Select Reviews of Donald Barthelme
Oct 15, 1987
Aficionados of the short story already know Barthelme for his prolific work and experimentation in this genre. Barthelme's earlier Sixty Stories ( LJ 10/1/81) is now joined by this collection of seven stories since published in The New Yorker and others left out of the earlier collection. Subjects range from Bluebeard the pirate to a fanciful porcupine roundup and the effects of genius to a couple's agony over losing their two-year-old son. As elsewhere, this is really a showcase for stylistic tinkering, e.g., "Concerning the Bodyguard'' is told by repeated questioning. Not a necessary companion to Sixty Stories , but recommended for larger collections.
Paul E. Hutchison, Pennsylvania State Univ., University Park
This collection of pithy, brilliantly acerbic pieces is a companion to Sixty Stories, Barthelme's earlier retrospective volume. Barthelme spotlights the idiosyncratic, haughty, sometimes downright ludicrous behavior of human beings, but it is style rather than content which takes precedence. He plunges into each situation without preamble, then utilizes sinewy, staccato prose to snare our attention. In "The Genius,'' a man of extraordinary intellect receives endless accolades and homage, but privately, he is just an eccentric inebriate who loathes children and totes important papers in a green Sears, Roebuck tool box. "Concerning the Bodyguard'' is a fusillade of typically gossipy questions about those who shield the famous and mighty: "How much does pleasing matter?'' "Is the bodyguard sufficiently well-paid?'' "Is there a pension?'' In "Conversations with Goethe,'' Barthelme dethrones the renowned German author, who here spouts comical aphorisms such as "Art is the four percent interest on the municipal bond of life,'' and "Actors are the Scotch weevils in the salt port of honest effort.'' As demonstrated throughout this volume, Barthelme's manner of expression is strikingly unique, and his insights are consistently on target. (September 30)
What is paradise? Not Adam's who had only one Eve, but Simon's who has three. Simon, a 53-year-old architect "with a tragic sense of brick,'' gives himself a year's sabbatical from his firm in Philadelphia and his ruinous marriage, takes an apartment in New York and by one of those everyday coincidences that makes urban life so zingy is moved in on by not one, not two, but three beautiful fashion models so impossibly young they don't know the name Benny Goodman or the century of World War II. They do know all manner of games to add interest to rainy mornings, however. A "male fantasy'' is what the implausibly articulate and well-read ladies call the arrangement, and they tell Simon he's living in "hog heaven.'' The slight novel, which includes random meditations on a variety of matters, unfolds mainly in dialogue and one-liners, many of them actually in Q & A form. At times, Barthelme strains for his gags and comic effects, and jokes fall flat or topple into whimsy; but it is amazing how often and well the wit comes off. What is even more amazing is that this odd foursome, this "loving quartet,'' constitutes a kind of family. When the women leave to pick up the frayed threads of their lives, Simon is forlorn, inconsolable, a desolate "uncle-figure,'' as one of them calls him. By the end of the book, we too miss them. Best known for his short stories (nine books of them so far), Barthelme has written two earlier novelsThe Dead Father in 1975 and Snow White in 1967. First serial to Esquire.
A middle-aged architect on sabbatical brings home three lovely young lingerie models with no place to stay. Self-mocking, estranged from his wife and daughter, haunted by dreams and memories, Simon begins to live a male fantasy of domestic bliss the women call "hog heaven.'' They share him sexually and use his apartment as a way station for their inevitable departure. Their snappy, contrapuntal dialogue and coltish ways create for Simon a lively and sensual vision of paradise. The images are pure Barthelme: a wrinkled red bra hangs "like a cut throat'' in the shower; a policeman enters "the felon-thick night''; the furniture of paradise is "knoll, basically.'' A curiously innocent, freewheeling erotic romp, tinged with sadness as much as celebration.
Mary Soete, San Diego P.L., Cal .
Barthelme has written many short stories and two novels. The Dead Father (1975) is an indispensable novel for students of avant-garde American fiction. Paradise is a lesser book that (like much of Barthelme's work) challenges traditional expectations of narrative form. It consists of episodes out of which a dogged reader can reconstruct characters and a semblance of plot: Simon is a discontented, middle-aged architect on furlough from job and family: he shares his New York apartment with an "anti-family'' of three young models-hence the wry "Paradise'' of the title. In scenes that are often too precious and sometimes bitingly satirical, Barthelme sketches a contemporary urban culture in which neither narratives of transcendence nor autobiographical fictions seem capable of redeeming the fragmentary and inconclusive nature of lives dominated by the discourses of a consumer culture and its pop versions of art and history. The prose is studded with wonderful sentences: an architect "has a tragic sense of brick,'' a policeman walks out into "the felon-thick night.'' The best episodes capture epiphanies in the banal language of therapeutic self-awareness. As a whole-and Barthelme is basically a writer who seeks to subvert the notion of a whole-this novel is interesting but ultimately disappointing. Recommended for academic libraries with large collections of American literature and for large libraries serving the general reader.
K. Tolyan, Wesleyan University
On Not Knowing
Barthelme, who died in 1989 at the age of 58, was one of the most original and influential of the postmoderns. The density and variety of his work is reflected in his statement that "the principle of collage is one of the central principles of art in this century and it seems also to be one of the central principles of literature." With 16 books published (two posthumously) and approximately 50 stories yet to be published, the Barthelme canon has not been set. Thus, Herzinger's collection of Barthelme's essays and interviews can only be hailed as a wonderful collage--a collection of insights and observations that shed light on Barthelme personally and that present his views of the works of others such as Gertrude Stein and his good friend Grace Paley. The contents range from an essay on Joyce to his acceptance speech on winning the National Book Award for Children's Literature, to six movie reviews and 12 "Notes and Comment" sections from The New Yorker, to six interviews (e.g., of Jerome Klinkowitz and Bobbie Roe). The book is marvelously insightful and entertaining and will be of value to all--from general readers to scholars--who are interested in contemporary literature and its many forms.
W. B. Warde Jr.; University of North Texas
On Not Knowing
"Barthelmismo" was Thomas Pynchon's term for the disparate writings of Barthelme (1931-89), whose self-reflexive, fragmentary style in such books as The Dead Father and Snow White defined literary postmodernism for a generation of writers born after WWII. This second posthumous anthology of previously uncollected work edited by Herzinger, yields slimmer pickings than The Teachings of Don B., its predecessor. Herzinger opens with two dazzling essays on aesthetics: 1964's "After Joyce," a defense of the artwork as an "object in the world rather than a text or commentary on the world," and 1982's "Not Knowing," which holds that art is a meditation upon the world propelled by questions and riddles. The rest of the book is an uneven hodgepodge, featuring brief, lambent portraits of Barthelme's Greenwich Village that originally appeared in The New Yorker; reviews of books, art exhibits and films; a spirited symposium on fiction with Grace Paley, Walker Percy and William Gass; short essays, speeches and seven lengthy interviews. These sometimes ponderous Q&As, conducted by Barthelme exegetes like Jerome Klinkowitz and Larry McCaffery, Charles Ruas and Judith Sherman, are dead weight compared to Barthelme's essays and fiction. What holds this collection together is Barthelme's rapturous fascination with the visual arts and with language and its adepts (Joyce, Stein, Beckett, Gass, Pynchon, Barth); his cheeky, exuberant voice and "[t]he combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they're allowed to go to bed together," he says in his title essay, that "makes art possible." (Aug.)
On Not Knowing
In his early essay "After Joyce" (1964), the first title in this nonfiction omnibus, Barthelme, America's preeminent postmodern practitioner, made a strong argument for the literary work "as an object in the world rather than a commentary upon the world." The writer, "betrayed by outmoded forms," may find in play "one of the great possibilities of art." A whole generation of writers obliged, among them Gass, Elkin, Hawkes, Coover, Gaddis, and Pynchon. In one of his last essays, "Not-Knowing" (published not long before his death in 1989, at age 58), Barthelme, having shaken off that "rhetoric of the time," admits that much of contemporary criticism robs the work of its mystery, which indeed "exists." These two essays, offered back to back, buoy this collection, which includes later interviews that demonstrate for writing students his methods, influences, etc. Much of Barthelme's New Yorker commentary (on art, politics, living in Greenwich Village) seems dated now. Important for literature collections and writing programs.
Amy Boaz, "Library Journal"
On Not Knowing
What Thomas Pynchon called "Barthelmismo'' is somewhat lacking in the second posthumous collection edited by Herzinger of Barthelme's miscellaneous writings, which here includes film and book reviews, art catalog essays, and New Yorker pieces. "Barthelme Takes On Task of Almost Deciphering His Fiction'' ran the New York Times headline when Barthelme delivered a lecture for New York University's Writer at Work series. That headline could equally well describe many of these abbreviated critical pieces and not wholly forthcoming interviews. The often-reprinted "Not-Knowing'' (1982) is a spirited, idiosyncratic analysis of creativity--the search for an adequate rendering of the world's "messiness''--as well as a playful, sometimes self-parodying literary performance piece. The essay contains a short "letter to a literary critic'' expressing condolences on the demise of Postmodernism, which Barthelme recycled into an unsigned piece for his favorite publication, the New Yorker. Barthelme's many other pieces for the magazine waver lamely between its characteristic wryness and his own fabulist flair, though there is one happy, humorous piece that purports to answer a Writer's Digest questionnaire about his drinking habits. Barthelme also tried his hand at film criticism for the New Yorker in 1979, but his reviews of Truffaut, Herzog, and Bertolucci are surprisingly heavy going, as are his writings on abstract expressionists and contemporary architecture. Editor Herzinger (English/Univ. of Southern Mississippi) has also included a number of interviews with Barthelme, of widely varying quality. The longest interview, a radio serial chat from 197576, seems dated and pretentious (e.g.: "I would not say that Snow White predicts the Manson case''); the most stimulating is actually the transcript of a 1975 symposium with his peers William Gass, Grace Paley, and Walker Percy. Though John Barth calls this a "booksworth of encores'' in his introduction, many of the pieces seem to be merely magazine outtakes and literary b-sides.