Donald Barthelme: Me & Miss Mandible
Sunday, 17 July 2011
Today, Pages to Pixels features “Me and Miss Mandible,” a wonderful story that is emblematic of Barthelme’s talent and humor. Daniel Green, whose writing on Barthelme has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, has kindly supplied a companion discussion of “Me and Miss Mandible.”
Me and Miss Mandible:
Although Donald Barthelme is not finally a “difficult” writer–”strange” or “disorienting” might be words that would apply–his fiction does surely pose some challenges to a novice reader. Fabular without quite becoming fables, satirical without really being definable as satire, presenting a skewed and inside-out view of reality without exactly qualifying as surrealism, his stories are on the one hand disarmingly entertaining, but on the other the source of their appeal must seem obscure at first.
Their verbal humor is palpable enough, but since the context of situation, character, or plot often remains elusive, even deliberately ambiguous and distorted, it is finally not always clear why a given story should be so satisfying. If only for this reason, readers would be well-advised to begin reading Barthelme not through one of the various omnibus anthologies of his stories that are available, but by beginning literally with his first book, Come Back, Dr. Caligari. This book contains fewer of Barthelme’s best-known, most anthologized stories (although “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” and “A Shower of Gold” have to rank with his best), but taken together they introduce his signature techniques and effects and form a well-integrated, if off-kilter, whole. Indeed, almost all of Barthelme’s books formed such integrated contexts, and almost all of Barthelme’s stories provide the most resonant reading experience when considered in their original context.
To the extent the original books go out of print–a likelihood the existence of the omnibus volumes only increaseBarthelme’s fiction unfortunately cannot be fully understood or appreciated. Come Back, Dr. Caligari does allow readers an opportunity to begin to understand Barthelme’s singular body of unconventional fiction, and in so doing perhaps also helps prepare them for the even bolder departures from convention in subsequent books such as Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts and City Life. At the same time, the book is uniformly entertaining and might also assure readers under the impression Barthelme is a “postmodern” writer of the difficult sort that his work is above all a source of pleasure.
Among the more sheerly amusing stories in Caligari has to be “Me and Miss Mandible,” but this story also warrants closer attention for those qualities that further inform most of Barthelme’s fiction, however much his later stories become more intricate and even more removed from the conventions of character development and narrative logic, as well as most of the other elements traditionally associated with the short story as a form. “Me and Miss Mandible” is likely to attract most readers’ attention immediately, given its outrageous premise. A 35 year-old man has been sent back to grade school for “reeducation” due to his failure to adapt himself satisfactorily to adult life: ” a ruined marriage, a ruined adjusting career, a grim interlude in the Army when I was almost not a person,” as the man, who narrates his own story, diary-form, eventually sums up his failures. The man begins the story by noting that “Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal’s office, eleven years old.”
If we suspect that Miss Mandible and her student will act on their adult attraction (“I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind,” the man tells us), our suspicions prove correct, and the story holds our attention in part through the rather basic device of encouraging us to wonder, “what will happen next?”. But the story also works through the incongruities implicit in the situation and in the characters’ response to it. The narrator seems aware of the peculiarity of his situation, although not enough to declare it to anyone. Miss Mandible and the children, however, treat the narrator as if he is indeed an eleven year-old boy (Miss Mandible nevertheless obviously sensing something is wrong). The effect is humorous but also potentially disturbing–does Miss Mandible really know this student is a grown man, or is she having inappropriate feelings for a student?
If one could say that in this story Barthelme is working in a vein of American absurdism, it is an absurdism in which the characters proceed as if the absurd was normal, or perhaps as if adherence to “normal” routines prevents the perception of a lurking absurdity. Although to an extent the absurdism of a story like “Me and Miss Mandible” might be analagous to that of, say, Catch-22 (published at about the same time), it and Barthelme’s subsequent work is less reliant on the joke as a structural principle and is closer, I would argue, to a variety of what John Barth called “irrealism,” an approach that, in Barthelme’s case, simply disregards “realism,” as well as the notion there is some stable version of “reality” it is the fiction writer’s job to capture.
What most truly unifies “Me and Miss Mandible” is finally the dazed but intrepid voice of the narrator surreptitiously recording his experience. While the ironies and absurdities ongoing around him are obvious enough, he himself does not view what is happening to him from an ironic perspective. Such is also typically the case in Barthelme’s later short fiction: “voice” dominates, and although the stories are replete with what has been called postmodern irony (they are perhaps in some ways the very definition of postmodern irony), the narrative voice is not itself the source of irony. (Everything the narrator of “The Balloon” says, for example, could and should be taken as utterly sincere, even if the situation, the “plot” is manifestly irreal.) The resulting tension between voice and event helps produce the “postmodern” comedy of Barthelme’s fiction, and, among its other virtues, “Me and Miss Mandible” presents us with an initial instance of his characteristic manner.
Daniel Green’s work has been published in AGNI, CONTEXT, and The Antioch Review. You can find more of his wonderful writing at The Reading Experience