I don’t think Donald Barthelme would have minded being called a confusing writer. Confusion was a favorite subject for him in his essays and reviews, and it’s enacted in his fiction in a mishmash of dizzying incongruities. “The part of the story that came next was suddenly missing,” one of his narrators admits in a signature Barthelmean moment, and what follows is a hodgepodge of what could be said, what won’t be said and a series of “good-quality” lies spun on a whim. Not that all the details are important. We can’t count on any incident having lasting significance, nor can we trace a reasonable relationship between cause and consequence in these stories. Events rarely follow logically, and with all the bewildering pronouncements that Barthelme’s fictional spokesmen make about the state of the world, it’s hard to decipher any coherent idea.
But it’s important to consider the different meanings of confusion in order to discuss its effects. While the word denotes disorder and perplexity, in its early usage it also described the physical action of mixing elements to create something new. Through the fusion of fluids, of thoughts, even of people in friendship, confusion was understood as a process that could generate coherence, if only temporarily. Put these different meanings together, and we get the kind of confusion that Barthelme conjures up–an experience that can be as productive as it is unsettling.
Along with being the indefatigable force behind the University of Houston Creative Writing Program for many years, Barthelme is the author of more than seventeen books, including four novels, a children’s book and several collections of stories. John Hawkes called him “one of our greatest of all comic writers.” Thomas Pynchon coined the phrase “Barthelmismo” to describe the unique “transcendent weirdness” of his work. With Barthelme’s death in 1989, we lost one of our most admired–and confusing–writers. Now the independent publisher Shoemaker and Hoard has brought Barthelme back to center stage and given us a chance to reconsider his influence. Flying to America is a collection of unpublished and previously uncollected stories, as well as stories that were left out of his two earlier compendium editions, Sixty Stories (1981) and Forty Stories (1987). In addition, Counterpoint has reissued two volumes of criticism, The Teachings of Don B. and Not-Knowing, which gather together Barthelme’s essays, reviews and interviews.
Besides offering some fine examples of Barthelme’s ingenuity, the stories in Flying to America reveal the fascinating evolution of his career, from the wildly fractured stories of the ’60s to the more subtly disjointed stories he published in the last decade of his life. Though the editor, Kim Herzinger, decided against arranging the pieces in the order in which they were written, his helpful notes give background information on all the stories, with the dates and places of publication. Taking the chronology into account, we can see how Barthelme changed his fictional concoctions, drawing new ingredients from the crowded field of contemporary life, mixing them together and mixing them up.
Here’s the opening paragraph of one of Barthelme’s earliest stories, “The Piano Player,” first published in The New Yorker in 1963:
Outside his window five-year-old Priscilla Hess, square and squat as a mailbox (red sweater, blue lumpy corduroy pants), looked around poignantly for someone to wipe her overflowing nose. There was a butterfly locked inside that mailbox, surely; would it ever escape? Or was the quality of mailboxness stuck to her forever, like her parents, like her name? The sky was sunny and blue. A filet of green Silly Putty disappeared into fat Priscilla Hess and he turned to greet his wife who was crawling through the door on her hands and knees.