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 another...at 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.

Monday 29 April 2024

Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning by Donald Barthelme

K. Puzzled by His Children.

There is something slightly foreboding about this short-story, which was written a few months before Robert Kennedy’s assassination on June 6, 1968. Consisting of 24 segments, Barthelme's satire of journalistic "truth" is fictionalized, obfuscated, deconstructed and parodied in his typical postmodern avant-garde style. The author creates a patchwork representation of a popular political figure who still remains an enigma. His identity is continually fractured and displaced. Similar to the 'Marivaudian being' mentioned near the story's end, he is "a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant." In other words, he exists within a disjointed nonlinear reality, outside time and space. Attempting to reconstruct Robert Kennedy's life and grasp the essence of this man through language proves to be a futile endeavor. When we reminisce about those who have departed, it's not by following a chronological biography; instead, we cherish specific moments—whether trivial or profound—that resonate with us.

Hence, the third-person objective narrator refers to Robert Kennedy as "K." and the reader is presented with a series of random fragmented anecdotes/observations: "K. at His Desk," K. Reading the Newspaper", "K. Puzzled by His Children" (possibly my favorite section). Some sections are more interesting than others, which only offer us a mere glimpse, a brief snapshot into his personal and public life. We are also presented with various accounts from different people who knew him: his secretary, former teacher, a friend. These different perspectives reveal multiple layers of meaning but since K. is constantly "born anew", his fixed identity always remains a conundrum. Barthelme's playful technique of shaping meaning through humor, ambiguity, juxtapositions and manipulation of language also further complicates our understanding of K. There is also an elusive "I" that makes an appearance, most importantly, in the final segment where they save K. from drowning in dramatic fashion, in which he tersely responds: "Thank you." It's a beautifully moving scene but also quite eerie. 

You can read this story HERE.

A Cosmopolite in a Café by O. Henry

lya Repin, Parisian Café (Le Cafе du Boulevard), 1875, oil on canvas.

I wasn't exactly planning on a Monday double-feature of O. Henry short-stories, but there you have it. "A Cosmopolite in a Café" was slightly disappointing and probably the first misstep that I have encountered with the author's work so far. O. Henry's signature blend of sharp wit and eloquent prose remains intact but this particular story lacks staying power. His best stories are elevated by their ingenious twist endings, yet in this instance, the absence of a truly memorable conclusion threatens to consign it to obscurity amidst the vast expanse of his literary oeuvre.

The author paints a vibrant scene with his vivid descriptions of a late-night Parisian café bursting to life with its cacophony of lively music, animated chatter, raucous laughter and swirling tendrils of cigarette smoke. Amongst the bustling crowd of diverse patrons, the narrator's excitement peaks when a distinguished figure, E. Rushmore Coglan (a name that practically dances off the tongue!), takes a seat at his table. Much to his amazement, he swiftly discerns that he is in the presence of a true cosmopolite, far beyond a mere globe-trotter. This is no ordinary traveler; rather, this is an individual who embodies a profound curiosity for  global cultures, languages, and traditions. In awe, he realizes that this remarkable cosmopolite not only traverses the world's expanse (12 times!) but also immerses themselves deeply in the myriad hues of human experience (a "citizen of the terrestrial sphere"). As a true cosmopolite, one of his key arguments is that someone's place of birth is irrelevant and should not be intrinsically linked to their identity or self-worth. This point of contention will become important at the end.

As Coglan regales the narrator with his mesmerizing adventures from far-flung corners of the world, one cannot help but be captivated alongside with him. However, despite the allure of these fantastical narratives, a lingering question emerges: are these tales genuine expressions of lived experiences, or are they the clever fabrications of a masterful charlatan? Skepticism is engendered as the thin line between truth and artifice becomes increasingly blurred. My primary issue with the twist ending lies in O. Henry's prolonged setup for a punchline that ultimately fails to deliver the intended impact. Ultimately, the ironic humor falls flat and leaves me questioning whether the payoff was truly worth all that buildup.

The Green Door by O. Henry

Enter if you dare.

Here is another decent short story by O. Henry that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. However, its "twist ending" is somewhat lackluster and the author's overt racism is difficult to overlook. The protagonist's encounter with the "giant negro" is laughably cringe-inducing. Negative criticism aside, O. Henry's acerbic wit, ironic humor, and refined writing style save this from being a total disaster. 

The opening section charmingly engages the reader with a playful, tongue-in-cheek tone, providing a lengthy philosophical exploration contrasting true adventurers with those who only dabble as half-adventurers. The narrator muses that the majority of us fall into the latter category, seeking safety, routine, and the comfort of complacency. In contrast, Rudolf Steiner is the shining example of a true adventurer—an exceptional rarity in modern society. He embodies the spirit of risk-taking, eagerly venturing beyond his comfort zone, fueled by curiosity, and embarking on a quest to discover the mysterious green door, not knowing where the outcome might lead him. Once more, the twist ending may lack the expected O Henry razzle-dazzle, but it effectively brings the narrative full circle, wrapping up all loose ends with a neat little bow.

Sunday 28 April 2024

B.F. and Me by Lucia Berlin

A literary genius? Possibly.

Now back to our regular scheduled programming. I am drastically falling behind with reviews and need to catch up fast before many of these stories, even the really good ones like "B.F. and Me" by Lucia Berlin, fade from memory. She's a new discovery and it is safe to say, that I can't wait to read more of her work. Berlin's sentences bounce along at a brisk pace with tremendous energy, immediacy and wit but somehow manages to maintain a soft quality--light, airy and delicate that is oddly charming. Within the confined canvas of the short-story form, her ability to convey the complexities of human emotions and relationships through a light sketch is worthy of admiration.

The premise is quite simple: a lonely older woman has a crush on an eccentric, rough-looking handyman tasked with repairing her bathroom floor. That's it. Although this might sound like a cliché plot device in a pornographic movie, the author circumvents such expectations. There certainly exists an underlying sexual tension between the two characters but the emphasis here is on elevating the mundane into the profound through sharp observational humor. For example, "Bad smells can be nice. A faint odor of skunk in the woods. Horse manure at the races." These "bad smells" are amusing in their contradictions and from a certain perspective, could actually be true. Or, what about this funny passage: "He said he could probably use some of that air of mine. I told him he should get him a tank but he said he was afraid he'd blow himself up smoking." The author unleashes a barrage of comedic and razor-sharp zingers that further contribute to the fast-paced narrative. The snappy dialogue crackles with authenticity and delightful quirkiness. What truly distinguishes Berlin's writing, however, is the breakneck speed at which the narrative unfolds, propelled by a succinct and dynamic storytelling style. 

From my research, Lucia Berlin often incorporated autobiographical details into her writing. Similar to the protagonist, she also lived in Boulder Colorado and faced various health issues such as requiring an oxygen tank for many years until her final days. This lends an unparalleled authenticity, relatability and emotional resonance to her stories, illuminating the struggles of everyday life. By drawing on her own experiences, the social realism is imbued with a sense of verisimilitude and genuine emotions but still remains very funny.

Lucia Berlin is just an absolute joy to read and it is a shame that she never received proper recognition during her lifetime. Stay tuned for a weekly retrospective where I plan on reviewing several other stories from her excellent collection, "A Manual for Cleaning Woman" that was published posthumously. 

Saturday 27 April 2024

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel García Márquez

"Send me an angel, send me an angel, riiiight now."

This is a very famous short-story by one of the most recognizable Latin American authors of the 20th century. In comparison to John Cheever's "Reunion" that I reviewed earlier, my expectations soared even higher and it unequivocally surpassed them all (sorry, I couldn't resist). "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel García Márquez exemplifies the imaginative power of magical realism. Although this is not a literary genre that particularly appeals to me, Márquez has proven to be remarkably consistent in delivering such enchanting and thought-provoking stories all wrapped up in beautiful prose. Elements of the supernatural, mythology, fantasy, folklore, religious allegory and heavy symbolism are common in magical realism, which can all be found here. Yet, the author's approach feels fresh, polished and compact in his artistic vision--blurring the boundaries between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the real and the fantastical. 

A profound aura of wonder and mystery envelops the central figure, who descends miraculously from the heavens into a humble peasant farmer's backyard, nestled in an unnamed coastal hamlet. Swiftly capturing the fascination of the villagers, he is revered as a celestial being, an "angel" bestowed upon them. Yet, despite his angelic wings, he manifests as a frail elderly man, voiceless and enigmatic. Seizing upon this marvel, the farmer transforms it into a commercial venture, charging admission for spectators eager to behold this extraordinary creature, like some caged animal at a zoo.

I'll refrain from divulging further into the plot, as there's immense joy in uncovering it firsthand. However, the text invites myriad interpretative angles and a close-reading only enhances the reading experience. One intriguing aspect revolves around the arrival of the spider-woman, who swiftly steals the spotlight from the angel. This is where the magical realism of the story kicks into high gear. Unlike the taciturn old man, she communicates freely, sharing her poignant tale with the audience. This contrast accentuates the tension between the angel's enigmatic silence and the spider-woman's relatability to others through language. The juxtaposition of the angel's human and divine attributes further complicates perceptions of him. Trapped between realms, he embodies a liminal existence, neither fully embraced by humanity nor wholly recognized as an angel. In contrast, the spider-woman's narrative is steeped in folklore/fairytales ("a woman who had been changed into a spider for disobeying her parents"). As the focal point of a traveling carnival, she embodies a clear moral lesson, a cautionary tale of disobedience. Unlike the old man, who defies neat categorization within conventional Christian beliefs, she fits snugly into a recognizable narrative framework.

Both figures bear hybrid identities—the spider-woman, a curious blend of human and arachnid; the old man, a paradox of celestial and mortal qualities. Yet, it is the old man's contradictory nature and values that render him a misunderstood outcast, subjected to cruel mistreatment. Consequently, his eventual moment of transcendence resonates all the more powerfully, offering a poignant commentary on the complexities of acceptance, belonging, and redemption. 

A short-story masterpiece that lives up to the hype.

Reunion by John Cheever

Call me Old Fashioned.

This weekend we will be looking at two highly anthologized short-stories that are often considered classics to determine whether or not they live up to the hype. Spoiler alert: they most certainly do. First up, we have "Reunion" by John Cheever. In terms of compact narrative form and brevity, this is close to perfection as it gets. A salient feature of his style, at least in this story, is an elegant lyricism with a unified rhythm that flows effortlessly. This technique produces swift pacing and a profound dramatic force to compliment the heartbreaking subject matter of a son's final meeting with his alcoholic father at a train station. The narrator's ambivalent emotional detachment and compassion towards the father is beautifully rendered. Elegiac and solemn, this is one of those short-stories that will likely increase in my esteem with repeated readings.

Friday 26 April 2024

Kitty and Mack: A Love Story by Walter Dean Myers

🎵I was the third brother of five / Doing whatever I had to do to survive / I'm not saying what I did was alright / Tryna break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight 🎵

Even though it's refers to a nearby street in the same area, Bobby Womack's classic song "Across 110th Street" is continually stuck in my head while reading through '145th Street' by Walter Dean Myers. It is a collection of short stories all set in a vibrant, predominantly black neighborhood in New York City. Reminiscent of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, it contains a huge cast of characters that pop in and out of various interconnected storylines while vividly capturing the social realities and life experiences of contemporary African Americans. 

Perhaps my expectations were a little too high but I really wanted to enjoy this one more. chose this particularly story at random and even though it was slightly disappointing, it is a relatively heartfelt depiction of young love, black masculinity, senseless violence, and shattered dreams. This is a very straightforward and slice-of-life narrative that borderlines on cliché while relying on certain cultural stereotypes. As indicated by the title, the romantic relationship between Kitty and Mack takes center stage. She's a top student at school and he's the star athlete, a talented baseball player destined to make the big leagues. However, fate intervenes and after tragedy thwarts Mack's aspirations, he retreats into himself, while Kitty's unwavering dedication to him only intensifies. His deliberate withdrawal from Kitty, both physically and emotionally, proves deeply distressing for her. The narrative attempts to navigate gender dynamics in a nuanced manner, perhaps aiming for a specific sense of authenticity. However, it failed to resonate with me on deeper emotional level, coming across as slightly contrived and overly dramatic. Nonetheless, there are much better stories within this collection that I hope to review soon.

Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami

Some men just want to watch the world burn.

In many Murakami stories, an underlying melancholy is often evoked by the narrator's personal reflections, sifting through an archive of memories and reshaping them to hopefully gain some insight into the past. As an unreliable narrator, a key passage in "Barn Burning" explicitly highlights this approach: "Though maybe that was a mistaken impression on my part: I have this convenient tendency to rework my memories." This "reworking" of memories is important to keep in mind when reading this story. Not only is it an effective narrative technique that Murakami utilizes to emphasize a fragmented consciousness but this blurring of truth brings these unconscious processes to light where the buried, hidden self is slowly revealed. This is a relatively simple story where nothing really happens in terms of plot but it contains plenty of psychological depth. Subjectivity, unresolved trauma, ennui, even split-consciousness: "Simultaneity, if there was was such a thing: Here I had me thinking, and here I had me observing myself think. Time ticked on in impossibly minute polyrhythms." Weed certainly has the ability to create an out-of-body experience. 

Through pensive contemplation, the narrator reflects on a friendship he once had with an eccentric young woman and her boyfriend, who tells him a strange secret while smoking weed together: he enjoys lighting barns on fire. The narrator is fascinated by this seemingly random act of arson, which shakes up his entire world view. He wants to understand "why" the boyfriend has this peculiar obsession with igniting barns into flames but he remains evasive, never providing a clear answer. So, what does this story all add up to? In the end, I don't think it really matters. The allure of this bizarre and enigmatic narrative lies not in resolution but in the intrigue of ambiguity.

Thursday 25 April 2024

Game by Donald Barthelme

Good for you, Jack!

It seems that April is turning into Donald Barthelme month, which is totally fine with me. "Game" highlights the author's clever use of repetition to reflect the narrator's surmounting anxiety and fragmented consciousness. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot might be an obvious comparison although Barthelme's version is set within the historical context of Cold-War paranoia. The two men have been stationed underground in some kind of top-secret military silo for 133 days but their actual purpose is somewhat unclear and seemingly superfluous. They each have keys that launch "birds" (missiles) into the sky, capable of causing mass destruction to some unknown enemy. However, it seems that their superiors have forgotten all about them in this dark dwelling. Feeling like abandoned prisoners in some twisted social experiment, they pass the time focusing on their individual obsessions. Similar to a caveman, the narrator writes on the wall with a diamond ring, chronicling modern history. His friend, Shotwell, spends the majority of his time playing jacks and studying for his Masters degree in Marketing. Despite the dire circumstances, the absurdity of it all is quite humorous. 

The narrator is also fixated on stealing the jacks but Shotwell is unwilling to share and such an attempt would prove dangerous. Each of them is armed and have been instructed to kill the other if one of them acts out of line. They are trapped in a nightmare scenario, engaged in psychological warfare where time ceases to exist. Hence, there is an established sense of routine and a tacit understanding between the two men regarding the unwritten rules of this dangerous game. The political satire is spot-on as they are both caught up in the follies of bureaucratic nonsense. In this sinister game, there is no winner. While the specter of nuclear annihilation looms in the background, the ending presents a surprising moment of tenderness between the two men. In pure Barthelme absurdist fashion, the fate of humanity hangs precariously on whether or not the narrator can secure Shotwell's jacks. It is both darkly comical and hauntingly ominous.

On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning by Haruki Murakami

Some pretty flowers for a pretty lady.

It's been a while since I've read anything by Haruki Murakami. Taken from his collection "Elephant Vanishes", this particular story reignited my admiration for this author. His delectable prose, elegant in its simplicity, imbued with an underlying melancholy, reminds me why I cherish his writing so deeply. Murakami has this unique gift for capturing the profound sorrow of loneliness and intense yearning for genuine romantic connections. Here, he takes the familiar "boy meets girl" motif and transforms it into a cosmopolitan fairy tale that feels fresh and emotionally evocative. The idea that someday we'll encounter our ideal partner and achieve total happiness is nothing but a fallacy. This might be true for some people but in most cases, it's a misleading notion and often cultivated by an overindulgence in movies or romance novels where love inevitably conquers all. Of course, one might indulge in the delightful fantasy of encountering this perfect person, and this narrative wholeheartedly embraces such a whimsical notion of reality:

"They were not lonely anymore. They had found and been found by their 100% perfect other. What a wonderful thing it is to find and be found by your 100% perfect other. It's a miracle. A cosmic miracle."

Or what about this: "Their heads were as empty as the young D.H. Lawrence piggy bank."

Ouch, total burn. Throwing D.H. Lawrence under the bus like that is some serious shade. Despite the narrators pensive reflections and claiming that this is a sad story, there is still a delicate balance of lighthearted humor. Missed connections, awkward encounters, anxious internalized monologues and experiencing nostalgia for something that never happened yet are other interesting aspects worth noting. For such a simple premise, there exists a complex psychological underpinning of perception related to idealized love. Murakami is a literary rock-star, a short-story virtuoso and a master of narrative technique. Each encounter with his work leaves me craving more. 

Tuesday 23 April 2024

The Genius by Donald Barthelme

Monet's water lilies.

Here is another decent short-story by Donald Barthelme. Enjoyable for the most part but nothing spectacular; nor does it leave much of an impression. Once again, certain pieces from his early repertoire reveal flashes of what might be deemed as 'genius,' (sorry, I couldn't resist), yet they tend to fall slightly short of expectations, especially when compared to his later, more polished literary output. 

"Genius" is an effective satire of intellectual superiority and celebrity status but ultimately, doesn't really add up to much. The fragmented anecdotes of the protagonist's life are amusing and often quite funny. For example, when an interviewer asks him what the most important tool is for a genius, he responds nonchalantly: "rubber cement." An unexpected answer but there's also some truth to it and that's what makes it funny. Furthermore, the tangents and rambling philosophical discourse is pure Barthelme. There is one section where the genius pontificates at length about the shape of art, creativity, Monet's water lilies and seahorses. It comes across like the ramblings of a raving lunatic but it is this madness is engendered by the oppressive forces of contemporary society. For the genius and many other artists in Barthelme's work, creativity is an act of resistance. Through the use of satire and irony, it helps to shape a new reality. 

Monday 22 April 2024

The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation that Doesn't Flash Red Anymore by Sherman Alexie

Reservation dogs.

It's a very long title but highly effective in conveying the struggles of reservation life: sadness, alienation, stasis, displacement, marginalization, the lack of resources and infrastructure. This is a stellar piece of writing and now I can't wait to read more from Sherman Alexie. He is one of those authors that been on my radar for quite a while and it's a shame that it took me this long to finally get around to reading his work. The combination humor and heartbreak is difficult to pull off but somehow he makes it look it easy. The delicate balance of comedy and  unflinching social realism enhances the emotional impact of the story. Moreover, Alexie's dazzling prose jumps off the page with such ferocity and is such a joy to read. 

Taken from his superb collection of interlinked short-stories called "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" (such an awesome title), this particular story is interested in the vicious cycle of generational trauma and addiction. Rather than reinforcing the stereotypes of indigenous people as alcoholics, Alexie uses observational humor to critique the societal attitudes that perpetuate, emphasizing that historical and cultural context matters. Even in moments of tragedy, there is still hope and despite the cliché, laughter can sometimes be the best medicine. The humor does not come at the expense of these characters; rather, it humanizes them, adding emotional depth and creating powerful moments of resilience. 

Sunday 21 April 2024

Only Good Ones by Elmore Leonard (1961)

Valdez is Coming.

I am quite fond of Elmore Leonard's dialogue-driven and lean prose that is devoid of any unnecessary exposition. "Only Good Ones" is riveting right from the opening sentence, steadily building tension and suspense towards an explosive finale. He quickly sets the scene and launches directly into the action, allowing readers to gradually fill in the gaps of the story through snappy dialogue and different character interactions. There is a certain authenticity and rhythm to the colloquial speech patterns associated with frontier life, often advancing the plot and revealing character motivations. There are a colorful cast of characters, but no lengthy descriptions or backstory. Each of them is shaded with their own distinctive slang, quirks and and mannerisms. 

The author boldly subverts classic Western archetypes, unraveling the prevalent mythos of the genre. Particularly noteworthy here is highlighting the often forgotten or ignored history of anti-black racism. These Western pulps were designed as thrilling entertainments meant to captivate a broad audience with their high-octane narratives. They were meant to be consumed rapidly before moving on to the next one, like binge-watching a really good television show. Within their pages, one would encounter the familiar archetypes—the noble sheriff, the rugged cowboy, the villainous outlaw, the damsel in distress—typically depicted in straightforward moral terms. However, Leonard's approach to this genre stands apart--more specifically, in their complex themes, characters and moral ambiguity. 

The harrowing portrayal of racism and violence towards black people is a rarity within conventional Western narratives, making this story an anomaly. Beyond its gripping entertainment value, this narrative contains some unexpected depth, particularly in its nuanced handling of racism within the Western genre. Rather than glossing over or romanticizing historical injustices, the story confronts them head-on, offering a thought-provoking exploration of the complexities and consequences of racial prejudice in the Old West. In doing so, it elevates the narrative beyond mere entertainment, inviting readers to confront uncomfortable truths while still delivering an immersive reading experience.

Saturday 20 April 2024

The Tonto Woman by Elmore Leonard (1982)

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."

We have a Western double-feature for you this weekend! Both are taken from the "Complete Western Stories" by the prolific and talented Elmore Leonard. Starting with "The Tonto Woman", this is a later work, appearing near the end of this wonderful anthology. There is a cinematic quality to Leonard's writing and it makes sense that many of his works have been adapted into movies or television. Yet, I can totally understand why nobody has dared to touch this story with a ten foot pole in fear of being labeled a racist and immediately cancelled. The story revolves around mischievous cowboy who meets woman that was captured by a tribe of "Indians" and branded with a face tattoo. After being released, she has been ostracized by her husband and society, forced to live alone on the outskirts of town. Hear me out. In the right creative hands, it's a great premise that could go in many different directions, especially as a feminist-take on the Western genre.  As a revenge tale with a strong female lead, it could be quite badass but not without offending the entire indigenous community, so scrap that idea. Her husband and his gang of ruffians are the real villains here. Instead, let's pivot towards are more nuanced approach--a quiet character study. This would explore the woman's trauma and her relationship with the cowboy fella. As an outcast himself, he is empathetic towards her plight and Leonard even hints at burgeoning romantic feelings between them. 

Adopting the "less is more" technique, Leonard's economical prose is taut and meticulously focused on delivering an entertaining story. He mixes together some sharp dialogue and vivid imagery to further enhance the overall cinematic effect.  This is a slow burn and Leonard exhibits remarkable restraint in delaying the main conflict. There are no big action scenes or shoot-outs; rather, it's a story about these complex and interesting characters. The elliptical writing style creates ambiguity, tantalizing the reader with just enough intrigue to leave you craving more.

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 Joyce Carol Oates: "Donald Barthelme Saved from Oblivion." Of course, this is a playful reference to another Barthelme short-story with a similar title: "Robert Kennedy saved from Drowning." It somehow seemed very fitting, especially since Barthelme's popularity has certainly declined over the years and he probably isn't widely read as much these days. This is a real shame. I applaud Oates' effort in recognizing and also celebrating one of American short-story writers of the latter half of the 20th century who has largely been forgotten. In a kind of metafictional eulogy, she successfully pays homage to his postmodernist style by utilizing pastiche, irony, parody, collage, intertextuality and a fragmented structure that is split into various sections. For instance, one section is called "Anatomy of the Artist" that uses contradictory juxtapositions to try and understand his complex nature as a person and as a writer that often blur together: "Don is a genius. Don is an idiot savant. Don is a raving lunatic. Don is a saint. Don is a con-man." These witty and humorous anecdotes continue throughout the entire story, taking on various narrative forms. Unfortunately, the end result is a mixed bag that feels bloated and might have been more enjoyable if it was shorter in length. The rambling digressions can be somewhat tedious. 

Yet, Oates skillfully emulates Barthelme's signature aesthetic with great precision. The disjointed and fractured nonlinear storytelling is ripe with his hallmark contradictions, digressions, repetition, paradoxes and self-reflexivity. This dreamlike and hallucinatory atmosphere further contributes to the disorienting nature of the text. Of course, this wouldn't be a proper Barthelme story without the playful and absurdist humor, which Oates delivers in spades. If her name wasn't attached to this work, you might think that this story was published posthumously by the Barthelme estate. 

The fictional biography sections is where the story really shines, especially when DB shows up as a character. You can tell Oates had lots of fun writing this story and integrating some of his works into the narrative was also nice touch ("The School", "Glass Mountain" and "Chablis" to name a few). Readers familiar with Barthelme's oeuvre are sure to relish these references, adding an extra layer of enjoyment. As a celebration of the author and his creative vision, the story triumphs. However, Oates gets a little carried away with indulging in postmodernist aesthetics. It's a bit much at times and really bogs down the narrative flow. 

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. Yet, this story makes a lot more sense if you read it as a Raymond Carver parody. 

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 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.