Monday 20 May 2024

Dr. A.H. Moynihan by Lucia Berlin

Mirror! Mirror! much blood. The grotesque and absurd collide in this darkly humorous coming-of-age tale where the vivid descriptions of tooth extractions are so exaggerated that they verge on camp. In "Dr. A.H. Moynihan", the narrator reflects on their youth when she was expelled from Catholic school and went to work at her grandfather's dental office during the summer (she is possibly the same narrator from "Stars and Saints"). Lucia Berlin's witty and economic prose is always reliable to keep the narrative flowing at a quick pace.  

The grandfather figure is an alcoholic and a curmudgeon who is estranged from his own daughter. It is implied that he might be have been abusive to her growing up. He is also a racist: "On all the windows, facing the main street of El Paso, were large gold letters that read, "Dr. H.A. Moynihan. I Don't Work for Negroes." The story's casual racism towards black people is disconcerting and difficult to overlook.  

The main comedic set piece involves the unqualified narrator performing oral surgery on the grandfather to remove his remaining teeth and install dentures. It is very chaotic and unfolds like a slapstick comedy with the narrator frantically trying not to kill the grandfather in the process, while blood is spraying everywhere. The entire scene is quite graphic and utterly absurd but the humor somehow manages to humanize the flawed characters, especially the grandfather. This is certainly one of my least favorite Lucia Berlin stories but she always impresses me with the her skillful use of humor that contributes to the sense of verisimilitude. Life is rarely devoid of humor, even in its most intense and absurd circumstances. 

Sunday 19 May 2024

My Jockey by Lucia Berlin

Secretariat, at the Kentucky Derby circa 1973.

I have mentioned Lucia Berlin's talent for minimalism before in other reviews, but "My Jockey" really took me by surprise as to how concise and quick it reads. The story's brevity, driven by lightning-fast prose, ensures that it concludes almost before the reader can fully immerse themselves in its eccentric premise: a nurse is assigned by hospital management to solely attend injured jockeys in the ER because she speaks Spanish and most of them are Mexican. Racial stereotypes aside, this brief snapshot of her first interaction with a jockey is quite comical and even poignant: "Munoz lay there, unconscious, a miniature Aztec God." Despite the unusual situation, she makes the best of it and even forms an emotional attachment to him. There is this very funny and tender moment where she is carrying him in her arms down the hospital hallway for surgery and is described as King Kong. Lucia Berlin's blend of absurdity, situational humor, and irony, offers a refreshing peak into the absurdity found within the medical profession.

Saturday 18 May 2024

The Phantom of the Opera's Friend by Donald Barthelme

Sing once again with me, our strange duet / My power over you grows stronger yet.

In the literary realm of Donald Barthelme's short stories, a recurring motif emerges—the portrayal of the tortured artist, often relegated to the margins of society. Among his works, 'The Phantom of the Opera's Friend' is probably one of the more explicit and poignant explorations into this thematic terrain. It also has that playful, quirky and absurdist humor that makes it such an enjoyable read. 

The narrator, his friend, is conflicted. He recognizes the Phantom's prodigious talent as an artist/musician but would also like to help this tragic figure emerge from the shadows and assimilate back into society: "His situation is simple and terrible. He must decide whether to risk life aboveground or to remain forever in hiding, in the cellars of the Opera." Of course, the friend acknowledges his selfish inclinations, even feeling guilty at times for being associated with such a melodramatic companion. 

If the Phantom represents misunderstood art, then perhaps he could also be a stand in for Barthelme himself. Post-modernism as a radical literary art form subverts narrative conventions and is therefore not easily accepted by the general readership or literary critics. As the narrator astutely observes regarding his conversation with the Phantom, although this commentary can also extend to the the stagnation in art: "Everything that can be said has been said many times." Hence, Barthelme seems to be expressing his frustration with the limitations of language that has been reduced to clichés but it is the artist's goal to transform it into something new.

The sense of loss in the final paragraph is palpable but also quite comedic: "I will wait here for a hundred years. Or until the hot meat of romance is cooled by the dull gravy of common sense once more." How does Barthelme come up with such ingenious phraseology? It's absolutely brilliant! Much like the narrator, many of us will continue the endless search for great art that pushes the boundaries of creative imagination and offers something fresh, exciting, and innovative. The metafictional twist here is that greatness is not some distant concept to seek out; it's all right here, within the very words of Barthelme's story that you are reading.

Now, I can't get the Phantom of the Opera theme song out of my head...not that it's a bad thing.

You can read this story HERE.

The President by Donald Barthelme


"The President" by Donald Barthelme is another bizarre and experimental political satire that is wildly uneven. The mysterious figure is an enigma, shrouded in ambiguity. We do learn a few things though: there is a "strangeness" about him, a powerful aura that causes people to faint in his presence, he is obsessed with death and loves attending the opera. The narrator repeats several times that he is "not entirely sympathetic" to the president who seems to have gained political power and influence through his charming personality and more disturbingly, propaganda. Yet, in times of crisis, many believe that he is the answer to all of the world's problems: 

"But everyone is convinced that he will bring it off. Our exhausted age wishes above everything to plunge into the heart of the problem, to be able to say, Here is the difficulty. And the new President, that tiny, strange, and brilliant man, seems cankered and difficult enough to take us there."

This sounds a lot like the he could be a fascist dictator. The surreal ending with the President making a surprise appearance at the opera house is wildly absurd. Everyone is cheering for him with rapturous enthusiasm and unable to contain their excitement, jump into the orchestra pit (a metaphor for descending into the pits of hell?). During the thunderous applause and commotion, the narrator provides a small detail that is quite chilling: "The president was smiling in his box." There is something nefarious about that smile amidst the chaos unfolding below in the pit below. 

The Indian Uprising by Donald Barthelme


"We defended the city as best we could."

If you want a prime example of Donald Barthelme's postmodernist and experimental style, look no further than "The Indian Uprising." There is one line in the story that encapsulates the author's artistic philosophy: "Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole." Indeed, the deconstruction of language in fiction, often results in disorientation, ambiguity, and overlapping perspectives, which is what we get here. The subjective "I" is destabilized by the non-linear and fragmented narrative structure, which unfolds in a surreal montage. This is one of those confusing stories that is challenging to comprehend on a first reading because it blatantly rejects the narrative conventions of plot, or character development. 

The underlying themes of racism, colonization and genocide are obfuscated by the disintegration of  language itself and replaced by the author's self-conscious and metafictional approach. Donald Barthelme embraces parody and contemporizing the Western genre mythology that often ignores the extermination of indigenous people. The social and political commentary is most pronounced through absurdist humor that coincides with the surreal nature of the story. For example, narrator is preoccupied with building a table while the city is being stormed by "Red men in waves." At first glance, the explicit racism might come across as offensive but it actually reinforces the story's criticism of colonization that dehumanizes the oppressed. Much like the battles in this story, the breakdown of communication creates a swirling vortex of entropy, burying the narrative in piles of debris. Nevertheless, the convoluted narrative and chaotic storytelling approach presented a formidable challenge to fully grasp the many layers of meaning. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that this story is completely bonkers and much of the subtext went over my head. Perhaps with subsequent readings, I will gain gain a deeper appreciation for it. 

The Educational Experience by Donald Barthelme

God help us, we're in the hands of engineers.

The first person narrator is a teacher and he has taken his students on a museum school trip. Surrounded by history, knowledge and relics of the past, this should be a great learning opportunity to spark their imaginations. Not quite. 

Donald Barthelme's "The Educational Experience" by Donald Barthelme makes for a great companion piece to both "Me and Miss Mandible" and "The School". All three short-stories are satires of the education system as not only a meaningless waste of time for teaching children important life skills, but also systemically trains them to become another drone in an oppressive capitalist society. At one point, the narrator even describes their learning akin to army drills. The author's disjointed narrative is overflowing with nonsense and pure absurdity--a mirror image of the world these young children will have to face once they finish their schooling. The irony, of course, is that they will be ill-equipped or oblivious to the machinations of a world gone topsy-turvy. 

The narrative structure is built upon erudite digressions and incongruities. For example, in outlining various lesson plans, he states: "We made the students add odd figures, things like 453498 x 23: J and 8977?22MARY." More gibberish taught in schools that has no practical application to the so-called real world. As the class visits the different museum exhibitions, he interjects with sardonic commentary along the way: "Here is a diode, learn what to do with it. Here is Du Guesclin, constable of France 1370-80--learn what to do with him. A divan is either a long cushioned seat or a council of state--figure out at which times it is what." Once again, students are compelled to study a myriad of irrelevant subjects and clutter their minds with futile information. However, the teacher emphasizes the importance of this higher learning:

"But what a wonderful time you'll have, we told them, when the experience is over, done, completed. You will all, we told them, be more beautiful than you are now, and more employable too. You will have a grasp of the total situation; the total situation will have a grasp of you."

This paragraph is indicative of the author's harsh critique and caustic satire of the corrupt education system. The surreal aspects of the story also add to the confusion and distorted reality; a warped perception of the world enmeshed in chaotic misunderstanding,

Views of My Father Weeping by Donald Barthelme


Here is another prime example of Donald Barthelme's post-modern literary aesthetic where narrative form and structure is more important than plot. Blocks of text are divided by bullet points and this fragmentation is essential to creating the story's ambiguity. Moreover, the author is interested in deconstructing the detective genre. The first-person narrator is trying to solve the mystery of his father's tragic death, who was allegedly run over by a carriage owned by an aristocrat. Unlike the pragmatic Sherlock Holmes character that follows clues to their logical conclusion, the narrator's search for truth is futile in an irrational world of infinite perspectives. He is trapped in a repetitive loop of distorted and contradictory perspectives from various witnesses. The dreamlike surrealism and experimental prose further highlight the temporal and spatial ambiguity of the text. 

An important question emerges: how does one reconstruct past events when fact and fiction are no longer distinguishable? Additionally, scientific objectivity offers no solace. To rationalize his trauma and despair, he strategically turns to art, performance and imagination. This is where the story becomes truly bizarre, launching into experimental high-gear. He envisions a father figure weeping and we are told that "It is someone's father. That much is clear. He is fatherly." In other words, unable to confront his immense grief, he conjures up a simulacrum of his father. However, much like the detective, this performance is merely another fictitious attempt to avoid the complex emotions he feels toward his deceased father. To make matters even more confusing, we also get fragmented memories of the father during his youth. For example, we see him has a mischievous kid putting pepper into the sugar bowl or destroying a doll house. These brief sketches of the father are not meant to provide any deep insight into his character but humanizes him in a more sympathetic light. 

During the dénouement, all the "clues" lead the narrator to confronting a carriage driver named Lars Bang, who supposedly ran over his father in the street. After he gives his version of events, he is interrupted by a little girl that calls him out as liar and the story ends with a simple "Etc.". This isn't a spoiler because a satisfying conclusion is impossible; there will always be infinite perspectives on reconstructing the past. This is Barthelme's clever way of nudging the reader, reminding them that they are engaging with a work of fiction, not an accurate representation of reality.

Friday 17 May 2024

A Manual For Cleaning Woman by Lucia Berlin

Apparently, cleaning women do steal.

"A Manual For Cleaning Woman" is quintessential Lucia Berlin: fast-paced, concise prose, witty, quirky characters and of course, her trademark minimalistic style to seamlessly counterbalance heavy themes with dark humor. This is a story about unresolved trauma, frantically building up towards a cathartic ending where the narrator finally exhales, releasing years of repressed grief and pain. Humor becomes a safety mechanism for the narrator, reflecting her resilience and ability to cope with hardship as a cleaning woman. Given that this profession is predominantly held by working-class women, the narrator is compelled to offer a self-help guide for others in domestic labor. Appearing mostly in parenthesis, she provides practical advice, trade secrets, and essential do's and don'ts for those in the cleaning industry. For example: "(Advice to cleaning women: Take everything that your lady gives you and say Thank you. You can leave it on the bus, in the crack.)". Funny stuff, indeed. Throughout the process, she also sporadically provides small details about her life, especially regarding her rocky relationship with a man named Ter (presumably a nickname for Terry?). These fragmented memories of domestic turmoil and heartbreak are softened by the comedic and segmented narrative. 

Her meandering anecdotes as she travels across Oakland by bus to clean the houses of her diverse clientele is quite funny. The humorous reflections on the mundane details of these cleaning jobs enhances the vivid realism and absurdity of her circumstances. Moreover, the self-deprecating humor feels intimate and personal, further enriching the story's authenticity. It's this unique fusion of sardonic humor, wit and vulnerability that makes this story both entertaining and profoundly relatable, particularly for those who have experienced the toil of underappreciated, labor-intensive jobs.

Thursday 16 May 2024

Her First Detox by Lucia Berlin

This is Halloween, this is Halloween! Pumpkins scream in the dead of night!

One of Lucia Berlin's many remarkable qualities as a writer is find the absurdity and humor in serious or tragic situations. This narrative approach makes her stories both funny and deeply poignant--a difficult balance to convincingly achieve. The protagonist, Carlotta, wakes up in a detox ward of a hospital after being arrested for drunken behavior. Could she be a stand-in for the author, drawing inspiration from her own experiences with alcohol? Most likely. 

Lucia Berlin's sharp and keen observational humor is also quite effective. Early in the story, there's a darkly humorous scene where the patients are tasked with crafting their own balloon pumpkins for Halloween. However, frustration quickly sets in as it becomes apparent that the AA facilitators are predominantly the ones doing all the work. As the narrator observes with a wry tone: "There was much childlike laughter, because of the slippery balloons, their shaky hands. It was hard, making the pumpkins. If they had been allowed to cut out the eyes and nose and mouth they would have been give those dull dumb scissors." The attention to detail ("shaking hands", "dull dumb scissors") and conciseness creates such a vivid scene filled with emotional nuance. 

Carlotta's interactions with the other patients in the hospital is also quite funny. Lucia Berlin  knows how to write witty and authentic dialogue that dances on the page. Since many of the other characters drift in and out of the story so quickly, these comedic exchanges reveal much about their personalities. Carlotta's sobriety remains uncertain, demanding immense inner strength to resist the allure of alcohol. For me, the most emotionally poignant aspect of the story is when she leaves the hospital; her struggle to reintegrate into the everyday routine of running errands, attending to household chores, and caring for her children. While staying at the hospital, she was a like a kid at school again, taking art classes and hanging out with friends in detention without any adult responsibilities. This brief stint away from her family and work offered a much-needed respite from the monotony of her daily existence. Yet, the uncertainty of what lies ahead is an integral part of her healing journey. In embracing the unknown, Carlotta's path to recovery becomes both a challenge and an opportunity for growth.