Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition

Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition

by Jerome Klinkowitz

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Donald Barthelme (1931–1989) is regarded as one of the most imitated and influential American fiction writers since the early 1960s. In Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition, Jerome Klinkowitz presents both an appreciation and a comprehensive examination of the life work of this pathbreaking contemporary writer. A blend of close reading, biography, and theory, this retrospective—informed by Klinkowitz’s expert command of postmodern American fiction—contributes significantly to a new understanding of Barthelme’s work.
Klinkowitz argues that the central piece in the Barthelme canon, and the key to his artistic method, is his widely acknowledged masterpiece, The Dead Father. In turning to this pivotal work, as well as to Barthelme’s short stories and other novels, Klinkowitz explores the way in which Barthelme reinvented the tools of narration, characterization, and thematics at a time when fictive techniques were largely believed to be exhausted.
Klinkowitz, who was one of the first scholars to study Barthelme’s work and became its definitive bibliographer, situates Barthelme’s life and work within a broad spectrum of influences and affinities. A consideration of developments in painting and sculpture, for example, as well as those of contemporaneous fiction, contribute to Klinkowitz’s analysis. This astute reading will provide great insight for readers, writers, and critics of contemporary American fiction seeking explanations and justifications of Barthelme’s critical importance in the literature of our times.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822381693
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/22/1991
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 159
Lexile: 1540L (what's this?)
File size: 1 MB

Read an Excerpt

Donald Barthelme

An Exhibition

By Jerome Klinkowitz

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8169-3


Early Fiction as Technique

The object known as the Dead Father being hauled across the landscape in Donald Barthelme's novel can be almost anything or anybody one wishes. Like all symbols, it is at once a natural father (with any number of socially accurate touches of typical behavior, often quite funny ones) and everything fatherhood implies (from the father's need to dominate to his son's apparent need to be dominated). Yet there is sufficient allegory in this character's execution that the figure suggests meanings from the world of art and philosophy as well. In terms such as these, the Dead Father represents an older, passing order, one whose statements and actions conflict with the very manner in which it is presented. By exploiting both substance and form, Barthelme manages to satirize an aesthetic philosophy even as he presents it, making The Dead Father be something even as it undertakes being about a certain topic.

Widely recognized as pioneering an innovative fictive style commonly and loosely described as postmodern, Barthelme uses the occasion of his second novel to carry modernism to its grave. Although the Dead Father never announces the issue as such, the questioning of modernist beliefs stands behind most of the obstacles he encounters; and if feminism can be considered a postmodern development, then its announcement in the text makes the aesthetic conflict all the more explicit. But most apparent is the author's attitude toward modernist themes and conventions, at times whimsical and almost always wryly ironic. It is as if Samuel Beckett were to rewrite his dramatic masterpiece to give Godot both a stage presence and spoken lines wildly inappropriate to the dialogue undertaken by Vladimir and Estragon. Yet as Ihab Hassan has explained, the first generation of postmodernists preferred to write a literature of silence, and therefore Vladimir and Estragon's questions go unanswered while Godot himself stays out of the picture. Half an age later it will be Donald Barthelme who brings him back to show how radically things have changed.

From the start of his fictionist's career, which begins with short stories in 1961 and a first collection in 1964, Barthelme has taken a satirical stance toward literary modernism. Indeed, some critics have argued that this is all he does, using the conventional forms of parody and ridicule to engage the modern on its own terms. Yet distinctions must be drawn, including the subjects of his attacks and the form those critiques take. As targets, the foibles of high modernism are just that: not deep-reaching issues capable of sustaining an artistic work, but rather easily caricaturized sacred cows with which the text has unabashed fun. The purpose is more to signal an attitude than engage a serious debate, for Barthelme's argument with modernism takes place on the level of form, not content. Here the satirized object, already having set a mood of irreverence in terms of topical reference, functions formally by virtue of appearing egregiously out of context and being asked to do something wildly inappropriate to its presumed stature. When the Dead Father issues ukases like an obsolescent czar or rages in a fit of slaying—all because of a perceived sexual slight—he not only seems out of place, but throws into high relief the contrary doings of his postcontemporaries (notably his son who more comfortably accepts a less dominant role and the women who are devising an entirely new order of gender). Seen broadly, The Dead Father is only linear, serial, and developmental in its narrative so that these contrary presences—modern and postmodern—can disrupt such conventional structure by their rival strivings. There is something more important occurring in the work than satiric commentary on the father's silliness and his picaresque progress toward the grave.

That importance can be understood by looking back to Barthelme's earliest stories, where attitudes toward modernism and its aftermath provide the spark to get the young man going as a writer. His first published fiction, following an early career in journalism, public relations, journal editing, and the directing of a contemporary arts museum (all of which contribute topics, attitudes, and techniques to his subsequent work), was a story in the seventh number of a little magazine called Contact (February 1961, pp. 17–28), "The Darling Duckling at School." Collected three years later in Come Back, Dr. Caligari as "Me and Miss Mandible," the piece is catalyzed by the irreverent move of taking the Kafkaesque premise of having a protagonist awake suddenly in bizarrely transformed circumstances and be sentenced to live out the quotidian progress of life in this horribly uncomfortable shape. As men, Kafka's and Barthelme's figures are much the same: discomforted, betrayed, and anxiously ill at ease not only with their new circumstances but with the apparent meaninglessness of their condition. But it is in the particulars of those conditions that the modern and postmodern authors diverge, for while Kafka's Gregor Samsa is turned into a literal insect, Barthelme's unfortunate is a thirty-five-year-old insurance adjustor inexplicably returned to the adolescently overheated confines of a sixth grade classroom, where he plays an only partially unwilling part in a fantasized love triangle among himself, his teacher, and the eleven-year-old girl across the aisle.

Barthelme's story is, of course, parodic, for it could hardly exist without Kafka's paradigm in the past—or even more so, as a structure placed canonically within our present circumstances of reading and writing. Yet the piece is much more than this, since from Kafka it looks to the present for further paradigms, including not only the common psychological ploy of a borderline pubescent boy learning the fascinations of sexuality by dreaming about his teacher but the analogue from the day's popular culture (significantly enough in adult magazines the school children can only partly comprehend), such as the luridly publicized romantic triangle of Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher, and Elizabeth Taylor. If the structure is already there in Kafka's story, the roles are equally tailor-made in the world of fan magazines, where the children match up with the cute young lovers while Miss Mandible evokes the threatening maturity of the veteran actress.

This succession of paradigms suggests a Chinese box effect, implying that not only is Barthelme's story within Kafka's, but that the Eddie and Debbie saga lies within the newer writer's own set piece. By doing so is the author simply satirizing or parodying modernism, effecting a theft which by virtue of imitation flatters what it ridicules and is, in any case, crafted solidly within the original type? If parody were the only purpose, the answer would be yes. But looking further, one finds that "Me and Miss Mandible" is up to something entirely different from Kafka's tale of metamorphosis. The experience Gregor Samsa undergoes is central to the modernist ethic: he is the quintessential antihero, alienated from his context yet forced to live within it, anxiously questioning the reason for such existence even as it tolls out the hours of his fate. His is a typically absurd situation, and Kafka's narrative art fashions every detail of it to highlight such judgment for the reader. Barthelme's insurance adjustor shares all of these features and conditions; yet whereas for Kafka they were the essence of his story, Barthelme uses them only as a beginning. True, he can take advantage of Kafka's intertextual presence in the minds of readers and most likely within any fiction a subsequent author might write. But from this beginning "Me and Miss Mandible" proceeds in a remarkably different direction. Free of overweening anxiety and not painfully dedicated to existential questioning or angst, it rather accepts the premise as a given of life in this world. As modernists have proved, things like this can happen, and Barthelme has no argument with the context. What one does with this text is another question, and within the manner by which he proceeds one can see how Barthelme makes something quite new of what for Kafka had been a terminal situation.

If the characters in both stories seem helpless, there is at least an answer for it in "Me and Miss Mandible." Existence may in each case seem incomprehensible; but given what Barthelme's protagonist knows about adolescent life and the education level of sixth grade, he can analyze the problem and propose an answer. Gregor Samsa looks at his world and finds its interpretation vexed by problems of meaning; his suspicion, confirmed by ultimate modernist belief, is that it is meaningless. Barthelme's character is similarly puzzled with his situation, being moved back two dozen years into this grade school classroom, but he never once ascribes his condition to meaninglessness. Instead, there are meanings all around—too many of them, too easily merchandised and consumed. Answers that Gregor Samsa may have sought are here supplied like consumer goods in a supermarket, and rather than searching in a void for something quite undefined Barthelme's protagonist and his classmates are deluged with the surfeit of interpretations, all of which are packaged as neat little texts that stock the larger narratives of their lives.

The meanings of texts are deciphered by reading, and reading is one of the subjects school children are still studying in sixth grade. The advantage Barthelme's thirty-five year old has is that he is a past master of reading, while his classmates may still be struggling with the meanings of certain arcane or polysyllabic words. Even more than technical expertise, the man also has the advantage of experience, for his two decades of adult life out in the real world have taught him something that will never appear in the curriculum short of a doctoral seminar on postmodernism itself: "that signs are signs, and that some of them are lies" (CB, p. 109). This is, in fact, the lesson confirmed by his return to sixth grade, where he sees his colleagues struggling to interpret everything from fan magazine stories to the subtextual relationship between teacher and student, female and male, adult and child.

There is an irony in both stories, but whereas the modernist writer is deadly serious even with patently comic materials, the postmodern writer cannot help but take the situation tongue-in-cheek. "Plucked from my unexamined life among other pleasant, desperate, money-making young Americans," Barthelme's narrator notes, "thrown backward in space and time, I am beginning to understand how I went wrong," and he is unable to resist adding the phrase that skewers high modern seriousness, "how we all go wrong" (CB, p. 108)—spoken by a thirty-five year old squeezed into the sixth grade desk. His questioning winds up being silly, because Barthelme's sensibility—fresh as a fiction writer but tempered by nearly ten years' work in the manufacture of serviceable prose—knows that probing for something behind a sign is a waste of time. Better to appreciate the texture of signification itself, which is what his narrator learns to do by savoring the systematics of the Reynolds-Fisher-Taylor relationship (characterized by seventeen "Eddie and Debbie" headlines listed in the manner used so well in The Dead Father ) and having more fun reading the intentionality of Sue Ann Brownly and Miss Mandible than being troubled by the substance of their rivalry (which, given Sue Ann's prepubescent status, has no real substance at all).

And so Barthelme's initially parodic appropriation of one of Kafka's great themes becomes much more than simple parody. The irreverently comic attitude toward the older writer's device of transformation deflates it of seriousness and thereby relieves any overbearing anxiety of influence. Yet the technique is cited (and employed) just the same, granting Barthelme's work a multidimensionality that both incorporates Kafka's range and reaches farther, in this case toward an ability to experience not just the text's narration but also the reading of it. In this way a tenet of literary modernism is both used and critiqued, taking a practice once held to be an end in itself (proclaiming the lack of meaning) and employing it to take another step beyond—one that both reflects back on modernism and, by using it to do something else, contradicts it.

It takes the ease of comedy to slip the reader into this new style of self-generating activity. Instead of the horror and dread instilled by Kafka's vision, we are given the amusing posturings of Barthelme's narrator, who begins his journal with a sentence as startling as anything in Kafka, but which—in the unwinding of the carefully constructed paragraph that follows—defuses the volatility of his first line while at the same time establishing a context for the equally unlikely phrase that concludes it:

13 September

Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child. I am, according to the records, according to the grade-book on her desk, according to the card index in the principal's office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven't quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I've been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind. (CB, p. 97)

From the typically modernist shock of unreason, the protagonist takes us to the candidly postmodern raunchiness of his closing admission, with the contrasts in both content and style graduated by the details protested in between. In this manner the reader is invited to participate on the level of sign recognition rather than direct conceptualization, for that initial sentence demands a shared appreciation of how many narratives from the era of high modernism depended on such effect, whereas the enumeration of evidence (from statistics of birth and military service to explicit signs of sexual maturity) takes subtle but progressive steps toward the bold frankness of his concluding proposition, in itself the most obvious proof that he has indeed matured. In this process, the initial threat of unreason is replaced by a more accommodating notion of sexual enjoyment; what is at first a hideous suggestion, sex between an adult and a child, is transformed into a reasonable prospect, its expressive language overcoming the physical limitations of the story's first-reported transformation.

Even as the narrative moves on to report the sixth grade class's struggles with signs and meanings (as they read forbidden copies of Movie-TV Secrets and puzzle over its sexual gossip and ads for boudoir apparel), the narrator keeps subverting his tale with insertions of contextually inappropriate language. He cannot describe the seating plan without noting, of Sue Ann Brownly across from him, that she is, "like Miss Mandible, a fool for love" (CB, p. 97). His psychological analysis returns to this notion: "The distinction between children and adults, while probably useful for some purposes, is at bottom a specious one, I feel. There are only individual egos, crazy for love" (CB, p. 108). Longer entries detailing action in class are contrasted with the occasional single-sentence reminders of the Kafkaesque predicament, such as "30 October: I return again and again to the problem of my future" (CB, p. 104). Yet the future is just what is being promised to these youngsters, and all of them except the narrator can accept it with blithe innocence. It is obvious to him that "the sixth grade at Horace Greeley Elementary is a furnace of love, love, love" (CB, p. 106), and given his prospects for satisfaction, there is no real reason to break out. "Here I am safe," he admits, "I have a place; I do not wish to entrust myself once more to the whimsy of authority" (CB, p. 107). And so the conventionally modernist theme of striving to break out of such a prison is transformed to the more postmodern notion of going with the flow and appreciating the texture of existence as provided. When he and Miss Mandible finally complete their tryst, he is as happy as an adult, yet as safe as a child. As for Sue Ann Brownly, who discovers them, she is the one who grows up, having been taught how to read, "certain now which of us was Debbie, which Eddie, which Liz" (CB, p. 110).

As Donald Barthelme's first published story, "Me and Miss Mandible" promises much of what will be developed in his style by the time of The Dead Father fourteen years later. In addition to the specifically postmodern use of modernist themes and techniques, and beyond the deflationary tactic of spoofing his predecessors' high seriousness, we see the author learning how refreshing it can be to alternate rhythms of action and analysis within the larger strategy of questioning the very substance of his narrative. Such questioning, offered so seriously by Kafka, becomes in postmodern hands something that the reader will never take as seriously as the narrator. And even the narrator seems to be setting things up for comic effect—never participating in the joke, but deadpanning his way through in a manner that exploits the contextual possibility of the page. In the Miss Mandible story, thick passages of recounted action contrast with single-line entries, with the narrator's diary format emphasizing this contrast on the printed page. The Dead Father uses a similar layout of thick and thin, with the relatively complete interpolations of action set off against one- or two-word sentences ranked in single file just like the crew of men hauling the immense carcass. Simply moving back and forth between these modes is pleasant and relieving, factors Kafka would have found foreign to his own narrative but which Barthelme delights in for their sake of multiplicity and plurality, reminding us that there is no one interpretation the author is pounding home. Rather "Me and Miss Mandible," like The Dead Father, presents a variety of contextual experiences, the point of which often resides in the texture of shifts and contrasts.


Excerpted from Donald Barthelme by Jerome Klinkowitz. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments and a Note on the Texts
Prologue With Don in the Village
One Early Fiction as Technique
Two Early Fiction as Theme
Three Toward Sustained Narrative Systems
Four The Novels
Five Later Fiction
Epilogue The Text in the Village

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