Donald Barthelme's death from cancer in 1989, at the age of 58, was eerily sudden- Like most
people who knew him, however tangentially, I still miss his voice, his presence. Without even
realizing it, I'd been basking in his glow, like a stubby seedling under a grow light.|
At least his literary reputation was assured. Or so I assumed. His inventive, irreverent prose had influenced legions of fledgling writers in the 1970's. A substantial body of academic criticism boasts titles like "Postmodern Realism: Discourse as Antihero in Donald Barthelme's 'Brain Damage"' or (this would please him) - 'Toshi no Meta-fiction: Barthelme to Pynchon ni miru Toshi," in the Japanese journal Eigo Seinen.
Among civilian readers, however, he does not seem to be much in circulation. I've been surprised by the number of literate people who have simply never read him, or confuse him with his brother Frederick. Even readers old enough to have worn bell-bottoms on the first go-round seem to dismiss him as someone who was counterculture-cool in a quaint bygone era.
So I decided to reread the fiction and essays, which Thomas Pynchon has called "notoriously uncategorizable," to see how the work was holding up. The answer: shockingly well. His fiction depends heavily on Zeitgeist, on sensibility itself, in the very way that most easily dates. But like his bizarre beard (Amish farmer? Civil War soldier? Starship Enterprise crew member?), Don Barthelme can't go out of fashion because he was never in fashion. He didn't even set fashion - which he drolly dismissed as "fresh as new dung" - so much as transcend it. hover above it.
Here are some ways in which Don Barthelme was cutting-edge: He ate baby vegetables and sun- dried tomatoes a good decade before the term "yuppie" was coined. He understood how dangerously corporations had overrun and homogenized the art world way before it was general knowledge see the story "How I Write My Songs," with its endless copyright signs, or his parody of People magazine interviewing King Tut during the Met Show: "They say that there's a Tut madness, a Tut mania. -.. Sure, we're peddling a few little items. But they're class knockoffs, man."
He even anticipated the commercialization of national identity itself- The 1968 story "The Indian Uprising" sees past Vietnam's absurdities to recount an armed conflict as a Grenada-style media event. "I Bought a Little City," a wry ode to the hostile takeover, predates the actress Kim Basinger's purchase of a tiny Southern town and thus owes her no apology. (--I thought, What a nice little city, it suits me fine. it suited me fine so I started to change it.")
Barthelme's literary talent was for mixing thing, up. Fettucine on rye, black vinyl pajamas, "reading pornographic comic books over a nice hot Ovaltine." The dead father in the novel "The Dead Father" - a gargantuan corpse who is also, by the way, alive - boasts built-in confessional booths in his leg: "The confessions are taped, scrambled, recomposed, dramatized, and then appear in the city's theaters, a new feature-length film every Friday. One can recognize moments of one's own, sometimes."
Collage, Barthelme argued, was the art form of the 20th century. In a forthcoming Posthumous collection, "Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme" (edited by Kim Herzinger and to be published in August by Random House), he explains his joy in juxtaposition: "I'm fated to deal in mixtures, slumgullions… The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude. As when you attend a funeral and notice, against your will, that it's being poorly done."
Poorly done, of course, collage can be mere muck. Barthelme had no patience with post-modern mannerism. As he warns in "Not-Knowing": "This can be terribly easy - can become cheapo surrealism, mechanically linking contradictions." Confronted with, say, pretentious modem dance done to the theme song of a 50's sitcom, he would tighten his jaw, draw himself up, as if gallantly declining to notice that his companion had broken wind.
As dreckmeister, Barthelme occupies a singular position. He probably watched more network television and listened to more country music than any other artist who also quoted Kierkegaard and Beckett. His sister was in advertising; he'd worked as a journalist and, as a Texan with cowboy boots and a pickup truck, he could roll the word "darlin' " off his tongue with absolute authority.
He liked country crooners and strip malls. But one must distinguish his delight in popular culture from that of a baby post-modernist like Quentin Tarantino, whose allusions come only from B movies and sitcoms. While Barthelme disapproved of pomposity, he didn't like trash, either. He could certainly tell "I Love Lucy" from Heinrich von Kleist.
Like the dead-but-alive father, Barthelme enjoyed "having it both ways, as usual." Both cerebral and down-and-dirty, he never hid behind irony. Rather, he held himself responsible for rising to the occasion of irony's doubleness, for simultaneously amusing and moving his readers.
Not to tears, of course. No tragedy. Instead he liked to remind us that life is sad, full of low grade disappointment and yearning. "Our evenings lacked promise. The world in the evening seems fraught with the absence of promise, if you are a married man." Sipping his ninth Chablis at happy hour, a guy can get bored not only with his wife but with his mistress. We need art, with its promise of endless possibility, because life itself is so limited.
Besides, we can't even get to life. As Barthelme notes in "Not-Knowing": ''The loss of experience is a major 20th-century theme. One makes love with 'The Joy of Sex' hanging over one's head, and so on.... Unmediated experience is hard to come by, is probably reserved, in our time, to as yet undiscovered tribes sweltering in the jungles of Bahuvrihi.'"
So Barthelme's couples (and trios, and menages a quatres) often surrender to an almost manic need for stimulation. "Shall we take a walk? Is there a trout stream? Can one rent a car? Is there dancing? Sailing? Dope? Do you know Saint-Exupery? Wind? Sand? Stars? Night flight?"
The ennui of 177 channels and not a thing to watch; this, too, he foresaw. Invention is exhausting. It's hard to keep coming up with new tunes. In "The King of Jazz," the reigning hornman, Hokie Mokie from Pass Christian, Miss., is threatened by a smug whippersnapper, Hideo Tamaguchi from Tokyo. "This trombone's been makin' my neck green for 35 years," Hokie complains, poignantly. "How come I got to stand up to yet another challenge, this late in life?"
Barthelme's detractors accused him of being cold, emotionless. I don't see it. His use of a word like "slumgullion" is jubilant; the work always aspires to the mission of achieving what Nabokov called "esthetic bliss." And for all his stylistic high jinks, there's plenty of good old-fashioned, surprisingly accessible substance.
To begin with, the fiction sports enough sex - desperate, workaday, ecstatic - for scores of conventional novels. More important, an awareness of mortality hangs around even the jolliest of scenes. A first-grade class adopts a tree, which dies, of course - as does the hamster, then the Korean orphan. "I am a student of decay," one character announces, with grim delight.
Don Barthelme- died before his readers had the pleasure of seeing what he could do with allusions to the O.J. freeway chase, an event blurring the boundary between real and fictional in a way right out of his fiction. (Even the phrase "white Bronco," with its crisp consonants, seems somehow Don B.-like.) Or with Ellen DeGeneres coming out on her show. It's eerie, the number of real-life events that seem to echo the matter or mood of his fiction. His name's a mouthful for it, but he really deserves his own adjective. Joycean, Kafkaesque - Barthelmaic?
The release of his last posthumous work, a collection of stories, is scheduled for next year. There are close to 50 of them. He had not run out of things to say. As he admits in "Not-Knowing," "Things become more exciting as there's less and less time." While I'm sure Barthelme would wince to think of words reaching the world without first having been run through what he called his "strict quality-control departments - he fussed with a jeweler's delighted precision over each comma - I look forward to them, relieved that for a while, at least, Don Barthelme is still talking.
Lisa Zeidner, a professor of English at Rutgers University, is completing her fourth novel, "Layover." She was a colleague of Donald Barthelme's, at the University of Houston in the mid- 1980's.