Friday 19 April 2024

Donald Barthelme Saved from Oblivion by Joyce Carol Oates

The Don Father.

I was going to cap off Donald Barthelme week on this blog with another one of his wonderfully idiosyncratic short-stories. However, it was pure happenstance that I stumbled across this amusing title by the prolific and very talented Joyce Carol Oates: "Donald Barthelme Saved from Oblivion." 

I'll finish this review tomorrow. 

Thursday 18 April 2024

The King of Jazz by Donald Barthelme

Love Supreme.

Beginning in medias-res and consisting almost entirely of dialogue, "The King of Jazz" by Donald Barthelme is another gem in the author's impressive oeuvre. Jazz music and literary postmodernism are like two peas in a pod, both sharing an affinity for experimentation and complex structures. The interplay of various voices and musical sounds in the text creates a syncopated rhythm, reminiscent of the spontaneous energy found in jazz music. Yet, beneath this seemingly improvised cadence lies the author's meticulous craftsmanship, skillfully playing with language to evoke such an effect. 

Now that Spicy MacLammermoor has died, Hokie Mokie believes that he is the newly crowned King of Jazz. Can we pause for a moment and acknowledge how ridiculous these names are? I love it. Hokie Mokie has barely any time to revel in this newfound glory before he is quickly challenged by another musician from Japan. An intense jam session takes place, each musician trying to outshine the other with their electrifying, vibrant and soulful instrumentals. However, these adjectives are inadequate to capture the essence of the beautifully complex and and rhythmic jazz techniques during the competitive showdown. The reader can only imagine what the music sounds like through the different perspectives and commentary of those playing or listening at the show. For example, one of the audience members attempts to describe Hokie Mokie's music as a "famous 'English sunrise' way of playing. Playing with lots of rays coming out of it, some red rays, some blue rays, some green rays, some green stemming from a violet center, some olive stemming from a tan center-". Of course, this is mere poetic embellishment and Hokie does not sound like this at all. Paradoxically, the author is lightheartedly poking fun at the fictive representation of music, which cannot be captured in words, while also utilizing language in this refreshing way to convey these impressions. 

This is just a joyful, funny and rollicking read from start to finish.

You can read this story HERE.

Wednesday 17 April 2024

Chablis by Donald Barthelme

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene \ With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.

"Chablis" is the first short-story to appear in Donald Barthelme's collection entitled, "Forty Stories." Similar to some of his other early works, it seems he's teetering on the brink of discovering his unique literary voice and postmodernist flair. Certain moments resonate with quintessential Barthelme charm, particularly through his witty humor. However, overall, the story adopts a fairly straightforward narrative approach, lacking the surreal experimental style for which he will later be renowned.

The domestic nature of fatherhood and the challenges of raising a young child is at the heart of this story. Through the narrator's internal reflections, we are drawn into a world of palpable anxiety, where the parental concern feels deeply relatable. There is a wry, sardonic tone to his anxious thoughts, which contribute to the story's darkly humorous appeal. For instance, worrying if the baby will stick a utensil into an electrical outlet or get sick from eating Crayolas. This familiarity strikes a chord of recognition, especially among parents. The baby is more emotionally attached to the narrator's mother whereas he struggles with establishing his role as a reliable and competent father. Since these heteronormative domestic roles are highly gendered, he seeks to make himself useful and regain some confidence in the area of raising this child. Hence, the flashback to his reckless youth when a near-fatal car accident ensued from his intoxicated state, serves to complete the narrative arc. This poignant reflection offers him a newfound sense of confidence, suggesting that just as he managed to navigate a crisis in the past, the challenges of parenting might prove surmountable after all.

On the Deck by Donald Barthelme

All aboard!

"On the Deck" might be one of Donald Barthelme's earlier stories because it feels as if he is still in the process of developing his signature postmodern style. We are presented with a brief sketch of eccentric passengers aboard a large sea vessel. Their destination? Unclear. There is a caged lion, a Christian motorcycle gang, a pretty girl wearing a sun dress and various others. There's even some guy named Mitch sitting in his Camry. I chuckled. The sea captain makes a brief appearance with a random burst of non-sequiturs: "I would have done better work if I'd had some encouragement. I've met a lot of people in my life. I let my feelings carry me along." Presumably he is speaking to another passenger or maybe it's a monologue? Again, unclear. 

We catch fleeting glimpses of these people, and the narrative transitions from one character to the next, guided by their proximity to each other while stationed on deck. The narrator shows up in the final scene, a tender moment that is strangely ambiguous. Thus, there is a random quirkiness to this story but it doesn't really add up to much. 

Tuesday 16 April 2024

At the Tolstoy Museum by Donald Barthelme

Tolstoy and his wife had 13 children together. Poor Sophia.

Now that I am becoming familiar with Barthelme's general proclivities, it seems that I prefer his more experimental and playful side. "At the Tolstoy Museum" makes for a good companion piece to "The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace" since both contain a somewhat linear narrative, deadpan humor and a dash of surrealism. Similarly, they possess a charmingly innocuous quality, leaving only a faint imprint.

This story's formalistic style is a tour guide through a museum dedicated to the famous Russian author. The narrator informs us from the very beginning that museum patrons are prone to weeping as they stare rapturously at thousands of pictures of Count Leo Tolstoy or read his writings on display. It is difficult to tell if this a satire of sycophants or a genuine paean to his literary greatness. Maybe it's both. 

As the reader is taken along this tour, the narrator inserts random yet amusing facts about Tolstoy, including commentary about the museum architecture. He even interrupts the narrative flow to recount a story he once read by Tolstoy about a bishop visiting an island of hermits to teach them about Christianity. Whether or not Tolstoy actually wrote this story (probably not), is irrelevant. These digressions, tangents, fragments, collages and intertextuality are all part of the Barthelme's postmodern style. Yet, this story is far less experimental and surreal than one might expect. The ending of the story coincides with the ending of the tour, comprising of a single sentence in parentheses: "(Closed Mondays)." 

Well played Donald, well played. 

Monday 15 April 2024

The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace by Donald Barthelme

Annie Jones, the Bearded Lady.

I suppose it is Donald Barthelme week on this blog. We'll see how it goes. 

After reading his magnificent short-story "The Glass Mountain", anything else by the author was bound to pale in comparison. "The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace" is slightly amusing but feels very light, lacking the author's penchant for biting satire or irreverent social commentary. By Barthelme standards, this is a fairly straight-forward narrative, replacing the surrealism and experimental prose with a series of  self-contained vignettes. The absurdist humor remains but it is subdued, more somber in tone.

The narrator is a circus ring master, a P.T. Barnum type character that is recruiting various acts for his show. The venue will be an abandoned palazzo once it is all cleaned up. Each section provides a brief description of the acts, perhaps a little backstory and how they might contribute to the show's spectacular wonders. There is the Numbered Man and the Sulking Lady. He might just mention an act in passing without any explanation, like the Singing Sword and a Stone Eater. Or, one section might contain a single sentence, such as: "We auditioned an explosion." How does that work exactly? That's not important because the author is going for quirky and absurdist humor. During opening night, Edgar Allan Poe will be one of the main attractions. Maybe he'll perform a live-reading of one his short-stories. Now that would be worth the price of admission!

So, there's a whole lot of nonsense going on in this story and I suppose that's intentional. Barthelme embraces the absurd, the irrational and the uncanny through the lens of postmodern magical realism. 

There are different performances such as "The Sale of the Public Library", "Theological Novelties" and "Cereal Music." Again, it is all very silly and one can imagine the type of showmanship and hilarity that would ensue with some of these titles. 

The narrator also interrupts the flow of the story to drop some profound philosophical nuggets (a common Barthelme technique): 

"It is difficult to keep the public interested. The public demands new wonders piled on new wonders. Often we don't know where our next marvel is coming from. The supply of strange ideas is not endless." 

This self-reflexivity is another recurring feature in Barthelme's work with art often commenting on itself and drawing attention to the artifice of fiction. In postmodernist theory, there are no new ideas and therefore the artist's goal is borrow, recycle, rearrange and make it new through innovative techniques. The author is successful in his endeavor to present a short-story in playbill form, but I'm not sure there is enough depth here for it to be memorable or worth revisiting. Still enjoyable though.

Sunday 14 April 2024

The Glass Mountain by Donald Barthelme

"Don't look down, don't look down..."

It's a Donald Barthelme double feature this weekend! "The Glass Mountain" is unlike any short-story I have encountered before--the entire narrative structure consists of 100 individual bullet points! It's clever, hilarious and surprisingly poignant without ever feeling like a mere gimmick. Not many authors could pull off this narrative technique, let alone deconstruct the fairly-tale genre in the process. It's a masterful literary achievement that I can't recommend highly enough, even for those readers who might not be familiar with postmodern literature. Despite the disjointed narrative framework, the essence of the story remains quite accessible, enriched with delightful tongue-in-cheek humor. The narrator is making this perilous climb up the glass mountain using only dual plungers or as he calls them, a "plumbers helper." The jeering audience and his "acquaintances" (see, he's new to city) watch from below, interjecting like a Greek chorus:

11. "shithead"

12. "asshole"

24. "Dumb motherfucker."

It's crude but very funny stuff.

The pathos of this absurd postmodern fairy-tale would be diminished if the sentences were structured into proper paragraphs. The sequential numbered sections are central to the metaphorical conceit of the hero's mythical quest to save the princess in the castle located at the top of this glass mountain. It is another joke as the author is playfully highlighting the knights' deluded pursuit of fame and glory as a superfluous endeavor. Ironically, as a reader, the numbers are going up but you're moving down as you read the story (ascending and descending simultaneously). The numbers seem to following a semi-linear sequential order but the narrative flow is constantly being interrupted by seemingly random anecdotes, quotes, diversions, tangents. For example, in the middle of the list, the actual fairly tale interjects and breaks up the narrative. Each unit of text can also represent the story's building blocks along with the each metaphorical step the narrator takes up the glass mountain. Ultimately, the numbers are both arbitrary and essential to separate layers of meaning within this hyper-fragmented reality. 

The story is also quite cinematic as it captures the different aspects of New York city (from junkies to old people walking dogs to people cutting down trees that look like "white meat") along with the grand spectacle of these knights scaling the towering glass mountain. The narrative perspective shifts like a camera lens, changing focus, zooming in and zooming out from different camera angles. Working within the postmodernist tradition, Barthelme's mosaic technique, self-reflexivity, repetition and the use of intertextuality show up again. He is also questioning the validity of Signs and Symbols in literature, which immediately brings to mind Nabokov's short-story with the same title. Once again, Barthelme is fond of intertextuality, engaging with various source materials to challenge conventional literary modes. For example, there is a bizarre yet moving scene with a group of nightingales with a traffic light attached to their legs:

71. The conventional symbol (such as the nightingale, often associated with melancholy), even though it is recognized only through agreement, is not a sign (like the traffic light) because, again, it presumably arouses deep feelings and is regarded as possessing properties beyond what the eye alone sees." (A Dictionary of Literary Terms)

72. A number of nightingales with traffic lights tied to their legs flew past me.

Although the author humorously critiques symbolic interpretation, they also reveal an inherent paradox: the simultaneous urge to resist and embrace it. Moreover, the reference here could be Keats' famous poem "Ode to a Nightingale," but it could also just be an empty symbol/signifier. This further highlights the tension between fiction and reality, between coherence and meaning-making. For those with a keen analytical mind, there is a plethora of rich symbolism to scrutinize over--or you can simply choose to overlook it altogether. Either way, it's an entertaining yarn with a shockingly hilarious climax, completely turning the traditional fairy-tale ending on its head. 

Truly, this was easily one of the best short-stories that I have read all year. 

You can read this story HERE.

Critique de la Vie Quotidienne by Donald Barthelme

Elle Magazine - January, 1965.

Congrats, you're back in my good books again Donald. Sometimes it can be really hit or miss with you but "Critique de la Vie Quotidienne" is quite an achievement. Maybe even a great achievement in your short-story writing career. In contrast to "The Party", which I reviewed recently, the radically disruptive and experimental style in this story does not inadvertently cause the narrative to become incoherent babble. His post-modernist literary aesthetic tends to focus on fragmentation by utilizing a kind of kaleidoscopic perception of reality. He is interested in deconstructing conventional narrative forms and  pushing fiction beyond its own limitations. There is often a certain self-reflexivity in his work, highlighting the art of fiction as a way to challenge traditional forms of representation. He revels in the process of composition and radical technique, eschewing traditional plot or character development. Personally, this approach can often feel overwhelming and inaccessible. Yet, "Critique de la Vie Quotidienne" seems to find that sweet spot where Barthelme's fragmented prose and intertextuality merge smoothly into a satisfying reading experience. Plus, the irreverent and darkly absurdist humor really shines. 

This story offers abundant subtext and nuance waiting to be uncovered. It can be seen as a satire of bourgeois domesticity, a parody depicting the cliches of an unhappy marriage where alcoholism serves as a coping mechanism against the ennui of conventional responsibilities such as the 9-to-5 grind and child-rearing duties. The title is a reference to an academic research study by Henri Lefebvre, a French Marxist philosopher. In essence, this story becomes a metanarrative, an intertextual revision of Lefebvre's work within a postmodern cultural context. The intertextuality and mosaic narrative structure creates a palimpsestic effect--constantly altering the original text, revealing multiple layered meanings. 

For example, individualism and subjectivity is replaced by an amalgam of pop culture, magazines and various media. This is most prevalent in Wanda, the narrator's ex-wife, who is obsessed with reading Elle Magazine:

"Wanda empathizes with the magazine. "Femmes enceintes, ne mangez pas de bifteck cru!" Elle once proclaimed, and Wanda complied. Not a shred of bifteck cru passed her lips during the whole period of her pregnancy. She cultivated, as Elle instructed, un petit air naiif, or the schoolgirl look." 

Wanda has been stripped of individuality, she is a two-dimensional cliche of recycled phrases and social behaviors dictated by a popular fashion magazine. The narrator also falls into a similar category, where the enormous influence of mass media has cultivated a collective consciousness. Their conversations are contrived and predetermined simulations; a recycling of cliches, which lack any genuine emotional connection. They are so oversaturated with information where they have become a simulacra version of themselves. In the digital age of social media and TikTok, does this not sound familiar? 

Furthermore, this intertextuality allows Barthelme to draw upon a wide variety of scattered materials and references. Then, he rearranges these disparate elements into a type of pattern, emphasizing the tension between fiction and reality. These collected fragments become the story material, revealing the limitations of language as a means of representing a fragmented reality. Paradoxically, "Critique de la Vie Quotidienne" feels both inchoate and weirdly cohesive within this fractured narrative framework. 

You can read this story HERE.

Friday 12 April 2024

Mr. F is Mr. F by J.G. Ballard

"I' want to...Pump you up!" - Little Giants

J.G. Ballard has a very twisted mind, that much is certain. I chose this short-story based entirely on the odd title that immediately grabbed my attention. Ballard's titles often carry thematic weight and "Mr. F is Mr. F" is no exception, hinting at the mirror effect, duality, identity crisis and tautology. The "F" stands for Freeman, which is an ironic play on words, since the protagonist is the complete opposite of a free man. He is trapped in a nightmare scenario, aging backwards in a perversely Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I might be inclined to classify this story as a combination of science-fiction and horror. The Ballardian escape from contemporary society shows up again, a race against the clock before subjectivity is erased. This is a disturbing, creepy and suspenseful tale with a twist ending that would probably make O. Henry proud.