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.

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