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on January 9, 2015
Amazing stories!
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on October 11, 2016
Dazzling collection of postmodern blisters and blasters, usually as short as three, four or five pages but some as long as twelve pages, stories written in dialogue or lists or letters or narrative, covering topics from highbrow culture to the lowbrow scuzzy, from the everyday to the sensational and historic, an innovative collection from one of the most perceptive wordsmiths ever to put pen to paper or fingers to typewriter. Many are the stories I found wickedly astute, including these two:

Antiwar: The narrator is sent by an antiwar group from New York to Cleveland to persuade hundreds of engineers “not to do what they are going to do.” This 1968 Barthelme flash fiction was written at the peak of the U.S. war in Vietnam. A fiercely anti-U.S., anti-Vietnam War story, but not once is Vietnam mentioned. Similar to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (Donald Barthelme much admired Beckett), time-bound specific symbols and specific references are absent.

Cartoon Atmosphere: The Cleveland meeting of engineers takes place at a motel, very appropriate since the whole phenomenon of motels, those small, cheap, tacky roadside hotels with a swimming pool out back, were also at their peak in the late 1960s. Hundreds of engineers attend the meeting and as soon as our narrator walks in, he beholds chaos: not only are the engineers making calculations and taking measurements, they are drinking beer, throwing breads and hurling glasses into the fireplace. On top of this, he also sees most of those hundreds of engineers have their arms, legs or other body parts in plaster casts due to various kinds of multiple fractures. This bit of absurdity is truly cartoonish, and to top it off, the narrator tells us the engineers are friendly.

Friendly, Friendly: Of course those beer drinking, bread throwing engineers are friendly - friendly on the surface, that is, since their jolly laughter and all those jovial smiles are effective ways to maintain a lighthearted, uncritical attitude toward the destructive, tragic power and death-dealing consequences of their calculations and measurements.

Love and Information: Yes, yes, yes . . . the narrator tells us directly how the engineers are also full of love and information. As, for instance, when the chief engineer, standing among beer bottles and microphone cable, invites him to eat some of their chicken dinner and asks what they, the engineers, can do for him, their “distinguished guest.” A true stroke of irony bordering on sarcasm: to call such an outsider “distinguished guest,” an outsider who could quite possibly pose a threat to their developing and utilizing invented technologies to win the war.

The Irony Thickens; The Sarcasm Thickens: When the narrator states his line is software and how he wants to know what they are doing, the chief engineer begins his reply: “Ask us anything about our thing, which seems to be working. We will open our hearts and heads to you, Software Man, because we want to be understood and loved by the great lay public, and have our marvels appreciated by that public, for which we daily unsung produce tons of new marvels each more life-enhancing than the last.” Although the engineers are creating military weapons and chemicals to be used in war, the chief engineer refers to their creations as “life-enhancing.” Yet again another Donald Barthelme tale where language is distorted and twisted by the power people in order to maintain and expand their power.

A Sucker is Born Every Day: The Software Man states his concerns; the head engineer bombards him with a thick fog of words, including making a personal accusation of Software Man’s hatred and jealousy (ah, when it doubt, attack the person not the argument!). The fog of words is so think he gets Software Man to leave with a smile on his face. Back among his antiwar group, the narrator stresses the friendliness of the engineers and how everything is all right, how “We have a moral sense." and “We are not going to do it.” Oh, my - not only swallowing the head engineer’s lies but taking on the identity of the entire room of friendly, beer drinking warmongers. Talk about gullible!

One of the most popular Donald Barthelme’s stories. Here are a number of themes I see contained in its mere seven pages:

America, land of genocide
Why are Indians attacking an American city in the 20th century? Why are the narrator’s people defending the city? Is this a mental defending of past history, a defending or justifying the genocide of the Native Americans in previous centuries? Back in high school history class during the late 1960s, the time this story was written, there wasn’t too much said about the brutal treatment of Native Americans and the destruction of their populations and cultures. Ironically, my high school mascot was and still is “The Indians.”

America the superficial
“There were earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark and the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire.” Nice contrast, Donald: the Indians and their primitive crafts (earthworks) on one side and the barbed wire (sparkling wire) on the other. Donald Barthelme doesn’t miss an opportunity to make his story’s details, telling details – case in point, barbed wire played a pivotal role in transforming the open land west of the Mississippi River into domesticated ranchland. Meanwhile, the narrator, let’s call him Bob, asks his girlfriend Silvia if this is a good life. She tell him “No.” Are the apples, books and long-playing records laid out on a table (perhaps symbols of American, the land of plenty), Bob’s idea of a good life, even if his city is under attack? If so, Bob’s idea of the good life sounds rather superficial.

America the hyper-violent
Bob and others torture a Comanche but Bob doesn’t give this cruel act any more emotional weight than if he and a couple men were cleaning up a grimy picnic table. I don’t know about you, but such insensitivity and sadism sends shivers up my spine. In the late 1960s, the time when this story was first published, photographs of Americans torturing Vietnamese first began appearing fairly regularly in magazines and newspapers. Additionally, I recall how during the late 1960s , Saturday morning cartoons switched from funny to hyper-violent, which caused outrage among some to ask: “Are we becoming a country of extreme violence and nothing but extreme violence?”

America, land of postmodern leveling
Bob asks Silvia if she is familiar with the classical composer Gabriel Fauré. This question quickly shifts to Bob’s reflections on the details of a smut scene and then to the tables he made for four different women. This mental jumping from the beautiful to the repugnant, from people to objects, treating everything, irrespective of content, with the same emotional neutrality sounds like a grotesque form of postmodern leveling. Personally, this is one big reason have always refused to watch commercial television: the non-stop switching from one image to the next, from tragedy on the nightly news to selling candy bars to the latest insurance deal I find unsettling in the extreme.

America, land of the racist
Bob tells us: “Red men in waves like people, scattering in a square startled by something tragic or a sudden, loud noise accumulated against the barricade we had made of window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colors), wine in demijohns, and robes.” Red men in waves like people? They are people! Stupid to the core, Bob blithely dehumanizes others by his racism and barely realizes he is doing so. Donald Barthelme wrote this with a light touch, but I couldn’t imagine an author damning his own society and culture with more vitriol and scorn. John Gardner wrote how Barthelme lacked a moral sense. What the hell were you thinking, John?!

America, the land of hard drugs
To combat the uprising, Bob notes: “We sent more heroin into the ghetto.” And the emphasis is on “more” since it is well documented how the U.S. government permitted and even encouraged the influx of hard drugs into poor black neighborhoods. Ironically, the outrage over the widespread use of hard drugs began once drug usage and addiction entered the fabric of middle class suburbia. I don’t think I’m alone in detecting a direct link between the use of drugs -- hard drugs, prescription drugs, recreational drugs - and the emotional numbness people have to the ocean of detritus overwhelming their lives.

America, the land of booze and passion
Bob actively participates in more extreme torture. Doesn’t bother Bob in the least. Bob simply gets more and drunk and falls more and more in love. Even when he hears children have been killed in masses, Bob barely reacts. Have some more booze, Bob, as that will solve all your problems. All this Bob stuff occurring in a world where, “The officer commanding the garbage dump reported by radio that the garbage had begun to move.” Also, “Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.” Have another drink, Bob, and convince yourself you are falling more and more in love.
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on April 17, 2009
--Lets get right to the meat. People are busy. Did you like this book? Is it worth reading?

--Yes on both counts. "60 Stories" is a generous sampling of Bartheleme's work. You'll certainly discover whether he's to your liking or not based on what you're offered here. Because it bears saying that these stories are certainly not going to be everyone's cup of blue rooibos, to coin a phrase.

--How so? Why not?

--They aren't what most people would call "traditional" stories. It's somewhat inaccurate to call them "experimental" at this point since so many years have elapsed since they were written and published, so many years since the author died, and Barthelme's influence has been shaping literary experiments ever since, but a stunning number of readers still expect the short story to adhere to conventions established two or three centuries ago. I'd go back even further but the fact is that Barthelme's stories actually employ the conventions of what might be called the "original" short stories--fairy tales, myths, dreams, visions, and the like.

--In other words, they're non-linear, ambiguous, full of fantastic and illogical occurences.

--Yes, to name just a few. What's continually interesting about Barthelme is that every story--well, practically every story--is different in technique from the others. He attempts to find a mode of expression that suits what he wants to say and that changes from story to story. A hammer for a nail, a screwdriver for a screw. But more often, he invents new tools altogether. His stories are invented tools. So you never know quite what to expect when you begin a new story. A collection of Barthelme's stories is not like a box of saltine crackers. It's not even like a box of chocolates. It's like one of those Chinese boxes full of all sorts of tiny compartments, each with something different inside--a feather, a stone, a tooth, a bit of uranium, an octopus could be anything.

--You never know what you're getting.

--Exactly. And that can be good or bad, depending on your taste. So in this collection there are stories you will love and others that won't appeal to you at all. It's a risky way to write and an exciting way to read...provided you want to be excited in that way. Lots of people like to know what they're getting beforehand. In life, in lovers, in stories. They read Hemingway because they like Hemingway. Story after story, Hemingway is a known quantity.

--Many people don't like irony either.

--And Barthelme's work is heavy with irony, World's Strongest Man type irony. If you aren't in good shape, the irony in these stories may be too heavy for you. It might crush you, that's how heavy the irony is. You might need a spotter.

--Okay, I get it. They're very ironic.

--Yes. But also heartfelt. Barthelme is a "double-minded" man, as most thinking folks are in this day and age. We see the shadow-side of every emotion we experience. The hate behind the love, the betrayal behind the loyalty, the resentment behind the generosity, etc. There's no such thing as a simple unalloyed motive, a true purity of heart. All expressions of such ring as insincere to our post-modern ears...they'd begun to ring that way to modern ears as well. What I'm trying to say is that irony, self-irony, is a way to get behind the mirror and the masks we wear on stage, it's a way to acknowledge that we can't be entirely truthful because we're always lying to one degree or's a way of saying that we cannot say what we'd like to say, like being a prisoner of war paraded in front of a camera for propoganda purposes. We give a secret sign even while we're lying through our teeth, a kind of metaphorical wink that lets you know we can't tell the truth but we'd like to and we'd like you to know that. This is the function of the irony in Barthelme's stories, as I see it.

--Anything else?

--That's enough, I'd say. What more really needs to be said? Maybe only that its quite likely not possible to fully appreciate where cutting edge literature is today without reading Donald Barthelme, who directly influenced so much of it--a kind of bridge, he was, from someone like Beckett to what we have today.

--Well, that might have been worth saying.

--And it might not have. But I said it and I won't unsay it. I think I'll go make some more green tea. Good day.
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on April 7, 2014
Donald Barthelme, Sixty Stories
Penguin, 1982
introduction by David Gates (2003)

When I was 20 I tried to read Nabokov, and couldn’t, and knew it was my problem, not his. When I was 25 I could read Nabokov. I couldn’t read Barthelme until I was 40. (There are real benefits, it turns out, to not dying young.) Maybe it helped that I had read Beckett, Lispector, Lydia Davis in the meantime. Probably it helped even more that I had suffered serious disappointments and intermittently drank too much. I had finally arrived on the wave-length.

New to Barthelme? Read this one first. I’ve heard a few people say that Forty Stories is easier. I don’t see the truth in that. Some stories will grab you instantly, others will seem incomprehensible or opaque. (My favorites; “Me and Miss Mandible”, “City Life”, “A Manual for Sons”, above all: “At the End of the Mechanical Age”.) If you get stuck, bounce around. Read the stories out of sequence. Open the book at random and read sentences like fortunes: “There are twenty-two kinds of fathers, of which only nineteen are important.”
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on November 24, 2008
Donald Barthelme is undeservedly under-read, perhaps because of too much experimentation on the short story form. Not every reader would like this intentional emphasis on an inventive structure and imaginative setups--more than on plot and other aspects of conventional storytelling. Others argue that he puts premium on the imaginative structure and style more than the meat of the story itself.

But if one can keep an open mind, at least, Barthelme would definitely come out as a master stylist. And one would immediately recognize his tremendous influence on our now contemporary favorite authors like Dave Eggers and his bunch. .

This book combines, as stated in the title, that many short stories in one book. So shallow it seems, but you're getting not just quantity for your money, but also variety upfront.

Read the following first: Miss Mandible, Balloon, The School, I bought a little city, Sergeant, These at least will take you to explore the other stories (some even more `experimental' than the others) in this anthology. Read them in abandon, not knowing the author's intention to explore and experiment on the form. You'll love the stories as they are. Funny nonsequiturs, turn of events, turn of phrases will completely surprise and satisfy you. Enjoyable as hell.

There's a blog that Ive read where Tobias Wolff (another fantastic short story master) is saying that in short stories, unlike in novels, it is still possible to achieve perfection. I think "I bought a little city" is one example of perfection. And there are others almost close to perfection in this book. Definitely worth your [...] and that time for weekend afternoon reading.
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on May 8, 2014
This is what I would call "experimental" literature. I've never found another author capable of writing in such a unique, inventive manner! Each story differs from the others in subject matter and style, but all of the stories are characteristically witty, bold, and evocative. This is a must-read.
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on June 19, 2014
If you like real brainy stories then there is no better collection. I enjoyed some of the stories immensely, particularly The King Of Jazz and The School, but others were too smart for me (thus 4 out of 5 stars). Barthelme is a really fun author who is a master with language.
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VINE VOICEon November 20, 2008
My second reading of Sixty Stories, ten years past the first, revealed all that I had missed initially, and also much in the interval I suppose. This original writing bears little resemblance to traditional fiction; rather, it is fluidly synchronized fragments of surreality (although Barthelme himself parodied the notion of him being a "fragmatist" in one of his interviews).

Sixty Stories is the broadest overview of Barthelme's work from the 60's and 70's; many of these stories originally appeared in The New Yorker. The philosophical juxtaposes with the concrete details of waking life in these compositions, even as many seem to be dream constructions. Audaciously biting wit weaves through the cryptic non-sequiturs that litter the fictional terrain like lurking landmines; the characters manifest as the intransigent entities that fill the daily headlines.

These experiments in parody and travels to strange and fabled places are juxtaposed against the angst and turbulences that underpinned the second third of the twentieth century. A palpable suspension of belief is required of the reader as one traverses the obscurities in many of these bright pages. Some of the best stories, such as "Critique de la Vie Quotidienne" (where family life collides with an addiction to Scotch); "Our Work and Why We Do It" (life in a typesetting shop, the nature of which Don B. was thoroughly familiar with); and "The Sergeant" (with it's hilariously bizarre ending) - these well-crafted creations show the master at his absurdly best.

If well seasoned word-play and blackly humorous irony are disorienting for you, this guy may not be your man. However, if you can appreciate an imagination that compellingly impresses with originally inventiveness, Don B. will gladly take up lodging in your brain.


The Cloud Reckoner

Extracts: A Field Guide for Iconoclasts
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on January 12, 2015
A big anthology was always going to be a publishing challenge for a master miniaturist. The longer pieces here feel forced, repetitive (without consolatory cadence), smacking of desperation and Rushdie-like lists. When Barthelme works out an angle and sticks to it, he can be very good. His famous hit, 'The School', is hilarious. He is also menacingly funny where the violence is barely suppressed: in 'Game', two men are going berserk while stationed at a missile silo; there's a kind of Straw Dogs meets Sleepers scenario in 'For I'm the Boy'; in 'On Angels' the death of god requires a new paradigm; 'The Phantom of the Opera's Friend' mirrors his disturbed buddy's dilemma; there is healthy hostility as a man puts his girlfriend's analyst straight in 'The Sandman'. His long, didactic pieces pall, though and even then, some lovely phrases shine through the murk: "Dun-colored fathers tend to shy at obstacles, and therefore you do not want a father of this color, because life, in one sense, is nothing but obstacles, and his continual shying will reduce your nerves to grease." ('A manual for Sons'). Lots of drinking and John Cheever- ill will predominate, quite richly for the patient reader, "slumped there in your favorite chair, with your nine drinks lined up on the side table in soldierly array..."
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on April 6, 2014
"The Indian Uprising" is probably the most famous story in this collection. I think "A Dolt" might be D.B.s most powerful story. It might be worth you time to read "Hiding Man."
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