Donald Barthelme, The Ignored Master
Friday, 3 December 2010
Donald Barthelme is a great, unspoken author in the literary world, who I’m determined to expose. It’s not shocking that most haven’t heard of him, given the capricious direction of American Literature; thankfully we’ve got bloggers and an over-saturation of (mostly useless) information enabling you, the reader, to discover these lost genius, these forgotten masters.
Usually journalistic articles about a writer begin with some biographical vignette, some shocking, vital anecdote with the purpose of earning the reader’s interest for a few more paratactical paragraphs. Unfortunately for you, as I am neither your slut nor your entertainment, I care little about enticing you to read more. If you’ve no interest in discovering a new, stunning, maddening author, then leave me the hell alone.
For those interested, Barthelme’s prose is vertiginous, confusing, sprawling. If you can read a story of his and strangle out a message, then you’re a better reader than I. However, what Barthleme lacks in accessibility, he makes up for with genial, progressive, supple prose. Every story, even those clouded and frenetic, bears unavoidable feeling and emotion.
I’ve read a few of his collections, and haven’t yet found a story that seems to suggest incomprehensibility as its purpose. Rather, I leave each story better than I left it, impressed and marked, even if entirely unsure.
It’s like you’ve got a hood on, the Guantanamo body-snatcher suffocating type, and Bartheleme is leading the way. You may no longer benefit from eyesight, but the pavement, the stink of body odor, your fear–these are heightened, sharpened, overbearing.
David Eggers of McSweeny’s fame says it masterfully in his introduction to Barthelme’s Forty Stories:
“The newcomer needs to know…[Barthelme's] stuff is sometimes difficult to puncture, and sometimes difficult to follow, but while you’re finding your way, he’s always grinning at you in a warm and very compassionate way.
The reader gets the feeling that the author is a nice man. That he knows when he’s being difficult and when he’s full of shit. Knows how much of this and how much of that you can actually take.“
Please, dear reader, take a chance and get a little uncomfortable. The prose I’ve been reading, the new stuff, (Narrative, New Yorker, Ect.) is blunt, self-righteous, and usually bland. We post-modernists need a kick of something, a kinetic burst of literate adrenaline. In my worthless opinion, we’ve become too linear as we’ve replaced prose solely with plot (sounds like “plop”, doesn’t it?).
Barthleme is the kick, the burst, he’s a defibrillator for our exhausted, wasting craft. Shake things up and get innovated [trans].
Here’s a jaunty little excerpt for anyone still reading:
“Let me tell you something. New people have moved into the apartment below me and their furniture is, shockingly, identical to mine, the camelback sofa in camel-colored tweed is there as are the two wrong-side-of-the-blanket sons of the Wassily chair and the black enamel near-Mackintosh chairs, they have the pink-and-purple dhurries and the brass quasi-Eames torchéres as well as the fake Ettore Sottsass faux-marble coffee table with cannonball legs. I’m shocked, in a state of shock–“
If that’s got you confused, wait till you start reading. I recommend Forty Stories for an initial expedition. Below, a picture of Barthelme doing what he does best––trampling crap writing.
Read or Rot,
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