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Donald Barthelme's Flying to America

Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz

(Shoemaker & Hoard)

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Saturday, March 01, 2008



Flying to America
By Donald Barthelme
Edited by Kim Herzinger
(Shoemaker & Hoard)

Reviewed by Alexander Provan

The resurrection of Donald Barthelme is a long time coming, but ends here on an anti-climactic note, with the odds and ends of a fitful career, an addendum to his work rather than its apotheosis.

Barthelme, whose mastery of a certain type of short story — oftentimes they were not stories at all, but conversations, set pieces, harangues, language games — led Thomas Pynchon to coin the phrase “Barthelmismo,” never quite disappeared, but his legacy fell into slight disrepair. In his own lifetime, which ended prematurely in 1989, Barthelme epitomized a strain of Seventies experimentalism now being reappraised after enduring a good few decades of desultory genre tags, “metafiction” being the most common. Barthelme’s writing does indeed exalt in appropriation, subversion of narrative conventions, collage, the conflation of bureaucratic and provincial idioms. The man himself fit the bill, too: A Texan who relocated to New York’s West Village, he published the bulk of his stories in The New Yorker, sold very few copies of his own volumes, drank Scotch prodigiously, donned cowboy boots, wore a feral beard, fraternized with the abstract expressionists, married four times, and trafficked in aphorisms. You might have found him wandering the streets with his neighbor Grace Paley muttering, “Fragments are the only forms I trust.”

As the 20th anniversary of Barthelme’s death approaches, there has been a surge of contemporary writers and readers taking interest in the man’s work. A recent issue of McSweeney’s confirmed as much, with half of the quarterly devoted to early Barthelme fragments, debating the writer’s legacy, and recounting his companionship ad nauseam. (Robert Coover’s contribution is comprised of three words: “Donald was laconic.”) Not-Knowing, a book of essays and interviews published in 1997, and The Teachings of Don B., another collection of odds and ends edited by Herzinger, are both being reprinted. Barthelme’s two anthologies of short fiction, Sixty Stories and Forty Stories, are increasingly available (and taught), and, for the most studious of his acolytes, everything excluded from them is now available in Flying to America.

Though the impact of Barthelme’s stories, unmatched in wit and highly attuned to the tenor of life in an American metropolis, has only increased with age, his oeuvre as a whole fails to fully resolve the promise of his best work. But with Barthelme, the failure of resolution, in a sentence or a corpus, is nothing to lament. “What is magical about the object is that it at once invites and resists interpretation,” he wrote. “Its artistic worth is measurable by the degree to which it remains, after interpretation, vital—no interpretation or cardiopulmonary push-pull can exhaust or empty it.” Ironically, it is this residue of things-left-to-be-done, of sentences that refuse after all these years to submit to interpretation that has encouraged younger writers to continue populating Barthelme country with their own sentences.

Flying to America
will provide them with additional fodder, though it promises precious little beyond that. The critic James Wood once blasted Barthelme and his cohorts for writing “novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very ‘brilliant’ books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.” Barthelme occasionally lamented his seeming inability to craft a serious character that a reader could follow throughout an entire book, and his four novel-length works, which are mainly extended meditations on fairy tales and the Oedipal complex, elide this problem. (The protagonist of The Dead Father is a giant deceased patriarch who is dragged along by his son and a band of followers, who are on a quest to dispose of his ungainly body.) And yet, the best of Barthelme’s short stories produce characters with substantial empathetic qualities, characters that perfectly articulate the difficulty of structuring one’s life in accordance with one’s wishes and desires.

The stories in Flying to America, however, generally fail to do so. Here more than elsewhere, Barthelme seems preoccupied with the way language creates our picture of the social world, and what happens to that world when its various inhabitants and their vocabularies collide, battle, befriend one another — thus the scenes of businessmen at war, a bereft ex-husband manning a radio station devoted to remembrances of domestic scenes and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” post-collegiate women — three of them together — cohabitating with a middle-aged architect, who hovers about the house as they search for work in department stores and read introductory feminist texts.

But even such ragged juxtapositions of vernaculars and demographic types can be a joy, flourishing in the living-room-size conflicts between order and disorder; indeed, he regularly compared his work to the contrasting syncopations and improvisations of jazz. If Barthelme’s previously collected stories often achieve a seamless balance between the two poles, the 45 stories here — many of which reappear in some form in later years — are more akin to free jazz of the Albert Ayler variety. Frenetic, vibrato-laden saxophone wails and disassembled scales orbit around a firmly rooted but almost subliminal narrative backbeat, Barthelme’s incomparable sense of rhythm providing the linguistic pyrotechnics with clarity and purpose. The stories in Flying to America are not unlike practice tapes, studio outtakes, experiments abandoned or revisited at a later date. The book’s most significant reward is the chance to witness the process of creation in full, which requires sitting patiently through the failures as well as the many successful and revelatory moments. For a writer who placed a premium on “not-knowing,” studying the failures is perhaps the best route to understanding the successes. Barthelme, elaborating his attachment to “the how” rather than “the what,” defended his process as “an attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one. You don’t get, following this path, a moral universe set out in 10 propositions,” he said. “But we already have that.”

 

 

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