Pop Fiction

Donald Barthelme and the death of whimsy.

Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme
Edited by Kim Herzinger, with an introduction by John Barth
Random House; 352 pages; $27.50

I started picking up The New Yorker, back when I was a sprout, in order to read Donald Barthelme. I think what did it were those faux-Max Ernst collages with which he occasionally ornamented his stories, which appeared so much wilder than my received notion of what that magazine was like, and the stories turned out to be even wilder than the pictures. His surrealistic short fiction was about as avant-garde as you could get on the mass market in those days. As the present volume reveals, Barthelme also occasionally contributed to “Notes and Comment,” at that time the first section of “The Talk of the Town.” There’s nothing earthshaking about those pieces, falling as they do into the walking-around-and-peering or flight-of-whimsy tendencies of that venerable rubric. Still, it’s hard to feature them appearing in today’s version of the same magazine. “I remember exactly where I was when I realized that Post-Modernism had bought it. I was in my study with a cup of tequila and William Y’s new book, One Half. Y’s work is, we agree, good–very good. But who can make the leap to greatness while dragging behind him the burnt-out boxcars of a dead aesthetic? Perhaps we can find new employment for him. On the roads, for example.” In 1975, this, and not a celebrity or a promotional motive anywhere in sight (do I need to point out that William Y is an invention of the author’s?).

The term “Post-Modernism” turns up again and again in these essays and interviews, and it comes as a surprise to find it applied a quarter-century ago, not to metareferences in knowing television serials but to the work of Barthelme and his coevals John Barth, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, William Gass, etc. Who still reads John Barth? Although when you think about it, these writers, who came of age in the 1960s, were Post-Modern even then. Reading Barthelme may make you think of Surrealism, of Pop Art, of various species of what used to be called bricolage, but what came to my mind, revisiting his stories after a long absence, was the mile-a-minute channel-switching in the monologues of Robin Williams. Like Williams, Barthelme was a master ventriloquist with a dish antenna in his subconscious. From “A Shower of Gold,” circa 1963:

“Yesterday,” Peterson said to the television audience, “in the typewriter in front of the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue, I found a recipe for Ten Ingredient Soup that included a stone from a toad’s head. … Coming home I passed a sign that said in ten-foot letters COWARD SHOES and heard a man singing ‘Golden Earrings’ in a horrible voice, and last night I dreamed there was a shoot-out at our house on Meat Street and my mother shoved me in a closet to get me out of the line of fire. … My mother was a royal virgin and my father a shower of gold. My childhood was pastoral and energetic and rich in experiences which developed my character.”

Actually, you won’t find much of this kind of machine-gun improvisation in Not-Knowing, at least once past the bracing title essay, the most fully fleshed apologia Barthelme achieved, which barrels from Husserl to “Melancholy Baby” to the past-due bills on his desk in mock-peevish diatribe. You can imagine the voice successively issuing from a pulpit, a bullhorn, an onionskin page, a teletype, a Victrola–and then suddenly there’s the author, speaking plainly as himself, “I suggest that art is always a meditation upon external reality rather than a representation of external reality or a jackleg attempt to ‘be’ external reality.” Savor that word, “jackleg,” a quarter-second visitation by the ghost of Horace Greeley or someone like him. Such is Barthelme’s power when he’s operating at full throttle–his piano seems to have 888 keys.

Unfortunately, most of Not-Knowing consists of leavings, marginalia, occasional pieces that do not show him at his best. There are some book reviews, which are acceptable but not much more; some movie reviews, which are pretty feeble, with that literalism that bedevils many literary writers when they come to dabble in the form (viz., the collected film criticism of Dwight MacDonald); and some art writing, considerably more savvy although many of the pieces originated as catalog essays and thus sometimes betray a rather forced enthusiasm. There is a transcription of a 1975 fiction symposium in which Barthelme says relatively little and the reader is mostly subjected to vast snowdrifts of abstraction courtesy of Gass. There are a few Nixon-era op-eds that are musty period pieces now. And there is a passel of interviews that vary greatly in quality and insight.

The enthusiastic and scholarly wish to preserve the entirety of a given writer’s work is understandable and even endearing to a point, but one of the frustrations of this collection is its repetitiveness. Anecdotes are retailed in pieces and retold in interviews; the same citations crop up again and again; I lost count of how many times Barthelme attests to his debt to Beckett and explains that his writing not resembling Beckett’s is a paradoxical measure of his thrall. None of this is Barthelme’s fault, of course. If I were to publish your collected table talk you would be appalled–only your spouse and your deity know how many times you’ve told those same five stories. Had Barthelme lived longer (he died in 1989, at 58), the majority of these items would not have been reprinted for another 20 or 30 years, and then probably in the usual dead-author package by the University of Winooski Press, for acquisition by selected academic libraries. Don’t get me wrong: This collection has its pleasures, not least of which is the reminder of how strong and unique a sensibility Barthelme possessed, which sent me back to the incomparable anthology Sixty Stories (1981). But Not-Knowing is not unlike a dead-rock-star memento, such as all those collections of Jimi Hendrix’s doodles and backup sessions that seemed to come out every Christmas until his estate finally clamped down. The impulse is partly commercial, partly sentimental, partly a wish to uncover just one more unsuspected gem. In Barthelme’s case, this kind of packaging seems oddly timed, since his influence on current fiction is if anything at a low ebb. But maybe, just maybe, in some circuitous and stealthy way, Not-Knowing will play its part in revising that lapse, prompting young readers in particular to seek out the best work of an American original, part philosophe and part banana.