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.

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