February 27, 2009

The Explanation

By the time Donald Barthelme was an established writer, the author of a successful story collection and of a short novel that sold surprisingly well, he began to write stories that were more serious, although the cleverness and stylish whimsy persisted. (Cleverness was Barthelme's "wooden leg," as Salinger's Buddy Glass might have said.) Barthelme's three main interests, literature, philosophy, and art, came together, in City LIfe, in two stories that have more direct intellectual content than had ever been allowed to slip into American fiction before. One of these is a brilliantly constructed story called "The Explanation" that is constructed on and is an example of recursion. For most people, this was an idea that they encountered for the first time about ten years later in Douglas Hofstader's Goedel, Escher, Bach. The end of Barthelme's story is a recursion that is self referential, saying in effect "See above." It is, jokiness and all, as philosophically serious a story as an American writer has conceived.

The second story is "Kierkegaard unfair to Schlegel," a dialogue in the form of a dialectic. You may not notice at once that, although it is a Q & A, it begins with A, who is then undermined by Q (who sounds like a psychoanalyst, so it is a psychoanalytic dialogue, a story about the analytic situation as well as the analytic/synthetic distinction). But in the next section, Q is political, A is not. So now it is dialectical materialism. A discussion of irony, favored by A, follows--the touchstone books for Barthelme were Kierkegaard's The Concept of Irony and Either/Or. Either--Or. Q then denies that he is A's doctor. A says, "a pity." In other parts of the dialogue Q refers to A's antipathy to "our machines"--a Turing Test. Between these polarities, something unspoken is supposed to emerge. This is an effect of irony--Neither/Nor. But "what Kierkegaard worries about a lot is that irony has nothing to put in place of what it has destroyed." Postmodern doubt. (One may be reminded of a Shelley Berman joke current at the time. On Gertrude Stein's deathbed, Alice B. Toklas asks: "Gertrude, Gertrude, what is the answer?" Gertrude snaps, "What is the question?") Barthelme, like most writers of his generation, was subject to religious or metaphysical yearnings; for him, the point of his odd, sudden juxtapositions and collage methods was to get at something that cannot be said, and which (following Wittgenstein) we must be silent about. He was extremely reticent about feelings--maybe because his feelings were so strong, as his daughter Anne movingly testified.

He worked hard, and threw a lot of work away. He was lucky, but shrewd; he stayed in Houston until he had a good art-world job in New York, as managing editor of a new art magazine founded by Harold Rosenberg and Tom Hess, giants. He was free to write every morning; this left him free to drink every afternoon. His life story darkens and saddens; his close relationship and mind-meld with his New Yorker editor, Roger Angell, who liked the "earlier, funnier stuff," as the aliens from outer space say in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, had been a huge creative spur, but Angell's limitations, and the old New Yorker's, stunted his ability to stay with Barthelme as his writing grew more serious and began to move closer to Beckett or Pinter, farther from entertainment. Barthelme was beginning to grow, and it turned out to mean he was outgrowing the magazine that had published him so well. In the end, he returned to Houston, a lion, to teach.

The key moment in Daugherty's biography, Hiding Man, finds Barthelme in a Houston news stand, before he left the provinces for the big city--the kind of news stand that used to exist in most mid-size American cities, full of thousands of periodicals from all over the world, newspapers and magazines in several languages. Barthelme picked up a copy of a magazine called Theater Arts, in which he found a complete translation of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. He stood there in the store and read the whole thing, transfixed. Here at last was a writer who was doing something like what he wanted to do; here, in fact, was the writer whose work posed the question, what to do after this? (A wonderful story in Amateurs is called "What to Do Next.") The sad thing is that when Barthelme finally began to make a really serious attempt to get beyond Beckett, Angell could no longer stay with him. Daugherty says little about Barthelme's disappointment, but after The New Yorker became lukewarm about his work he turned to teaching, first at Buffalo with John Barth and other like-minded writers, and finally in Houston. He was by then one of the most famous writers in America, and one of the most admired by the young. Those who may be said to have followed the path he opened include such brilliant talents as Donald Antrim, Dave Eggers, and George Saunders. Both Antrim and Saunders have had their wings clipped by The New Yorker, Antrim writing a wispy memoir and Saunders writing casuals for Shouts and Murmurs. One can only hope for more and better from such talented and still young writers.

Found material of all kinds was Barthelme's bread and butter: scraps of conversations, some overheard, some directly from his life though much stylized;junk language from advertising and political spin; odd bits lifted directly from books. He was the first fiction writer to "appropriate" material, and in that respect he was both in the line from High Modernism and a true avant gardist of his time. He looked back to Joyce and Mallarme, and he was alert to John Cage, John Ashbery, Robert Rauschenberg, and Warhol. Kenneth Koch, another humorist, was his close friend. About the avant garde, however, he was oddly conservative: he always insisted that the military function of the avant garde was to protect the main body of the troops. Louis Auchinschloss? Oh, please. Or maybe he meant he was paving the way for Ann Beattie and Ray Carver and Michael Chabon.

Times were changing, however, and younger writers seemingly had lost all interest in the great modernists, or in postmodernist play: it was the era of "minimalism," Beattie, Carver, Tobias Wolff, Mary Robison, Richard Ford, David Gates, or as Granta, in England, called it, "Dirty Realism." Even Donald Barthelme's younger brother Frederick took that road with a remarkable series of deadpan stories about the Gulf Coast, where he nailed the life style of the people Walker Percy had once been so interested in. The cool, flat style of the new fiction owed something to Barthelme's detached-observer or passive ironic stance, and Donald Barthelme admired and supported Ann Beattie, as cooly ironic as he, but it was another kind of writing from his, and soon his was out of fashion. For someone who had always been so stylish, this can't have felt good.

It's interesting to consider just how much material well-being and mainstream success liberated Barthelme, and mattered to him. He thrived in New York. He had always dreamed of writing for The New Yorker, which to every dreamy provincial in those days represented the height of sophistication. When he was at the peak of his popularity, people were beginning to say he was the best writer in America, that he was an incomparably gifted prose stylist (hardly true), but above all--and this was almost true--nothing like his writing had ever been seen before. Well--true enough. In that respect, he may have been the most original short story writer since Poe, who invented the modern short story--the short story form as developed by Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, and James Joyce--and who was impossible to imitate, though he had many successors all the way down to Vladimir Nabokov.

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