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.

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