James Holden: The Crazy World of Donald Barthelme

BarthelmeI’ve just finished reading Donald Bartheleme’s Sixty Stories, a collection of his short fiction from 1964 – 1979. When I set down to marshal my thoughts about the book, my intention was to post something about how I found the absurd plots, opaque writing and stretching of the short story form too much to take. This is not to say that I would consider my tastes to be conservative – I’m not one of those people who believes that a short story must end with a twist, and I think there’s always room for being playful with form. My issue was that Barthelme was pushing me way beyond my comfort zone.

Reading – and indeed consuming any art form – is a subjective experience, and my main issue with Barthelme’s writing is not some grand point of literary criticism, but my reaction as a reader. The introduction by David Gates (not the lead singer of Bread, sadly) positions Barthelme as a great post-modernist, but some of the stories were so experimental that I couldn’t get my head around what was really happening, and some of his work came across as so driven by intellect and a sense of the absurd that it left me cold. Yes – I’ll hold my hands up and admit that some of my struggle was that I didn’t know some of his literary references with the effect that the meaning of the story just passed me by (“Kierkegaard Unto Schlegel” being one I had the most difficulties with). At times I felt really overwhelmed by his writing.

But now that I sit down to write this post and look down the contents page, I can see that within the book were many stories where I thought Barthelme had successfully used this penchant for the absurd to successfully make a point about contemporary society and human relationships. So there were quite cutting political points made about nuclear warfare (“Game”), the wealthy (“Visions of My Father Weeping”), elitism (“On The Steps Of The Conservatory” and the companion piece “The Farewell”) how we interact with art (“The Balloon”, “The King of Jazz”), and an unresponsive bureaucracy (“Me and Miss Mandible”, “The Serjeant”). And, the story recounting the conversation between a father and his daughter who wants a horse (“Critique de la Vie Quotidienne”) simply had me laughing out loud.

Actually, there were many moments within this book that made laugh out loud. But I found Barthelme to be somewhat of an acquired taste – at times overwhelming but at times capable of making real, and very funny, points about life and society. I’m sure I’m not going to suddenly start crafting small slices of post-modernism, but what the book has done is make me think a bit more about how writers can use the absurd as a prism through which modern life can be reflected.

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About James Holden

Brought up in Yorkshire, James has washed up on the shores of London. He spends his days working as a political geek. His short stories have previously been read by the Liars League.
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