. On closer examination -- in Sixty Stories, which stands as the authoritative edition -- the contemporeana in the texts seems even less reportage, more art. In the best of Barthelme's dialog-stories, "The New Music," for instance, the partners in the colloquoy start by discussing the question, What did you do today?

-- Talked to Happy on the telephone saw the 7 o'clock news did not wash the dishes want to clean up some of this mess? (Sixty Stories, p. 337)

All nicely late-Twentieth-Century. But the second speaker replies:

-- If one does nothing but listen to the new music, everything else drifts, goes away, frays. Did Odysseus feel this way when he and Diomedes decided to steal Athene's statue from the Trojans, so that they would become dejected and lose the war? I don't think so, but who is to know what effect the new music of that remote time had on its hearers?

The exchange continues likewise contrapuntally:

-- Or how it compares to the new music of this time?
-- One can only conjecture. (p. 337)

Clearly "The New Music" is concerned with more than just what we did today. Yet it seems a likely "conjecture" that the story refers not only to Homeric poetry, and to all that its ancient music implies of death and renewal in eternal cycles, but also to an artistic movement much closer to our own time. Barthelme refers, that is, to a central work of 20th-century Modernism, itself inspired in part by the Greek classics. In the 1979 story, the two speakers spend most of their time discussing their mother, who has recently died. They speak of her familiarly but edgily; they dwell on her repressiveness -- on all the things "Momma didn't 'low" -- and yet insofar as two faceless voices can show emotion, these two show us something very like guilt ("Yes, I remember Momma, jerking the old nervous system about with her electric diktats" [p. 343]). Thus with the early references to Odysseus, and with the characters' ambivalence about hidebound but much-missed Momma, a quiet pattern of allusion emerges. Elsewhere one of the men describes a lit-up theater as "glowing like a coal against the hubris of the city" (p. 340) -- a faint but clear echo of Stephen Dedalus, characterizing the moment of catharsis or epiphany (and himself borrowing from Shelley): that moment when "the mind is like a fading coal." Yet another Joycean note is sounded when the two speakers discuss a rather grotesque cemetery, one in which the recorded voices of the dead are played from their graves. Yet this boneyard has been imagined before, by Leopold Bloom at Paddy Dignam's funeral. As Bloom puts it, early on in Ulysses: "Have a gramaphone at every grave or keep in the house." Talking graves, reinforcing a son's unquiet guilt over a dead mother -- we have heard this music before as well.

The references are often this subtle. Yet though he may be quiet about it, Barthelme repeatedly complements his up-to-dateness by similar allusive games, rooted in literary history. The glances backwards are not to Joyce exclusively, but nearly always to the great Irish author's peers: to the European Modernist movement of the first third of the century.

Undeniably there's a good deal else going on in his work. As John Barth has suggested, literary conventions may wear out, but the best artists in any mode remain inexhaustible. Yet despite the increasing critical attention given his fiction, Barthelme's reliance on the Modernists -- his "modern consciousness" of another sort -- remains largely undiscussed. Now and again, writers have noted the more obvious references. Even Gore Vidal makes mention of one, as part of his well-known attack on Barthelme and his peers ("American Plastic," from Matters of Fact and Fiction). But no one I've read has seen just how pervasive the allusions are. No one has seen that they operate in stories from every stage of his career, or seen, especially, how the Modernist canon provides emotional resonance and internal coherence for "The Indian Uprising," the 1968 story that may still rank as his greatest. Finally, his echoes from the first third of this century inform the larger purposes of his work, and help define his place in contemporary letters.

* * *

In one of the earliest stories, "For I'm the Boy," the author refers more or less explicitly to three Modernist masters. Their purpose, too, seems fairly clear. Barthelme wishes to enhance the drama's essential reticence: to increase -- though sportively -- what it costs his main character when he has to put his high feelings into words. The story takes place during a drive back from an airport. There the protagonist, Bloomsbury, has bid goodbye once and for all to his ex-wife, Martha. These names alone call to mind a major author and primary text of the earlier period, specifically, Virginia Woolf and Ulysses again (indeed, coincidentally or not, in Joyce' novel Bloom exchanges dirty letters with a woman named Martha). And two "friends of the family" are along for Bloomsbury's farewell trip. In the course of the tale's eight pages these friends grill the protagonist more and more closely about how he's feeling. "I may not know about marriage," one says, "but I know about words" (Sixty Stories, p. 41). Meanwhile Bloomsbury suffers flashbacks to the growing coldness between his wife and him, and to his adultery. These flashbacks are done in a shameless parody of Irish brogue, lightly demonstrating the impoverishment of storytelling. Even a race that once lived by blarney is now subject to withering irony:

Ah Martha coom now to bed there's a darlin' gul. Hump off blatherer I've no yet read me Mallarm=E9 for this evenin'. Ooo Martha dear canna we nooo let the dear lad rest this night? when the telly's already shut doon an' th' man o' the hoose 'as a 'ard on? ...Martha dear where is yer love for me that we talked about in 19 and 38? in the cemetery by the sea? (pp. 37-38)

Thus murmurs of Valery -- disciple of Mallarm=E9, author of the signal Modernist poem, "A Cemetery By the Sea" -- are added to the Joycean echos and the blush of Woolf. Soon after the flashbacks begin, it becomes clear that Bloomsbury's "friends," themselves both separated, expect their companion to share his pain with them. They treat it as their due, they all but demand he open up. "So now...," one friend declares, "give us the feeling" (p. 42). Stranger still, Bloomsbury has actually invited these two along, in part to armor himself for the leavetaking, but also -- so it begins to seem -- as if he wanted their interrogation, their drawing him out. The friends' avidity about seeing Bloomsbury's bruises is a low emotion but certainly familiar. Bloomsbury's own motives however are more complex, rather like an urge to give penance. At story's end Barthelme delivers just such a ritual cleansing, with typical startling exaggeration. The friends stop the car and work Bloomsbury over, "first with the brandy bottle, then with the tire iron, until at length the hidden feeling emerged, in the form of salt from his eyes and black blood from his ears, and from his mouth, all sorts of words" (p. 43).

In this story the Modern canon, for all the author's jovialty, functions nonetheless as a part of the characters' emotional blockage. Even the Woolf reference, though of tertiary relevance, makes the protagonist seem stuffy, on a last-name basis -- more aloof than is good for him. And the wife chooses Mallarm=E9 ahead of making love, and our Bloom's Irish Rose now lies buried in cemetery by the sea. The piece may be said to cut these mighty works down to size, as part of a young author's gamely joshing struggle with the tyranny of a previous literary generation; in the story's original version (in Come Back, Dr. Caligari), Barthelme toyed with Joyce and Valery even more extensively. The Moderns, like poor Bloomsbury, at times rized intricate games or rules of decorum over "the hidden feeling."

The great period of City Life and Sadness produced several stories with Modernist underpinnings. Rather than rummage through several sample references, however, it may be more useful here to point out that this author, a former gallery critic, provides references to the period in all the arts. The title story from the first of these two collections, for instance, features a trombone player named Hector Guimard -- not coincidentally, the architect who designed the flowery lamps and Metro stops of fin de si=E9cle Paris. Likewise Barthelme's own work is shoved towards the visual. He has claimed in more than one interview that "Bone Bubbles," from City Life, is his own addition to the verbal-plastic experiments of Gertrude Stein. And these two books are the only ones in which his more serious collage stories appear (the picture-pieces in his 1974 omnibus, Guilty Pleasures, are intended solely for laughs). These intriguing hybrids feature reproductions of etchings and woodcuts, generally 19th-century and earlier, alongside whatever drama the author has imagined as a companion. The most provocative was "Brain Damage," also from City Life; one wonders why Barthelme didn't include it among the few collages he selected for Forty Stories, in 1987.

But in "Daumier," the last piece in Sadness, the references are again literary, again to Valery, and merit closer examination. The story, as Daumier himself cheerfully admits, "maunders;" our narrator wanders into and out of the surreally cowboyish adventures of his imaginary "surrogate," a creature also named Daumier. The purpose is somehow to "distract," somehow to "slay and bother. . . the original, authentic self, which is a dirty great villian" (p. 214). Along the way, the twinned Daumier dramas are saturated with French art and literature, from the eponymous cartoonist and painter to the cracked Dumas plot in which the puppet-self frolics. So this heady surrogate, designed to free us from self-consciousness, soon comes to suggest another such stand-in made for the same reason, namely, M. Teste.

One recalls that Valery (in discussing Mallarm=E9), claimed that the contemplation of the self was the root of alienation. Moreover, self-absorption and the subsequent loss of contact with others seemed to Valery a vexing and paradoxical offshoot of his love for literature, because any thoughts of self first arise from reading, and yet thereafter leave a reader alienated even from his books, lost in solipsism. This conviction led the author to create his M. Teste, at once a paradigm of pure thought and a proof of thought's helplessness. And Barthelme, replacing Valery's complex and high-flown prose with plain Americanese, has his Daumier create a second surrogate for an interesting reason: "Two are necessary," he explains, "so that no individual surrogate gets the big head" (p. 226). Indeed. Daumier's second dybbuk, moreover, sounds very much like the original Big Head: "I see him as a quiet, thoughtful chap who leads a contemplative-type life" (p. 226). A single page-long paragraph then gives this surrogate its "trial run" -- and provides this maundering tale with its essential declarations: "There are always openings, if you can find them. There is always something to do" (p. 227). The sentences are repeated at the story's close. Here Valery functions differently, substantially so, than he and his peers did in "For I'm the Boy." The invention of a new Teste-ing device offers escape, discovery, possibility. At one point "Daumier" lightly filches the =46rench poet's most famous opening, "The Marquise went out at five o'clock,= " and the result is a small festival of city life:


I left Amelia's place and entered the October afternoon. . . . [S]ome amount of sunglow still warmed the cunning-wrought cobbles of the street. Many citizens both male and female were hurrying hither and thither on errands of importance, each agitato step compromising slightly the sheen of the gray fine-troweled sidewalk. Immature citizens in several sizes. . . were engaged in ludic agon with basketballs, the same being hurled against passing vehicles producing an unpredictable rebound. (p. 217)

Here for once the language is toney enough, the insight elaborate enough, to suggest the Gallic. Yet it's Gallic "ludic agon," Gallic play, that Barthelme emphasises. One recalls too -- since in this passage the narrator is leaving the apartment of his lover -- that M. Teste had a wife, a woman indispensable to him despite all his ratiocinations. This wife had a humanizing effect on Valery's surrogate, an effect neatly summarized by Edmund Wilson, who explains in Axel's Castle that the husband would come to Madame Teste "with relief, appetite, and surprise" -- and Madame's first name was Emilie, a close enough approximation of Daumier's Amelia. This woman's amorous ameliorative attentions provide Barthelme's narrator with own his best reliefs and surprises.

Since Sadness the Modernist play has continued. The Dead Father, a grim and skeletal exercise, succeeds best in those sections that snitch a whiskey or two from Finnegans Wake. "A Manual for Sons," the book-within-the-book, slips in and out of colloquial voices, Biblical voices, and essay rhetoric; it equates the Oedipal urge finally with the Wake's central theme, original sin: "There is one jealousy that is useful and important, the original jealousy" (p. 270; "A Manual" is reprinted Sixty Stories). Likewise the author of "A Manual" has a name with several working parts, Peter Scatterpatter, and towards the novel's end we enter the mind of the soon-to-be-dead father, where the stream of consciousness is choked by weedy Wakeish punning. Then four years after Dead Father, "The New Music" offered its syncopation of Greek mythology and Joycean mother-worship. As for Barthelme's most recent major work, the excellent novel Paradise, while the book certainly has Modernist references, in scope and direction it offers a break from the shadows of the century's first third. As such, its consideration may wait till after we are done with "The Indian Uprising."

William Gass judged this story the best in its collection, thus granting an imprimatur of sorts. The piece is probably Barthelme's most widely anthologized, and it's often discussed in the criticism. Stengel uses the story as a cornerstone of his concluding insights, and Frederick Karl, in his mammoth American Fictions: 1940-1980, devotes as much space to "Uprising" as to novels many times its length. In its density, its speed ("I accelerate," a character explains near the start, "and ignore the time signature" [p. 109]), and its tragic yet open-ended resolution, the story stands out in this author's madcap but generally looser oeuvre.

At some level at least the story is indeed about an Indian uprising, a Commanche attack on a late-Twentieth-Century city. By means of this comic juxtaposition Barthelme surreally fixes the story's moment, the Vietnam era, when the urban chic were fascinated particularly with the primitive and disenfranchised. But from the start he enriches this understanding of the society -- of the new and now -- by using the same native assault as a metaphor for an affair that's breaking up.

"The sickness of the quarrel," the narrator confesses, "lay thick in the bed" (p. 114). Our protagonist is older than his beloved, more experienced in romance, but his girlfriend is a willful youngster, an Indian sympathizer. She affects bear-claw necklaces and has a apt name: Sylvia. The uprising in other words both refers to an outbreak in the culture, a time when passionate young women strung themselves in sylvan finery, and also suggests a rise of a more intimate kind -- stiff and engorged with need -- in the love-bed. In the process Barthelme, subtly but with accumulative clout, opposes two views of the good life. He sets the romantic, artistic sensibility, forever on the point of battle or breakdown, against the stodgy but more livable quietude that most of us eventually settle for. All this is done in frantic collage. The protagonist expresses now the romantic view, now the domestic, and in the same way he functions at times as the narrator, and at other times as just another benumbed reader of the latest bulletin from the front. Barthelme may change tone or subject in mid-sentence, folding together B-movie cliches ("And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love" [p. 108]) and anguished poetic effects. With these thematic elements in mind -- a diseased and self-devouring social order; an affair between an older man and a freer spirit; and the struggle between dangerous self-expression and unsatisfying sanity -- one thinks soon enough of the early T.S. Eliot. And so, the story's opening lines: "We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Commanches came in clouds. The war clubs of the Commanches clattered on the soft, yellow pavement" (p. 108). Prufrock's yellow fog, turned deadly. Note too that this time the seepage separates at once into the story's two opposed ideologies: the clouds freeflying yet dangerous, the pavement restful yet cloying.

Prufrock is trapped by the cups, the marmelade, the tea, by "the dooryards and the sprinkled streets." In Barthelme's city the streets are sprinkled more dangerously -- hedgehogged with barricades. But these fortifications, described early in the story, contain precisely the sort of thing Eliot's narrator complains about. Here one finds cups and plates, can openers and ashtrays, empty bottles of scotch, wine, cognac, vodka, gin. . . (though it's not a Modernist reference, one thinks as well of the drinker's slang, "dead soldiers"). In his 1981 Paris Review interview, Barthelme has described this passage about the barricade as "an archeological slice," but the digging here is not simply into Vietnam-era arcana. It's a strip of the narrator's own past, the detritus of his own bereft living room perhaps -- his own nerves, as Prufrock would have it, thrown in patterns on a screen. And yet the barricade is archeology, it takes in the culture at large, and the story never stops shuttling between private trash and the trashing of a society. Thus the most explicit echo of Prufrock fuses the narrator's biological decay with that of his town:

There was a sort of muck running in the gutters, yellowish filthy stream suggesting excrement or nervousness, a city that does not know what it has done to deserve baldness, errors, infidelity (p. 110).

It is not only the narrator's hair that is growing thin, but the tissue of lies by which his city convinces itself that the life it has is worthwhile. With these mournful catalogues, Barthelme is doing precisely what most critics say he is: he's calling attention to the stink that our mass culture prefers to ignore. He's a Jeremiah, brandishing plastic instead of prophecy. But in this case he lays on the post-Modern cool not by means of New- &-Improved media babble, but rather by acknowledging that another complainant was there first. In the same paragraph, his desire for the girl is chilled by still more Prufrockian trash -- including some bits and pieces very like the erections of his adversaries:

But it is you I want now, here in the middle of this Uprising, with the streets yellow and threatening, short, ugly lances with fur at the throat [clearly these invaders have the narrator outnumbered] and inexplicable shell money lying in the grass.

"Son of man,/ You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images. . . ." So The Waste Land (itself echoing another angry prophet, Ezekiel) comes to have a place in this Uprising as well, as a compatibly heartsore investigation of urban diaspora. References to Eliot's second great work are as lightly handled as those to "Prufrock," but they squeeze self and society into still more savage shapes.

Hurt by Sylvia's change of heart, about mid-story the narrator goes to a "teacher" named Miss R., yet the only help she can give him is the same reproof as the queenly Chess Player of Waste Land II: "You know nothing," Miss R. declares, "you feel nothing, you are locked in a most savage and terrible ignorance. . ." (p. 110). And as love turns to insults, gestures of oppression are confused with those of love. When the people of the city's ghetto join the Commanche attack instead of resisting, the narrator's forces make two wildly disparate defenses. "We sent more heroin into the ghetto," he explains, "and hyacinths, ordering another hundred thousand of the pale, delicate flowers" (p. 110). Here again the political and personal collide. The passage condenses widely-held assumptions of late-'60s urban studies -- namely, that those in the black ghetto were the natural allies of revolution, and that therefore the white power structure looked the other way when ghettoites fell prey to drugs -- and in so doing combines those assumptions with the love-gift in Waste Land's "Burial of the Dead:" "`You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;/ They called me the hyacinth girl.'" The lovers' attempt at a reconciliation, immediately following, comes off likewise folded and spindled. The narrator points to the section of the battle map held by the Commanches -- by those with whom his own hyacinth girl sides -- and he says, "Your parts are green" (p. 110). That is, punning on the color, he acknowledges Sylvia's youth and relative sexual inexperience (his own parts, not insignificantly, are blue). Her reply? "You gave me heroin first a year ago!" (p. 110) In the wasteland of an unbalanced love, even gentle gestures make us think only of power politics.

The Commanches' ultimate triumph combines both poems, adding to the narrator's loss the resonances of those twinned deaths by water. At story's end, the blue player is taken before the Clemency Committee, whose spokesperson is the ambiguous Miss R. -- a triumph of the mermaid, as in "Prufrock," or of the witch, as in Waste Land. Facing her, Barthelme's lover also confronts a strange double vision. Outside he sees "rain shattering from a great height the prospects of silence and clear, neat rows of houses in the subdivisions" (p. 114); inside, he sees only "their savage black eyes, paint, feathers, beads" (p. 114). One recalls of course the apocalyptic rainstorm that ends The Waste Land. "Prufrock" however seems here inverted, for Eliot's man drowns in the waters of a repressive society, very like those neat rows of houses visble outside the Committee Room. Barthelme's narrator, on the other hand, glimpses those houses as a "prospect," something to be longed for when confronted with the painted savagery that his love affair has become.

Such a domestic yearning is rare in this writer's work, which (like his Daumier) generally strives to create new possibilities. Yet this momentary yen for the hearth is part of what makes "Uprising" a cultural benchmark, and at the same time spiritual kin to early Eliot. Naked before the Clemency Committee, Barthelme's story confronts its essential duality: freedom versus government, passion versus clarity. Miss R. may be Miss Reality, demanding that all lovers face up -- though the suggestion of misery certainly seems pertinent as well. Understood in this way, the story's close doesn't invert Prufrock's tragedy but rather carries it forward forty years. As in the poem, Barthelme's narrator must balance private desires against public uproar. In both cases, a man's uprising comes to nothing, powerless against what the story describes as the world's "rushing, ribald whole" (p. 113). Or consider the first word Sylvia speaks, in the opening paragraph. The narrator puts the question that underlies Prufrock's meditations, and that drives every wanderer in The Waste Land: "Is this a good life?" (p. 108) The girl responds: "No."

* * *

So much for smaller samples, a few exemplary instances of allusion at work. What does this detail reveal of the larger picture? How can we apply it to this author and his place? Barthelme himself explains a crucial aspect of the fascination that the Modernists have for him in his Paris Review interview, an exchange that the interviewer (the critic J.D. O'Hara) claims was carefully edited and reworked. Recalling his father's career as an architect, the author says: "I was exposed to an almost religious crusade, the Modern movement in architecture." And he adds: "we were enveloped in Modernism. The house we lived in, which he'd designed, was Modern and the pictures were Modern and the books were Modern."

Though he goes on to note, judiciously, that the movement didn't amount to much, the crusade image seems telling. The best art made between, say, 1896 ("La Soire avec M. Teste") and 1939 (Finnegans Wake) by and large represents a moral reckoning point for this author. Just as he can rarely handle emotion without first wrapping it in deprecatory wit, so his essential ideas are often cloaked in the priestly robes of our century's most demanding literatteurs. That these allusions are often subtle only increases that arcane priestliness. It should be pointed out, for instance, that "The Indian Uprising" also contains two explicit references, each quite serious despite their bizarre placement. The first is to Valery, whom Miss R. names and quotes: "The ardor aroused in men by the beauty of women can only be satisfied by God" (p. 111). The second is made by a Commanche under torture, who adopts the major role from Thomas Mann's Death In Venice ("His name, he said, was Gustave Aschenbach" [p. 113]). Thus the story's twinning of love and war takes on two more suggestions of the search for something better, something beyond the world of compromise and decay: a crusade. Modernism offers Barthelme a bedrock ideological seriousness which, while it may be applied in different ways for different stories, cannot be robbed of its ethical force, not even by his otherwise devastating irony.

This grounding in transatlantic artistic values is of course in keeping with Frederick Karl's thesis, who argues in American FIctions that American literature in general has been "Europeanized" over the last half-century. Barthelme's particular heros in that older cultural canon, we can here add, helps to situate him more precisely in contemporary letters. His commonality with Eliot or Valery or Joyce, that is, helps clarify what he shares not only with experts in the short form, like Robert Coover, but with a lover of excess like William Gaddis; it allows us to see that he has some more unlikely cohorts, names that might not occur to us were it not for the Modernist connection -- Cynthia Ozick, for one. Indeed the best theorist of the bunch, William Gass, has claimed: "My view is very old-fashioned, of course; it's just the Symbolist position, really." (Gass was speaking at a 1975 symposium on contemporary fiction, later transcribed in Shenandoah.) That position unites these authors, more than tics of style or coincidences of close publication. The larger question, then, is whether Barthelme and his peers must forever play second fiddle to their European forerunners. In their defense, I would point out that a century and a half ago a homegrown group of late-arriving Romantics, beginning with Emerson, went on to earn their own considerable place in literary history.

The Modernist connection also provides a better sense of Barthelme himself, as distinct from his contemporaries. Here the key figure is Samuel Beckett, and the most revealing book is the latest novel, Paradise.

Beckett may or may not be a Modernist; critics are divided and after Murphy at least his books are stubbornly sui generis. Undeniably however he is essential to Donald Barthelme, mentioned time and again as his single greatest inspiration. Of course the younger author has wanted to take his chosen medium beyond the work of his master, as Malone Dies took it beyond Ulysses, but Barthelme's means have been in large degree precisely the opposite of Beckett's. The expatriate Irishman attempts to rid his work of cultural flotsam and jetsam; he wants nothing that would interfere with isolating the unnameable. Barthelme on the other hand heaps up barricades of sheer stuff. For all the brevity of his individual pieces, they are far more full of color and circumstance, of names and tastes and tidbits, than the older author's grim parings. Those bits, as we've seen, include the breakage and shards left behind by Beckett's own forebears, and thus Barthelme may be seen as more the restorer, the preservationist, than he appears at first glance. If he has gone beyond, he has done so in part by digging back. For all his speed and shocking combinations, his "need for the new," this is an artist with respect for the artifacts of the old, and a restraint about how he handles them.

Yet that would suggest that Barthelme is some sort of museum keeper, that whatever flash he has is secondhand. The latest novel proves otherwise, turning retrospection to rediscovery. The protagonist is Simon, a fiftyish architect recently divorced, who enjoys what one character calls a "male fantasy." (Paradise, p. 55) For a few months, Simon shares his apartment and bedroom with three young women he met at a lingerie show. Yet the man's good luck generally causes him to think back on his daughter, his marriage, and his vocation. The architect's introspection under the circumstances is in fact something like his creator's response to the possibilities of fiction after 1945: faced with the sundering of old narrative promises, he's gone back to where the breakup began. And this book too has its over-the-shoulder glances, mostly to Kafka. The opening dream sequence suggests "In the Penal Colony," the later dream passages other of the Czech master's fictional nightmares, and the overall situation recalls The Trial -- a similar urban jungle, in which worldly women throw themselves at a protagonist who's trying to figure out where they've all gone wrong. Yet the book is something new for this author. In particular, the sex is like nothing he's done, the scenes briefly scorching, full of flesh and unabashedly perverse. The novel begins by presenting the menage as something Simon has already outgrown ("After the women had gone..."[Paradise, p. 9]) and it ends with the laissez-faire spirit of the weekend ("It does feel a bit like Saturday..." [p. 208]). Exploring their complex new freedoms, both Simon and one of the women have outside affairs, which he refers to as "frolic and detour" (p. 164), and repeatedly his lovers admit, in one way or another, that their situation doesn't "fit the pattern" of "suppression and domination of female-kind" (p. 163).

It would be a misrepresentation, a bad one, to suggest that the book is a mere soulless romp. Simon starts from heartbreak and his story generates enormous sympathy for the women -- powerless and uneducated "pure skin" (p. 143), as one of them says. Yet just as the architect emerges reborn from his brief burial in flesh and economic constraints, so in this novel Barthelme himself may have at last gotten that demanding Modernist monkey off his back. He challenges us to find the harm in sabbatical pleasures ("Everybody always want somebody to be sorry. Fuck that." [p. 163]); his Trial is paradise.

"You're not a father-figure," one of Simon's lovers tell him, more or less defiantly. "That surprise you?" (p.112) Not at all: bright youth has always had to deny its forebears. For the upstart Barthelme as well, the father remains a stubborn image, in spite of all the times the author has denied the old man or left him in fragments. Likewise the intractable seriousness of Modernism, as it lurks in the novels and stories, is to some extent the ineradicable whisper of Dad. There are personal implications here, considering what Barthelme has said about his own father's training and career. But Paradise makes clear he wants no part of surrendering, all Oedipally, to fate. His art exists not to prove us the pawns of Freudian theory, nor of any other uprising put down long before we were born, but rather to sift and reshape the debris of those earlier struggles, scotching this piece of law to that emblem of freedom, this nose off the Emperor's bust to that foldout from the latest issue. Any bedrock moral seriousness, after all, is only so much dirt if lacks application to contemporary surfaces. John Barth has called his brand of Post-modernism "the literature of replenishment" -- that is, an attempt to reinvigorate narrative fiction despite the exhaustion of certain conventions and approaches. Donald Barthelme should be understood as, among other things, our replenisher of Modernism. Whatever he has achieved, he's done it not merely by reference and mimicry but by a more vital connection: by his passion for the new in the old, by his insistence that Stephen Dedalus wasn't the last to have an epiphany at seeing a woman's bared thighs. Barthelme by no means stands with the "old artficer" of Dedalus, but he has the genius to recognize the ancient figure, and he has the courage to stay with our resurgent contradictions at every unexpected glimpse.

(copyright John Domini; appears with permission)