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.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Stars and Saints by Lucia Berlin

Get thee to a nunnery.

Right from the opening sentence, the narrator is on the defensive and feels compelled to justify various misunderstandings with people throughout her life: "Wait. Let me explain..."

She is trying to convince the reader that through no fault of her own, numerous incidents have led to her making poor first impressions, all due to circumstances beyond her control. In typical Lucia Berlin fashion, the reader is presented with a serios of vignettes, except this time it is less frenetic and more subdued through a series of flashbacks mostly pertaining to the narrator's strict religious upbringing at a Catholic school. As a protestant, she becomes a social pariah and teased by classmates. Unable to connect with the other kids, she befriends the nuns instead although another "misunderstanding" occurs that gets her suspended. Lucia Berlin's minimalist style, characterized by its economical prose and ambiguity, often leaves little room for plot development. However, this story stands out as one of the more conventional narratives I have encountered in her collection. This also explains why it was mostly subpar but even more alarming is that her witty and dark humor is almost non-existent. The tone is a bit more serious and the few comedic moments fell flat. 

Monday 13 May 2024

Languishing, Half-Deep in Summer by Donald Barthelme

The Bus Driver, 1962 by George Segal.

Here is another quick read by Donald Barthelme but it almost feels trivial and not worth any deep critical analysis. Or maybe I just didn't "get it", which can be the case with some of his more ambiguous works. The opening line is fantastic though: "Languishing, half-deep in summer, soul-sick and under-friended, I decided to find love." Since the author's writing tends to be parodic and  jocular in tone, this could also be a satirical nod to love poetry. The speaker's palpable sense of alienation and melancholy is conveyed with such eloquence. 

The narrator responds to a personal ad in a literary review (is this an actual thing?) and ends up going on a date with an eccentric woman named Mindy Sue. There seems to be some underlying social commentary regarding gender politics, publishing collectives and the difficulties of modern dating (not much has really changed in that regard). For example, when discussing the so-called "urban crisis", Mindy Sue has some strong views on the subject: "The true urban crisis, from my angle of vision, is marriage. All the good men are married, and most of the bad. There is nothing much left except lames, kiddies, and poor people. What can I do? You think I like describing myself as 'cultivated, sensuous'?" Her frustrations appear warranted, particularly as the pool of eligible and respectable men dwindles significantly in middle age. Nevertheless, she remains steadfast in her quest for the perfect match, which he finds admirable because it certainly won't be with him. Despite the narrator's prior yearning for love, he is less optimistic about his prospects, especially when it comes to dating Mindy Sue. A cynical and darkly amusing story at times but one that doesn't quite leave a whole lot to contemplate afterwards. 

You can read this story HERE.

Sunday 12 May 2024

Wrote a Letter... by Donald Barthelme

Beyond Borders: USA's Lunar Exodus.

Donald Barthelme does Science-Fiction? Sort of. It's more like his post-modernist and satirical spin on the genre. "Wrote a Letter" is very very short, and only takes a few minutes to read. The narrator is corresponding via letters and cutting-edge technology (an Apple Computer!) with the President of the United States who is now stationed on the moon. His new government has spearhead a utopian society committed to the welfare of its inhabitants like never before. For example, most governmental assistance programs such mental health services, employment and retirement benefits only cost a dollar!  No wonder the narrator is adamant to leave Earth. The political satire is a tad explicit but does not detract from the story's social commentary, which is reinforced by Barthelme's unconventional humor: 

"Well, I needed mental health real bad that week, so I wrote back saying I thought I could get there by the spring of '81, if the space shuttle fulfilled its porcelain promise, and to keep some mental health warm for me who needed it, and could I interest him in a bucket of ribs in red sauce? Which I would gladly carry on up there to him if he wished?" 

This quote pretty much sums up the delightful concoction of wit and absurdity found in this story. Funny and irreverent, it is a delicious slice of post-modernist absurdity. 

You can read this story HERE.

Saturday 11 May 2024

Mama by Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin was born in Juneau, Alaska.

Alongside the recurring motif of the doctor's office, another common narrative thread found in Lucia Berlin's stories is the female narrator taking care of an ill sister. Once again, the author blurs the line between fiction and autobiography. In "Mama," the narrator provides companionship to her sister Sally, who is in the final stages of battling cancer. They reminisce about their mother, revealing the complex family history and relationship dynamics that are largely rooted in shared experiences of trauma. She was cruel, neglectful, selfish, abusive and a terrible mother to her daughters. A complicated woman and also burdened with unresolved trauma. For example, broken relationships also influenced her cynical views on the subject: "Love makes you miserable," our mama said. "You soak your pillow crying yourself to sleep, you steam up phone booths with your tears, your sobs make the dog holler, you smoke two cigarettes at once." This contrast between melancholy and dark witty humor is Berlin's specialty. She is endlessly quotable: "I told her funny stories about our mother. How once she tried and and tried to open a bag of Granny Goose potato chips, then gave up. "Life is just to damn hard," she said and tossed the bag over her shoulder." This anecdote is not only funny but offers a glimpse into the mother's personality and pessimistic worldview. Much of the story consists of these highly condensed sketches, presented in quick succession. 

Yet, despite recollecting these painful memories, the narrator attempts to uplift Sally's spirits by casting their mother in a more dignified light. She is reimagined as this youthful and beautiful person capable of expressing genuine emotion such as tears of joy. The narrator's poignant tale of her mother aboard the ship and arriving at the Juneau, Alaska harbor is emotionally resonant, especially for Sally. She is brimming with happiness at the possibilities of a fresh start. This scene stirs within Sally a profound sense of compassion towards her mother, highlighting the power of fiction. Even though the narrator is aware of the fiction's contrived artifice, Sally remains unaffected by such distinctions. The closing sentence serves as a poignant revelation of the narrator's genuine sentiments towards her mother, starkly juxtaposed with those of her sister. Overall, this is a solid story and falls somewhere in the middle-tier of Berlin's work.

Friday 10 May 2024

Angel's Laundromat by Lucia Berlin



Compared to some of the other excellent stories by Lucia Berlin that I have encountered so far in the "Manual for Cleaning Woman" collection, "Angel's Laundromat" is probably the least memorable. It is unclear to me if the editors organized these stories chronologically based on publication date but this is the first story to appear in the anthology and feels like it could be one of her earlier works. She seems to be standing right on the cusp of refining her distinctive minimalist style, characterized by quaint, succinct sentences, rapid storytelling, and witty humor. 

She is also known for incorporating autobiographical details, which is particularly evident here with the narrator being named Lucia. Presumably drawing upon these real-life experiences, she recounts her time spent at this establishment, washing clothes and interacting with some of the regular patrons. She is fascinated by an Indigenous gentleman named Tony, who is an alcoholic and has this strange obsession with staring at her hands. Many readers are bound to find the author's depiction of Tony and indigeneity as racist, relying heavily upon stereotypes. Similar to other Berlin stories, the narrator jumps from one vignette to the next in rapid succession while sprinkling in some background history during the process. Unfortunately, this story is missing the magical spark, finesse and emotional resonance one expects from Lucia Berlin's exceptional writing.

Thursday 9 May 2024

So Long by Lucia Berlin

"How are you?"

This is my first 5-start review for a Lucia Berlin story and it probably won't be the last!

In "So Long", the narrator's complicated and tumultuous adult life is condensed into a few pages with such stark realism and compassion. The autobiographical details are spliced into a series of flashbacks. In some cases, major life events are summed up in one quick sentence or short paragraph and never mentioned again. There is a frantic energy as she jumps from one anecdote to the next with the story events rendered through a sympathetic narrative voice. Her genuine sincerity and wry sense of humor enrich the emotional depth of the story. 

Life is messy and full of constant challenges. Yet, even in moments of great sadness there is also joy. This recurring interplay is beautifully articulated by the narrator as "Times of intense technicolor happiness and times that were sordid and frightening." The narrative unfolds across multiple decades, showcasing her resilience through a myriad of life experiences: love, heartbreak, failed marriages, affairs, financial setbacks, battles with alcoholism, drug addiction, raising kids, relocating across states and different countries, aging, estranged parents, sisterhood, grappling with illness, and confronting the inevitability of death. Despite the intense subject matter, the story never feels overwhelming or becomes perpetually bleak. The heartbreak is always counterbalanced with humor and tenderness. Lucia Berlin skillfully distills the essence of an entire lifetime into a concise narrative, an achievement that can only be described as nothing short of miraculous.

Wednesday 8 May 2024

A Love Affair by Lucia Berlin

"Thank you for calling Dr. ----'s office. How many I help you?"

I've started to notice that Lucia Berlin has a penchant for using the doctor's office setting in her stories, especially from the perspective of a receptionist/assistant. Perhaps she is drawing upon personal experiences but it could also speak to her skills as a great writer to convincingly capture the atmosphere of a busy doctor's office with meticulous attention to intricate details. As a minimalist writer, Lucia Berlin seems to be doing something different than her contemporaries like Raymond Carver. The elliptical style often associated with minimalism still exists although her approach feels more self-contained. Her narrative technique tends to focus on compressing reality into its most concise form, squeezing out pathos through a kind of slice-of-life hyperrealism. She also has a knack for crafting relatable, complex and flawed characters. The reader is often presented with only glimpses into their lives and yet, this snapshot contains so much emotional depth and narrative richness. 

There is not much in way of plot and the events of the story are shaped through the subjectivity of the narrator. Her friend and colleague Ruth is going through a midlife crisis and joins a support group called the "merry pranksters" but as the narrator humorously points out, "it really stood for meno pause." Much to the narrator's disapproval, Ruth wants to shake up her life by having an affair. The rest of the story follows the blossoming friendship between these two women, accompanied by the comedic escapades that unfold as Ruth remains resolute in her pursuit of her adulterous scheme. The story is quirky without becoming twee, which is quite the accomplishment. Even more astonishingly, a premise centered on an extramarital affair bodes the formidable task to sidestep the pitfalls of clichés and plot contrivances—a challenge that Lucia Berlin masterfully conquers. Her clever storytelling technique shines again, evading the expected tropes and delivering a heartfelt story that resonates with humor and authenticity. Not to mention the great ironic ending that is both hilarious and poignant. Only an author as talented as Lucia Berlin could pull this off with such bravado. 

Tuesday 7 May 2024

Point of View by Lucia Berlin

Henrietta is a big fan of Diane Sawyer.

This story's charming conceit can be found in the title. It places narrative perspective or "point of view" at the forefront, with the author playfully dabbling in a delightful meta-narrative. The narrator begins by referencing Chekov's short-story "Grief" as an example of how the emotional impact would be greatly diminished if it was told in the first-person narrative voice. At the same time, Berlin's narrator is in the process of writing a story about Henrietta, a single woman in her late fifties that works as a receptionist at a doctor's office. Her life is quite dull but as the narrator explains: "Nothing happens, actually. In fact, the story isn't even written yet. What I hope to do is, by use of intricate detail, to make this woman so believable you can't help but feel for her." It is now up to the reader to decide whether or not the narrator is successful in their self-imposed challenge. 

The omniscient third-person voice presents all these seemingly mundane details about Henrietta's life (she enjoys watching 60 minutes, has a crush on her rude boss, reads the Sunday paper) in an attempt to elevate the ordinary into the profound through evocative language. The story-within-a-story technique becomes a creative writing exercise for both the narrator and Lucia Berlin where subjectivities often conflate, blurring together. This autobiographical overlap becomes more pronounced when the narrator inserts themselves into the story. In essence, the meta-narrative is structured where the "point of view" is intertwined between the narrator, Henrietta and Lucia Berlin. Once again, Berlin's dynamic writing style dazzles with its sharpness, humor and brevity almost to a fault. The story concludes so quickly and feels almost fleeting before it has time to fully materialize into something substantial. It's still a very fun and enjoyable read though.  

The Brief Debut of Tildy by O. Henry

Pass the cruet, please.

The only saving grace for "The Brief Debut of Tildy" is O. Henry's witty and concise writing style.  His lyrical prose and vivid descriptions can make even the most humdrum subject matter interesting. In the case, a bougie restaurant in New York City where lustful men vie for the attention of waitresses. Among them, Aileen captivates with her charm, drawing the gaze of many, while Tildy, often overlooked, fades into the background. However, a violent incident outside of work shatters the illusion of beauty, prompting a sudden shift in attention towards Tildy. The explicit misogyny underlying this narrative is deeply unsettling, compounded by an ironic twist that comes up short. Generally speaking, this is one of the weakest and least memorable found in "The Four Million", O. Henry's second published collection of short stories. Again, if it weren't for the excellent writing, this would probably receive a one-star rating.

Monday 6 May 2024

In Retail by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Retail dreams.

Having worked "in retail" for many years, this story deeply resonated with me. In only a few pages, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah effectively captures the monotony, stagnation and despair of being stuck in a retail job making minimum wageHe emerges as a fresh voice among young black authors, a new discovery that has impressed me so far with the sheer quality of his writing. His skillful use of understated and concise prose is particularly striking, imbuing his work with a quiet power. Every observational detail feels impeccably authentic while balancing humor and tragedy with finesse. 

The narrator works at a clothing store in a town mall. A humorous vignette unfolds during one of his shifts where he displays excellent customer service skills by helping a Spanish woman buy some clothes, even though there is a language barrier. Yet, despite the lighthearted comedy, there also exists an underlying sadness to the narrator's unfortunate circumstances. Additionally, a string of recent tragedies weighs heavy on the narrator's mind—the untimely deaths of other retail employees, all lost to suicide. These poignant losses cast a stark light on the harsh realities of the retail industry: a relentless grind where mistreatment, meager wages, and a sense of disposability prevail. In this poignant narrative, we are left to ponder the fate of our protagonist. Will he navigate the treacherous waters of the retail world unscathed, or will he become yet another casualty of the unforgiving retail industrial complex? Eventually, the primary reason and driving force behind his endurance of putting up with this degrading job, day in and day out, come to light. Hopefully it is only a temporary solution until he finds something better. 

Saturday 4 May 2024

The Dolt by Donald Barthelme

The mighty claymore of son manque.

This is a weird one and I also feel like a dolt for not fully grasping what Donald Barthelme attempts to achieve with this story. At the same time, this confusion is intentional because there are no fixed meanings within a postmodern literary context. He seems to be presenting a meta-narrative and self-parody regarding the artistic writing process. Edgar has already failed the National Writers' Examination twice and is preparing to write the test again with both an oral and written component. He believes it is the latter where he really struggles. His wife Barbara, a former prostitute, finds the whole situation rather silly. Why is this detail about her previous vocation important? Well, it clearly highlights Edgar's male chauvinism. She will also be the inspiration for one of the main female characters in the medieval romance he is writing for the exam. Edgar attempts to regain her support in his artistic endeavors by engaging in a type of mock-exam game where he gives the answers first and she has to provide the actual questions. The playful banter is slightly amusing. 

We then get a story-within-a-story as Edgar reads his medieval romance/historical fiction piece to Barbara. Unfortunately, the story is very convoluted and written in highly ornate prose with odd syntax. It has no middle, just a beginning and a lackluster ending. The main narrative takes a surreal turn when one of his characters shows up in the room ("son manque was eight feet tall and wore a serape woven out of two hundred transistor radios"). An invasive "I" narrator also enters the text near the end, which could be Barthelme himself: "I sympathize. I myself have these problems. Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all, is to begin to begin, begin." As a parody of the artist suffering from writer's block, Barthelme's double-narrative framework highlights the self-reflexive nature of the text. As a postmodern writer that rejects traditional narrative conventions such as linear plot, the actual story becomes the very subject of Barthelme's literary aesthetic--more specifically, the limitations of language and the challenges inherent in its application within a fictional framework.

Friday 3 May 2024

Fragments of a Hologram Rose by William Gibson

Baaaaby, I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the grey. Or is it grave?

Much to my surprise, "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" by William Gibson is not the high-octane cyberpunk thriller like some of his other stories that I have encountered. Quite the contrary, it feels rather tame and slower-paced than the author's typical propensity for overwhelming technojargon and frantic storytelling. It's as though he eased off the accelerator, shifting the narrative focus towards character development and emotional depth. Unfortunately, this approach doesn't necessarily pay off and I actually prefer when Gibson is unhinged. 

While themes of alienation and loneliness stemming from over reliance on technology may appear trite by today's standards, one should take into consideration that this story was written in the late 1970s,which makes it remarkably prescient. Parker is obsessed with ASP units that function like VR dream machines. Life isn't going great for him at the moment: his girlfriend recently left him, he can't sleep properly and is stuck in a repetitively mundane existence. There are flashbacks to his young adult life through a series of fragmented memories. The story revels in murkiness and ambiguity. It is not always clear what is happening and adhering to the cyberpunk aesthetic, nothing is ever explained. Readers are entrusted with essential bits of information and tasked with piecing together the narrative puzzle through contextual inference. While this technique showcases a certain artistry, its effectiveness can sometimes falter as found here.

Late, Late Show by John O'Hara

Bring back Craig!

See? I don't just review Donald Barthelme short-stories. "Late, Late Show" by John O'Hara is my first story by this author and it actually might be my last one for a while. The only minor redeeming factor here is the brisk dialogue and zippy repartee between the couple, which essentially makes up the entire narrative. Everything else felt completely pointless. 

The couple is watching a movie and the husband recognizes a familiar name in the screenwriting credits, a Ralph P. Stimson. The husband then proceeds to tell the wife about how he first met Stimson when they worked together at an advertising agency before quitting abruptly and leaving for Hollywood. He shares various personal details about the man such as his quirky personality, offbeat fashion sense and the way he groomed his moustache, which was radical for the times. Why should we care about any of these details about Stimson's life? Anyways, during WWII, it's possible that they were both working for the CIA although the husband is evasive on the subject, much to the wife's chagrin. I find myself pondering what exactly John O'Hara intended for readers to glean from this narrative. Are we meant to decipher hidden depths within the rapid-fire banter, unraveling insights into the intricacies of this couple's dynamic? If that's the case, prepare to be disappointed because all you will find is a vast and empty hollowness. 

Thursday 2 May 2024

A Shower of Gold by Donald Barthelme


This blog is not solely devoted to Donald Barthelme, I swear. It just so happens that I have been reading a lot of his work lately and want to jot down some haphazard thoughts while it still remains fresh in my mind. Many of Donald Barthelme's short-stories revel in the absurd and "A Shower of Gold" is perhaps his most explicit and self-reflective exploration of this subject. The absurd is viewed through a satirical and paradoxical lens. The whole world has gone mad and life is filled with absurdity (institutions, bureaucracy and mass media being some of the main culprits) but it can also be a gateway to new experiences, artistic creation and establishing one's authentic self as opposed to accepting an imposed identity dictated  by society. 

Initially, Hank Peterson, a struggling sculptor, is skeptical about such notions when he decides to go on a gameshow called "Who am I?" to earn some extra cash. This bizarre television show aims to psychoanalyze its contestants and expose them as frauds for hiding their true nature. The beginning section is hilarious in its absurdity and highlights Barthelme's ability to infuse layers of meaning into seemingly preposterous scenarios. Continuing the surreal and unconventional theme, a cat-piano virtuoso unexpectedly appears at Peterson's loft, sparking a philosophical conversation on the nature of choices and free will. Peculiarity aside, the encounter proves to be both amusing and profoundly insightful. This is a perfect example of Barthelme's style. 

Despite his earlier aversion to the absurd, Peterson experiences an epiphany near the end of the story: 

"I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not believing in it. I affirm the absurdity. On the other hand, absurdity is itself absurd."

Paradoxically, the narrator is mocking absurdity and also championing it as essential to the human condition. He goes on to add: 

"In this kind of world," Peterson said, "absurd if you will, possibilities nevertheless proliferate and escalate all around us and there are opportunities for beginning again."

Here, he rejects a predetermined, fixed and worthless existence for an identity rooted in the unpredictable, nonconformity and the power of imagination. Moreover, Barthelme tackles a lot of complex topics in this story, including myth-making, self-realization, free will, private vs. public life, art theory and existentialism. He even pokes fun at philosophical jargon in relation to nihilistic despair and alienation. For example, the following quote from Pascal is mentioned twice by two different characters: 

"The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us." 

If our lives are full of despair and suffering, how does one fill this void and find meaning? I'm not sure if this story has a definitive answer to this question but that's part of the fun when reading Barthelme. His stories are often wacky and very funny but also leave the reader with plenty to ponder afterwards. Still, "A Shower of Gold" feels wildly uneven although there are some parts where the satire and humor is absolutely brilliant.

You can read this story HERE. 

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Xífù by K-Ming Chang


April was productive month for my reading goals, culminating in a total of 39 reviews! May is already shaping up to be quite busy, which will likely impact my ability to sustain this remarkable pace I've been on. However, I remain cautiously optimistic that it will be possible to review at least one short-story per day. First up, we have "Xífù" by K-Ming Chang. I'm not up to speed with newer authors and tend to gravitate towards the more recognizable household names. Although lately, I have started to broaden my reading horizons, especially when it comes to POC writers. This story was fantastic with a great mixture of pathos and comedy. We are presented with three generations of a Chinese family, all from the perspective of women. Intergenerational trauma, gender roles and cultural estrangement are important themes running throughout the story. 

The primary narrative voice is a mother telling a story about her tumultuous relationship with the cantankerous mother-in-law prone to histrionics. As someone with an Asian background, catastrophizing and living a life of hyperbole feels quite relatable. This formidable matriarch, disapproving of her son's chosen spouse, resorts to dramatic gestures, feigning suicide repeatedly in protest against the marriage. The story is filled with surreal and dark irreverent humor, especially pertaining to the mother-in-laws outlandish suicide attempts. The mother's daughter is also queer, which is a radical departure from heteronormative expectations and perhaps an attempt to break the inherited trauma of marrying a man with an overbearing mother-in-law. Despite the serious subject matter, the author somehow makes it all very funny in a weird and twisted way. K-Ming Chang is  young author to keep an eye on I look forward to checking out some of her other works. 

You can read this story HERE.

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Me and Miss Mandible by Donald Barthelme

Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

No, this story was not adapted into the 90's comedy 'Billy Madison' starring Adam Sandler although it shares a similar premise. 

It seems fitting that my last review for April would be a short-story by Donald Barthelme. He has dominated my reading hours this month and every time I finish one of his stories, I get the sudden urge to seek out another story and then this rate, I might even finish his "Sixty Stories" collections by the end of May. He's a master of the unexpected and I am always excited to discover what other delightful literary tricks he has up his sleeve. "Me and Miss Mandible" is one of his earlier works and would make a great companion piece to "The School", both satires of a flawed education system and focusing on children in the classroom. However, in this story, the protagonist is a man-child. As an ironic nod to Kafka's "Metamorphosis", Joseph is a 35-year old insurance salesman that finds himself inexplicably thrust back into sixth grade (hence, the above Billy Madison reference). 

Though the narrative flirts with science fiction through its ambiguous time-travel premise, its essence aligns more with the Kafkaesque—where surrealism and absurdity converge to entrap the protagonist within a education system built on superfluous repetition. He is stuck in his own twisted version of "Groundhogs Day" repeating the same classroom experiences over and over again. Paradoxically, he believes returning to the past is an opportunity to reclaim invaluable lessons and forge new paths, resolving the challenges in his adult life (fired from the insurance job, broken marriage, etc). Yet, it's the systemic failure and deceit within the education system that have led to the missteps landing him in this predicament. By conforming to the rules, he ends up falling right back into the same classroom routines and behavioral patterns forced upon children during middle-school--empty and pointless, with very little application to the real world. I have always wondered why we had to learn trigonometry or the Napoleonic wars instead of being taught important life skills such as how to file taxes, repair a leaking faucet or write a proper resume. 

The narrative is broken up into various diary entries, beginning with a boyhood fantasy where the homeroom teacher, Miss Mandible, wants to seduce him: 

Miss Mandible wants to make love with me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the card index in the principal's office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven't quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I've been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind."

It is not made clear if she perceives Joseph as an adult or a younger version of himself, which makes their relationship all the more disturbing. Similar to other Barthelme stories, the protagonist's identity is fractured with a mixed doubling effect at play. He greatly anticipates reliving his first sexual experience with an older woman and when they finally do get caught hooking up in the cloakroom, the consequences are even more absurd. She is properly dismissed for having sex with a minor ("ruined but fulfilled") but he cannot successfully convince the school authorities that he is as much to blame here as an adult. They can only see him as an innocent young kid that was taken advantage of by an older woman. He finds their final decision completely baffling and excoriates them as fools: "They are as dense as ever." 

His only real punishment is to be sent back to class, forced to endure these continual patterns of repetition until he can break the cycle by ignoring the worthless classroom lessons. "We read signs as promises" encapsulates Barthelme's primary focus in this story. The protagonist must recognize that these signs are deceiving and often misrepresentations of truth. This prompts the question: If society systematically imposes these false signs upon us at such a young age, how can we pierce the veil of this delusion as adults? Barthelme seems to suggest that we must question these signs with a more critical eye and develop new ways of interpreting them. That's my takeaway here but there are so many different ways to approach this text. He's a true stylistic virtuoso I'm consistently astounded by the depth and thought-provoking nature of his entertaining short stories.

You can read this story HERE.