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.

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