In Which Brian Finds Donald Barthelme A Puzzle Worth Exploring

On Don B.

by Brian DeLeeuw

Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art.

Donald Barthelme

Barthelme was not one to habitually confuse realism with reality.

Kim Herzinger, editor of Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme

He is a kind of a cross between a poet and a journalist.

Grace Paley

All fiction writers are ventriloquists. They fill their characters’ mouths with a polyphony of voices, all of which are in some sense variations on their own.

In most ‘realistic’ fiction, verisimilitude, a literary approximation of how people ‘really talk’ or ‘really think,’ is an aesthetic goal.

One of the inherent contradictions of realism, however, is that most characters in novels and short stories sound nothing like what we hear on the street, see on television, or read in the newspaper every day, and we don’t really want or expect them to.

As opposed to the relative shapeliness and coherence of much fiction, contemporary discourse is jagged and disjunctive, saturated with meaningless jargon, and often verging on the incomprehensible.

“Yr City’s a Sucker” — LCD Soundsystem (mp3)

The fact that these same descriptions could very easily be applied to Donald Barthelme’s hilarious, disorienting short fiction is not a coincidence. As he said,

I point out however that New York City is or can be regarded as a collage, as opposed to, say, a tribal village in which all of the huts (or yurts, or whatever) are the same hut, duplicated. The point of collage is that unlike things are stuck together to make, in the best case, a new reality. This new reality, in the best case, may be or imply a comment on the other reality from which it came, and may be also much else. It’s an itself, if it’s successful.

He is a ventriloquist nonpareil, stuffing his characters – if you can really call them that – full of the vocabularies of psychiatry (“The Sandman,” “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel”), art criticism (“The Balloon”), social science (“The Rise of Capitalism”), business (“Our Work and Why We Do It”), domestic melodrama (“Critique de la Vie Quotidienne”), and countless other languages of the modern world.

Art is a true account of the activity of mind. Because consciousness … is always consciousness of something, art thinks ever of the world, cannot not think of the world, could not turn its back on the world even if it wished to. This does not mean that it’s going to be honest as a mailman; it’s more likely to appear as a drag queen.

— DB

The story “City Life” is one of Barthelme’s most complex, antic, and, not at all incidentally, funniest feats of ventriloquism. A clue to the controlled chaos that follows is given in the first line of the story: “Elsa and Ramona entered the complicated city.”

“Complicated” isn’t the half of it. From the collection Sixty Stories:

Laughing aristocrats moved up and down the corridors of the city.

Elsa, Jacques, Ramona, and Charles drove out to the combined racetrack and art gallery. Ramona had a Heineken and everyone else had one too. The tables were crowded with laughing aristocrats. More laughing aristocrats arrive in their carriages drawn by dancing matched pairs.

Some drifted in from Flushing and Sao Paulo. Management of the funded indebtedness was discussed; the Queen’s behavior was discussed. All of the horses ran very well, and the pictures ran well too. The laughing aristocrats sucked on the heads of their gold-headed canes some more.

Jacques held up his degrees from the New Yorker Theatre, where he had been buried in the classics, when he was twelve.

–I remember the glorious debris underneath the seats, he said, and I remember that I hated then, as I do now, laughing aristocrats.

The aristocrats heard Jacques talking. They all raised their canes in the air, in rage. A hundred canes shattered in the sun, like load of antihistamines falling out of an airplane. More laughing
aristocrats arrived in phaetons and tumbrels.

As a result of absenting himself from Cleveland for eight months, Charles had lost his position there.

–It is true that I am part of the laughing-aristocrat structure, Charles said. I don’t mean I am one of them. I mean I am their creature. They hold me in thrall.

Laughing aristocrats who invented the cost-plus contract…

Laughing aristocrats who invented the real estate broker…

Laughing aristocrats who invented Formica…

Laughing aristocrats wiping their surfaces clean with a damp cloth…

Charles poured himself another brilliant green Heineken.

–To the struggle!

“Space Travel is Boring” — Modest Mouse (mp3)

You can buy City Life here.

Within fifteen pages we get academic satire and pop philosophy, absurd abductions and an ax-wielding protest singer, all culminating in an immaculate conception in which the father appears to be one of three men or quite possibly the city itself.

In the last paragraph, Ramona ponders the mystery of her son’s birth:

Upon me, their glance has fallen. The engendering force was, perhaps, the fused glance of all of them.

Does the “them” refer to Vercingetorix, Moonbelly, and Charles or to the “nine million” city residents Ramona imagines on the preceding page?

The latter theory is not entirely implausible within Barthelme’s world, in which myth, reality, and farce intermingle freely, like guests at a wild, multi-genre cocktail party. Which is also more or less the premise of his story “The Party.”

Barthelme’s syllabus, from The Believer

“Taper Jean Girl” — Kings of Leon (mp3)

The prior history of words is one of the aspects of language the world uses to smuggle itself into the work. If words can be contaminated by the world, they can also carry with them into the work trace elements of world which can be used in a positive sense. We must allow ourselves the advantages of our disadvantages.

— DB

Barthelme’s city, in addition to being confusing, frantic, and difficult, is also defiantly sexual. Messy, sweaty human relationships are at the core of many of even his most abstracted short works; desires of all kinds propel the narrative and define the tone of “City Life.” Moonbelly mulls over Ramona’s strange pregnancy and birth: “—Is this the real purpose of cities? Is this why all these units have been brought together, under the red, white and blue? / —Cities are erotic, in a depressing way.”

“Dinner Bells” — Wolf Parade (mp3)

Barthelme finds this eroticism everywhere in the urban “muck” as it “heaves and palpitates.”

Ramona describes her courtship:

They began dancing little dances of suggestion and fear. These dances constitute an invitation of unmistakable import – an invitation which, if accepted, leads one down many muddy roads. I accepted. What was the alternative?

This invitation is nothing less than urban life itself, which, despite – or perhaps because of – its inanities, contradictions, and tragedies, is not something Barthelme would ever have us turn down.

Brian DeLeeuw writes regularly on travel, fashion, and food for CITY magazine (, and has also recently been published in Tin House and the New York Press. He is at work on a novel.

“I Believe” — Simian Mobile Disco (mp3)

SMD wiki


Molly explained that true love waits for all the real girls.

William Carlos Williams entertained us ever so wonderfully.

The best video game experiences filled our hearts with desire.

Robert Jordan, RIP

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