There are not many facts available about Donald Barthelme, at least on this side of the Atlantic. He has been hailed as a leading Post-Modernist, but Post-Modernism (to the extent that it has a credo) stresses the unreliability of facts and the supremacy of fictions. He has also been viewed as a pungent satirist. One thing that can be stated is that Barthelme’s literary career has mostly been pursued in the pages of the New Yorker. For at least twenty-five years his stories and novels have first appeared under the imprint of America’s best-dressed literary magazine.
Nor is this as incongruous as it might sound. Barthelme is never less than a sophisticated entertainer and an elegant stylist. If it seems paradoxical to think of his surrealist fantasies threading their way between the costume-jewellery ads, mail-order announcements and other forms of supreme fiction which keep the New Yorker subsidised, we should think of the great tradition of New Yorker cartoons. These, too, regularly satirise the enterprise culture and register the spiritual emptiness of consumerist values. There are New Yorker captions which would look at home in Barthelme’s dialogue, just as there are lines in his stories which the cartoonists might envy. From the beginning of Forty Stories: ‘My wife has been wanting a dog for a long time. I have had to be the one to tell her that she couldn’t have it. But now the baby wants a dog, my wife says.’
Forty Stories is a retrospective collection, obviously intended to introduce Barthelme’s work to English readers. (Its US equivalent was Sixty Stories.) He is a dedicated experimentalist, so that each story is sui generis and formally different from any of the others. Yet the thought of those cartoonists persists. Barthelme’s more realist stories have much the same cast of over-indulgent husbands, bored couples and cut-throat executives. Then there are the horror tales, of which the one thing one can say with absolute certainty is that they never refer to the more horrific parts of New York City. Instead, they tend to be reports from the suburban battlefront (‘On our street, fourteen garbage cans are now missing ...’) and from the groves of academe. In ‘Porcupines at the University’, a Dean armed with a Gatling gun confronts a vast herd of sinister rodents bearing down on his campus. They look like ‘badly engineered vacuum-cleaner attachments’. The Dean’s wife suggests that they could take Alternate Life-Styles, but the Dean knows that the course is already fully enrolled. The dust-jacket to Forty Stories mentions Pynchon and Beckett, but this is the world of Thurber and Charles Addams.
Barthelme’s more serious intentions were made clear from the start. In ‘Marie, Marie, hold on tight’ (a story not to be found here but in his first book Come back, Dr Caligari) three protestors picket a New York church, in order to demonstrate against the human condition. The title-quotation from The Waste Land seems gratuitous until we realise that there are Eliot references scattered throughout Barthelme’s writings. He is a Post-Modernist in a very literal sense, treating the Modernist inheritance in much the same way as Eliot himself bagged decorative fragments from earlier cultures. The Dead Father, his best-known novel, is a Pop Art resumé of a central theme from Finnegans Wake.
Barthelme portrays the modern world as being devoid of authority and over-supplied with electric power plants. The King of the land of Ho (the Confucian term for harmony) has lived to regret the ploughing-up of his truffle-forests and bogle-fens to make room for an enormous power-station. Another of Barthelme’s narrators looks on with unconcealed envy at two old ladies glimpsed in a neighbouring apartment eating their breakfast by candlelight. Are they terminally romantic or too poor to pay the electricity bill? he asks. In ‘At the End of the Mechanical Age’ (not included in Forty Stories) we learn that divine grace has now been turned into electricity, and God is to be found down in the basement reading the meters; all that grace still has to be paid for. In ‘Lightning’ there is a journalist, Connors, who has been commissioned to write a photo-opportunity-and-human-interest feature on the after-effects of natural electricity. In his article he speaks of ‘lightning-as-grace’ and mentions the Descent of the Dove; the relevant passage, however, is cut out in proof. Connors, like his editor, is probably more interested in Edwina, the gorgeous black model who answers his contact advertisement for people who have been struck by lightning. Edwina not only agrees to Connors’s request to have her photograph taken, but graciously offers to take him home for a back rub.
Edwina apart, the other people who answer the advertisement are largely a collection of cranks and freaks. In general, the culture of Barthelme’s electro-mechanical age is almost entirely a museum and exhibition culture. Several of these stories are funhouse tours of imaginary museums (‘The Tolstoy Museum’, ‘The Educational Experience’). In Barthelme’s version of ‘Bluebeard’, the fairy-tale villain is clean-shaven and given the Disneyland treatment. Bluebeard, ever-hopeful, is shown as perpetually changing the exhibit in the locked room of his palace. His wife, too bored to go and look, spends her days poring over automobile catalogues. The storyteller, in these stories, is also demystified. There are literary burlesques which cut the ground under the feet of some particular mentor – a Tolstoy, a Goethe, a Paul Klee or a Hemingway – and there is ‘The Genius’, a superb debunking of literary mentors in general. But all this is double-edged. The satire on genius fits comfortably into a book with a dust-jacket proclaiming Barthelme’s genius. In another story, in the middle of a majestic seven-page sentence, we read of ‘this majestic and high-minded sentence which will probably end up in the Library of Congress’; and of course it will, as Barthelme knows. He is just being engagingly modest about it.
It is true that the waste-landers and museum-visitors in Barthelme’s works are (by and large) lost and unhappy people: the woman who can’t stop biting her husband, the monk who reads St Augustine while listening to a Walkman, the ‘enlightened’ father who locks up his baby. Many of Barthelme’s characters are possessed by a greed which contemporary society cannot assuage. ‘I wanted to film everything,’ says one of them, a film-director, ‘but there are things we are not getting. ‘Similarly, the animals in ‘Porcupines at the University’ eventually turn up on one of the expressways into New York City. ‘The citizens in their cars looked at the porcupines, thinking: What is wonderful? Are these porcupines wonderful? Are they significant? Are they what I need?’ This is splendid, but also irritating since one cannot dismiss the hunch that what the importunate citizenry are really looking at is Barthelme’s stories.
In ‘Marie, Marie, hold on tight’ (an early effort which the author may now find embarrassingly obvious), the leader of the protest against the human condition ended up by delivering a lecture ‘with good diction and enunciation’ to a tiny audience. The lecturer had eloquence, and eloquence, he said, is ‘really all any of us can hope for’. Forty Stories is a distinguished collection which combines wild inventiveness with winsomeness and charm. Donald Barthelme’s eloquence, for all that, is Prufrock-like, and his stories are finally static and inhibited by self-consciousness. These are funny, despairing vignettes which describe our universe without ever actually daring to disturb it.
Dora, one of Kate Pullinger’s protagonists in Tiny Lies, is in the habit of embarking on fact-finding missions. Instead of facts, she stumbles upon a series of mysterious messages, at least one of which has a programmatic Post-Modernist ring: ‘THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FACT; ALL THAT EXISTS IS ABSOLUTE FICTION.’ Very sensibly, Dora chooses to disregard this; it is self-contradictory in the Cretan Liar tradition, and in any case it would rob her of any sense of purpose in life. Dora, like several of Pullinger’s characters, is living on the dole and therefore has a stronger need to fend off her suspicion of the pointlessness of it all than any of Barthelme’s figures. Tiny Lies is a marvellously buoyant first book of stories by a young Canadian writer resident in London. Pullinger’s feeling for time and place and social context is much sharper as well as a good deal narrower than Donald Barthelme’s. These are highly personal stories, which usually centre on a woman living alone. Some are set in Canada, in Montreal during the Language Wars and in the Yukon, but the majority cock a snook at Thatcherite Britain.
In ‘The Fact-Finding Mission’, Dora ends up by making a complete circumnavigation of the Circle Line on the London Underground. This is every Londoner’s fantasy, but somehow we know that Dora will eventually get off the train, while a true Post-Modernist heroine would go circling round to eternity. Her mysterious messages, too, may be unreliable as facts, but they all have an unmistakably referential intent. ‘THE UNEMPLOYED WRINKLE MORE EASILY THAN THE EMPLOYED,’ she is told, and ‘THE ENGLISH ARE REPRESSED BECAUSE THEY HAVE NO LAKES.’ It would take a Canadian or perhaps a Swede to think up the latter comment, which is doubtless a clue to the identity of Dora’s informant.
Several of Pullinger’s Lies are full-blown fantasies; in others, the principal narrative development takes place in nightmares and dreams. The development – the sense of action and conflict and tentative resolution – is nevertheless real. In ‘Franz Kafka’s Shirt’, Genevieve, in her waking life, is a’ normalish type of person’; asleep, she reaches the point of unscrewing her hot-water bottle under the impression that she is twisting off Franz Kafka’s head. The first sentence of Tiny Lies tells us that ‘after her sister went mad, Josephine couldn’t see the point in carrying on behaving normally but she tried not to think about this and went on with her life.’ Josephine’s sister was found floating down the Thames on an inner-tube, and Josephine’s composure doesn’t last long either. Emotionally bereft and intellectually adrift, these characters are much farther out than we thought. The collection includes one very brief dystopian tale, ‘The Micro-Political Party’, which suggests that our whole society may be not waving but drowning. What is most refreshing about these boldly comic and impressively self-assured stories is their refusal to fall back on dogmas about the human condition. Each story, whether a brief anecdote or a full-dress apocalypse, identifies a particular pain and an individual consciousness.
Ellen Foster looks like a short novel made out of the material of a short story, but the central character is certainly an original. Tough little Ellen is an orphan child growing up in the Deep South. Her first-person narrative – ‘When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy’ – holds us from the start. One of Ellen’s favourite games is ‘playing catalog’: ‘I picked out the little family first and then the house things and the clothes.’ One would think that Kaye Gibbons, having found Ellen a voice, had picked out the events of the novel from a catalogue of injustices or an NSPCC annual report. The tale of Ellen’s deprivations strains belief, as does her final contentment once she has found a satisfactory foster-home (it is in honour of her new home that the 11-year-old girl takes the name ‘Foster’). Ellen’s mother dies of an overdose of heart pills, followed by her father who dies of natural causes. Left to the mercy of her extended family, Ellen is thrown out of her aunt’s house on Christmas Day, and then sent by a wicked grandmother to work in the cottonfields with the black farm-hands. Ellen’s one friend is Starletta, the ‘little nigger girl’ who is finally made welcome by Ellen’s new foster-mother. What saves this hard-luck story of life among the poor-whiles from potential disaster is its shrewd, imperturbable and unsentimental heroine. Ellen may seem pattern-made to engage liberal sympathies, but as a narrator she remains a hard, punchy character, defiantly herself. Ellen Foster is the traditional orphan’s tale with a new, Southern twist.
There is nothing small-scale in the conception of Frederic Raphael’s After the War: at more than five hundred pages it aspires to the status of a grand social saga à la Margaret Drabble or C.P. Snow. Michael Jordan, sensitive and Jewish, has his first introduction to English mores at a boarding-school evacuated to the coast of North Devon. After the war he grows up to become a successful TV dramatist not unlike Raphael himself. Much of the book consists of encounters with a thinly-disguised series of cultural luminaries from the last four decades. Michael and his friends are clever, quick-thinking people, and their dialogue shows it. The problem for the reader is that this story of the making of a TV dramatist is also, transparently, the book of the forthcoming ten-part Granada Television serial. There is a liberal sprinkling of bon mots and disconnected, melodramatic scenes, with only the most perfunctory attempts at continuity and character-development. The novel is not really deepened by its episodic confrontation of the moral dilemmas of adultery, marital breakdown, the Colonels’ coup in Greece and the Arab-Israeli War. Michael Jordan has a nice line in self-deprecating, narcissistic autobiography: ‘I sat there in scornful admiration of what I thought I had created,’ he tells us of one of his most popular screen adaptations. After the War is clearly intended to repeat the success of The Glittering Prizes, but its present form is a misplaced concession to the genre of the blockbusting novel, and my guess is that you are much more likely to admire the screen version.