There’s a Donald Barthelme revival afoot. These things sometime happen to writers who have the temerity to die. Time moves on. Literary fashions wax and wane. Great writers are inexplicably forgotten. Forgotten writers are suddenly reborn in the literary imagination.
Such is the story with Barthelme. He was never exactly forgotten (he died in 1989), but his name hasn’t been at the forefront of the collective literary mind since then. I suspect that the new biography by Tracy Daugherty, Hiding Man, signals a change in all that. There’s also been a number of prominent “reconsiderations,” including a longish essay by Louis Menand in The New Yorker.
All of this was predicted by Thomas Pynchon, who wrote an introduction to a posthumous collection of Barthelme’s “satires, parodies, fables, illustrated stories, and plays” called The Teachings of Don. B. Pynchon says that:
All things, in any event, will be set right when the biopic or Donald Barthelme Story is aired at last. … He will get the key to the city and a ride on a fire truck. Reviewers who trashed his work years ago will now fly into town, paying the full fare out of their own pockets, to apologize abjectly. All his books will show up again on the best-seller lists. Mike Ovitz of CAA will call from Hollywood with high-budget movie plans for some story the author has forgotten he wrote, and Barthelme will put him on hold while he goes to the fridge for another beer.
It’s ironic that this comes from Pynchon, since it is people like Pynchon, DeLillo, and (more recently) David Foster Wallace who picked up where Barthelme left off and rendered him, at least temporarily, superfluous. That’s what you get for doing something novel. You are all the rage for a little while, and then the new kids on the block grab the glory and everybody forgets about the early innovators. The novel thing that Barthelme did has been called, variously, postmodern fiction, metafiction, hyperfiction, and flash fiction. Notoriously difficult to define, its most essential characteristic is self-consciousness. Barthelme’s writing isn’t just about the world — it’s about itself writing about the world. If the traditional story begins with, “Once upon a time,” the work of metafiction begins with, “The traditional story begins with once upon a time.”
Here’s Barthelme in a little essay (sketch, mini-story, what-cha-call-it?) called “Wasteland!”
The first time I read Mr. Eliot’s poem, I became very depressed. Then I became very excited. Would Ethel Merman, I wondered, do Madame Sosostris if I beefed up the part? Would Rex Harrison do The Man With Three Staves? Could I work some kids into the show, for poignancy? I immediately abandoned my plan to adapt The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and concentrated on “Wasteland!”
I reproduce this passage partly for my own amusement (I chuckle even now at the thought of Ethel Merman as Madame Sosostris. Thing is, it could work) and partly to fight back against the general thrust of the current Barthelme revival. The revivalists are saying roughly the following: Barthelme was a wacky son-bitch, sure, but when it comes down to it he was continuing the august tradition of literary modernism and that’s why his work remains important. I understand the impulse. It is not unusual for the first stage of an author’s revival to consist largely of rehabilitation. In this case, the revival is being driven by a biography written by a man who was once Barthelme’s devoted student. Daughtery wants to protect his teacher and his friend. And Barthelme certainly took a lot of flack in his time. Alfred Kazin, for instance, dismissed Barthelme as being “wearingly attentive to every detail of the sophistication, the lingo, the massively stultifying second-handedness of everything ‘we’ say. Barthelme is outside everything he writes about in a way that a humorist like Perelman could never be.” That’s the kind of comment that drives a man like Tracy Daugherty nuts. It is the suggestion that, clever as Barthelme was, he didn’t have it in him to tackle the big questions, to be serious about the seriousness of life.
Thus we are given Barthelme as the heir to the great ones. We are shown that Barthelme really was serious, after all. He didn’t want to destroy literature, to belittle it. In fact, he was in dialogue with its greatest practitioners. Barthelme’s constant allusions to Joyce, Beckett, and Eliot become proof that he was involved in the same conversation, that he belongs at the table.
It’s true, of course, that Barthelme was obsessed with Beckett, that he referred to Joyce over and over again. But I’m not sure that’s the best way to go with Barthelme. Lots of people read Joyce and allude to him without concluding that fiction writing must necessarily follow in his footsteps.
Barthelme is doing something different in his writing, something that takes a serious left turn from the project of literary high-modernism. My evidence for this consists not in trying to untangle the vast web of motivations that drove Barthelme to write, but simply in what his writing is like. The fact is, Barthelme wasn’t buying it. He didn’t think you could write like a high-modernist anymore and every time he tried to do so, his writing collapsed in on itself, tore itself apart, ridiculed the very thing it was trying to achieve. Here’s Barthelme on T. S. Eliot again:
T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is without doubt the most thoroughly studied, carefully annotated, and nitpickingedly commented-upon poem in the language. What has been missed (in a series of misreadings so horrendous as to be without parallel in the annals of quality lit. scholarship in this country) is that the poem is essentially about the St. Louis Browns of 1922, a team for which Eliot, back from Britain in that year, briefly starred at short.
The mistake in criticizing this kind of writing is in accusing it of insincerity. When someone like Kazin goes after Barthelme, he goes after him for maintaining a distance, for being “outside” the experiences he is trying to describe. The thing that Kazin will never understand (putting aside, for a moment, his being dead) is that the experience of being outside experience is as authentic as any other. The “meta” of metafiction isn’t necessarily a cheap ploy, a kind of game playing for the too-cool-for-school crowd (though I suppose it can be that, too). Rather, it is a new attempt at sincerity after the old attempts stopped working.
In his little piece on Wasteland!, the musical, which I quoted above, Barthelme must use the word “poignant” five or six times. He claims that all the dance numbers and songs will be incredibly poignant, which in itself is a hilarious idea. But in a greater sense the piece is about how hard it is to be poignant. You can’t be poignant just because you want to be. There is no formula for it. It is not owned solely by Eliot or Joyce or anyone else.
In another sketch from The Teachings of Don B. called “Games are the Enemies of Truth and Beauty and Truth, Amanda Said,” the narrator is consoling Amanda, who has lost her confidence in playing all the board games she owns. She asks the narrator what he proposes. He answers:
“New games, Amanda, to set the turkey of mental excitement flying through the thin air of intellectual irresponsibility.”
“New games?” I noticed that the blood had run out of her face. But I could not see where it had gone. “You mean people can make up their own games? Isn’t that … hubris?”
“Have another brandy,” I said. “Have another brandy and we shall play Contretemps, the Game of Social Embarrassment. And Cofferdam, and Double Boiler, and Hubris too, if you like. Listen to the names of these glorious new games — Leftwards, Gearbox, Dentist’s Appointment, and Stroke. We will invent them together, dear friend.”
The game-playing goes on like this for a few pages until the narrator finally proposes the game Ennui. Amanda asks what Ennui is.
“Ennui is the absence of games,” I said, “the modern world at its most vulnerable.” But she had folded her tent dress and silently stolen away.
Metafiction all the way through. Postmodernism at its most shameless… and pretty damn poignant. • 4 March 2009