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!
THE INDIAN UPRISING
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.