Donald Barthelme “The Indian Uprising”
Tuesday, 5 July 2011
Unfortunately, one of my favorite stories by Barthelme, The Indian Uprising, isn’t available online. However, Chris Adrian read it for The New Yorker’s fiction audio podcast. It’s definitely worth listening to.
The story combines two plots of absurd love and violence; in its movement and intensity it is absolutely emblematic of Barthelme’s finest writing.
For first-time readers––or listeners––, I recommend a relaxed, uncaring consideration of this piece. To dismiss it as “nonsense” or “inaccessible” is quite a poor critique of quite a good work. It is this discrimination which scares so many writers into mediocrity.
Instead, enjoy the play and action of words; savor the insecurities of voice as you might savor a wine or beer that’s initially too complex for your liking. I’ve provided some exclusive essays on the piece, available after the link.
In order to understand the brilliant eight-page short story, “The Indian Uprising,” one must be aware of what Barthelme heroes say about women and about words. Men, they tell us, because of their biological need, are in women’s power, and this sexual hunger is never-ending….
This desperate and insatiable sexual need stimulates fantasies of real and imagined young girls. And these nymphs are always around, crossing streets, getting into buses, moving through rooms, taking off blouses in train compartments, hanging their hair out of windows. They are always there, tormenting men with some part of their anatomy.
Even eleven-year-olds skip in and out of Barthelme’s stories with their seductive knees. But except for the unthinking brute, no man can ever have a satisfactory relationship with a woman; her nature prevents it. Women are hard, mean, inscrutable, and bundles of contradictions. They are incurable romantics, always waiting for the perfect lover. Either they hold back sexually, or they are fickle and unfaithful. (Only two or three of Barthelme’s heroines escape these unhappy traits.)
In approaching “The Indian Uprising,” one must not only be aware of Barthelme’s preoccupation with love and language but also his practice of often describing relationships between men and woman in terms of war.
“The Indian Uprising” is neither a dream nor the description of an hallucinatory journey. Nor is it “the disintegration of fiction into its raw materials.” It is an intricately constructed short story (because of its compactness, its intensity, perhaps better described as a prose poem) in which each word, each sentence fits together to render rich psychic reality.
It does radiate “anxieties” but these are explainable. And it does on initial reading generate unease because of its ambiguity. The seeming disconnectedness, the rapid shift in locale, the sudden appearance of unexplained characters confuse the reader.
Although “The Indian Uprising” is from beginning to end an extended metaphor of war, it is not for the most part about an outward apocalyptic landscape. It concerns the hidden territory of the narrator’s own private world, a world filled with bewilderment and anxiety and suffering at his failure to connect, to experience a lasting love relationship, more specifically the failure to find satisfactory sexual fulfillment because of what he is meant to feel as his own sexual inadequacy. But Barthelme’s hero, unlike Ford’s in The Good Soldier, is aware of what is going on, even if he does not always understand why.
“The Indian Uprising” exposes, then, the devastating effect of the break-up of a relationship between the narrator and the girl he presently loves, Sylvia. Barthelme is doing what many writers have done before in describing the disintegration of an individual in terms of the collapse of society around him. What makes this twentieth-century version of war between a man and woman original is the brilliant manipulating of words and the artistic atomizing of chronology, as well as the perfect marriage between public and private tragedy.
In “The Indian Uprising” Barthelme weaves a mobile tapestry on which three-dimensional figures change constantly, appear and reappear like characters in a speeded-up film, and where like a refrain every so often the hero’s private heart is exposed.
The frenzied, but calculated manner in which Barthelme uses words creates an exciting tension, giving the illusion that the words themselves are alive. And the words, as Indians, are.
At the end, the narrator is finally cornered, beaten down, and defeated by the “savage, black eyes, paint, feathers, beads.” But from the very beginning of the story the reader is captured, drawn into the swirling battle, assaulted by words into which Barthelme has breathed a pulsating and savage life. Barthelme is, then, telling his hero’s sad story, reinforcing it from time to time by alluding to some of the horrors of contemporary history.
There are two key sentences in “The Indian Uprising,” one near the end, “The sickness of the quarrel lay thick in the bed,” and the other, not quite half way through the story, “There was a sort of muck running in the gutters, a yellowish, filthy stream suggesting excrement, or nervousness, a city that does not know what it has done to deserve baldness, errors, infidelity.”
By changing the opening sentence, “We defended the city as best we could,” to “I defended myself as best I could,” one understands that the narrator himself is the city under siege and that the Indians are the words with which Sylvia is attacking him.
The story, the charting of the narrator’s emotional history with Sylvia, has a see-saw motion. After each upward swing the hero descends a little lower until finally he touches bottom, defeated, no longer able to summon either memory or fantasy to sustain him.
[By the end of “The Indian Uprising” the] emasculation of the hero, like a prisoner without belt or shoelaces, is complete; but the indians, Sylvia’s words, will continue, in his mind at least, to fall on his head like heavy rain shattering all interior silence.
Even more tragic is the death of hope, hope for some kind of ordinary life with Sylvia. The vision of identical houses in subdivisions, the kind of thing Barthelme ordinarily satirizes as the vulgar and hideous result of our civilization, here appears like a dream of paradise, a place where there might be some possibility of connection, some chance of a normal existence. So ends this modern tale of love, this tale of sexual slaughter.