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PREPARE TO BE SURPRISED: the-oh-so-strange world of Donald Barthelme


I confess to being a latecomer to the work of Donald Barthelme. I had read other American classic humourists such as SJ Perelman and HL Mencken but Barthelme somehow slipped through the net. It’s no wonder: Barthelme is very hard to pin down – he can be laugh-out-loud funny one moment, deeply satirical the next, completely absurd or philosophically dense, often in the space of two or three paragraphs. Two storylines exemplify this perfectly: in the first, King Kong, now a professor of art history, climbs through a window to join a drinks party; in the second, the nonsense poet Edward Lear invites friends and acquaintances to witness his death. Reading is not necessarily believing; in Barthelme what you see is not what you get; and what you get can alter almost mystically after a re-read.

Confused? Good. No-one said that reading Barthelme would be easy. I’ve just come up for air after immersing myself in his Sixty Stories for the past month and only now feel ready both to put these thoughts down and to tackle his novels. Writing on Barthelme requires assiduous preparation and a big dose of humility: he has an encyclopaedic grasp of matters temporal and spiritual and he’s widely and deeply read. However, an enlightening interview Barthelme gave The Paris Review in 1981, eight years before his death, which you can read here,  is a good starting point.

It’s almost a relief to acknowledge Barthelme as the quintessential post-modernist. And though such terms usually make me squirm, in his case the nomenclature fits like a glove. How else to explain the mish-mash of styles in different authorial voices, the sorties into slapstick and Existentialism, the quick-fire dialogue that melds into Joycean monologue? If Barthelme was a painter, he’d have to be Magritte, the wicked teaser with the dark underside, the trickster who makes you blink and think twice. And if he were a playwright, then he’d be Tom Stoppard, early on in his career (Stoppard serendipitously wrote a play called After Magritte), where startling, absurd sequences of events are presented to the bemused spectator, only to be revealed as completely logical by the final curtain.

So, to the stories. Or fables. Or pastiches. In Me and Miss Mandible, a 35 year-old man, mysteriously returned to his high school self, contemplates making love to his teacher and assiduously records the progress of his seduction in an elegantly written journal, while tackling fractions and geography. It’s wicked, subversive, supremely funny in a dark and dangerous way. Is it a dream, an adult fantasy? Its power lies in the way the narrative captures and reflects on childhood events from an adult perspective, rather than the absurdity of the situation.

The narrator in I Bought a Little City, however, is more forceful and dynamic. He happily buys the city of Galveston, Texas and then proceeds to change the landscape and infrastructure bit by bit to suit his whims. You can read it as a satirical take on urbanisation and the destructiveness of town planning, nor is the underlying premise of being able to buy a city so far-fetched when you consider the power of today’s mega-sized development groups. In fact, although written in the 1970s, the fable seems almost horribly prescient.

In a complete change of tone, The King of Jazz deftly mimics the riffing of jazz musicians, vying with each other in the rehearsal studio. The story reads like an improv session, setting out a melody, a refrain, a spotlight on a solo and then back to the original theme, all conducted in fast-paced dialogue.

One of my favourite stories, Margins, presents Carl and Edward, two dead-beats living on the fringes of society, as they wander through the streets of Manhattan. Their deeply philosophical and ridiculous dialogue recalls the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. There is a great deal of Beckett in Barthelme –snatches of vaudeville gleam through existential darkness – and there’s a great deal of Nabokov too, in his carefully chosen language, his word play, his authorial voice of linguist and savant.

Where, though, do you draw the line between being clever and too clever by half? Sometimes, I feel the balance is tipped against Barthelme. It would certainly be helpful to have an understanding of 19th and early 20th century philosophy before reading his story Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel – otherwise how do you get the joke? But just as you’re about to wag a finger and chastise Barthelme for unreasonable obscurity, back he comes with The Sandman, a deliciously accessible send-up of psychoanalysis, in which a lover writes to his girlfriend’s shrink proposing she give up her counselling sessions and concentrate on her relationship instead.

Go with the flow. Let Barthelme’s language and surrealism wash over you. Experience him like music, dive into in his bizarre universe. It’s definitely worth it. And it’s one hell of a ride.