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 Flying to America is a collection of unpublished and previously uncollected stories, as well as stories that were left out of his two earlier compendium editions, Sixty Stories (1981) and Forty Stories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.
A filet of what? And where’s that butterfly? We can hope that the wife’s predicament will be explained. But poor Priscilla Hess–that’s the last we’ll see of her and her filet of Silly Putty in this short piece. We’ll stay with the story’s main characters, a husband and wife, after that first paragraph. Barthelme bombards us with introductory images of questionable relevancy before settling into the ride of the narrative; he starts with a whiplashing jolt and then proceeds at a slower pace, with more rhythmic bumps and turns.
If the rules of a language are followed, words usually make sense. But these very rules can stir the impulse to rebel. We’re obliged to keep trying to convey meaning through correct sentences. After a while, the good-soldier rigidity of polished prose can begin to seem dull, and it gets harder to resist the temptation of nonsense. How wonderful it would be to scatter words as they rise to consciousness, to let them lie where they fall.
Samuel Beckett set the bar high for writers interested in the effects of nonsense. Before him, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein provided their own examples of how rhythm can make meaning out of repetition. “If you win you do not lose and if you lose you do not win, at least if you win or if you lose it seems so,” wrote Stein. At first glance, she makes it look so simple: state a fact, reverse it and repeat. But simple language isn’t necessarily simple, she reminds us. Facts may only seem to be true. Follow this observation to the outer limits of meaning, and the language we rely on to describe our world might not make sense at all.
In some of his early stories, Barthelme relies heavily on repeated syntax, repeated words or both. “Edward laughed. Pia laughed,” he writes in the final paragraph of “Edward and Pia,” published in 1965. He continues: “They had another glass of wine. Pia was pregnant. They laughed and laughed. Edward turned off the radio. ‘The lights went out,’ he said in Danish. Pia and Edward laughed. ‘What are you thinking about?’ Edward asked Pia and she said she couldn’t tell him just then because she was laughing.” We’re not far from Stein here. And in other early stories, we hear the clear echo of Beckett, as in this passage from “Bone Bubbles,” published in The Paris Review in 1969: “weeping map intense activity din it would be better if we just piled all the stones on the floor crumpled paper wheels out of alignment prints rescued from the inferno beggars writing my article streaked with raisins kept putting things into his mouth foxing pages…” And so the story continues, through a process of free association that grows ever more perplexing.
Barthelme’s methods here might be distractingly derivative. But other stories from the same period show Barthelme stepping out from the shadow of the Modernist titans. There are two qualities that reveal a distinct sensibility: one is apparent in the arresting combinations of details; the other involves illuminating meditations on incoherence.
Amusing associations add spark to one of Barthelme’s earliest stories, “Pages From the Annual Report.” We’re introduced to a character with the mixed-up name of William Elderly Baskerville. When faced with a difficult situation, he tends to employ “his best Harvard Business manner.” And while he’s described staring at the gray of the sky that “never changed,” we’re told that on the wall behind him, “a sign said BLINK.”
There are a lot of Barthelme fans who love his work because it’s often really funny. For some critics, though, the good jokes aren’t good enough. Denis Donoghue famously compared the experience of reading Barthelme’s fiction to “the blowing of dandelion fluff: an inconsequential but not unpleasant way of passing the time.” Certainly there’s fluff to be found, as in the story “Eugenie Grandet,” where Barthelme repeats the word “butter” ninety-seven times, if I’m counting correctly. If jokes like this were all these stories had to offer, I’d tend to agree with Donoghue. Lampooning can win approval from readers by inspiring a feeling of proud camaraderie: we’re invited to rub shoulders with the author and think about how stupid other people are. Satire tends to be the mode of art that’s easiest to commend, and at its weakest it rests on a precarious pedestal of self-congratulation.
But Barthelme is not often a weak satirist. It could be argued that he’s not a satirist at all, since his best depictions of the ridiculous tend to convey more sympathy than derision; he seems less interested in ridiculing the follies of his characters than in exploring the dimensions of the absurd–the shared cosmic joke of life and the pathos of grappling with it. While there might be gleams of smugness here and there in Flying to America (especially in his burlesque portraits of insipid young women in some of his early stories), there are also, more significantly and inventively, breathtaking efforts to give coherent expression to the experience of confusion.
A moving example comes in “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” published in 1962. A lonely old man named Bloomsbury, who in his downtrodden determination to be heard is not unlike the lonely hero of Joyce’s Ulysses, acquires a small radio station and begins broadcasting. Sometimes he simply repeats a single word; the first example given is “nevertheless, nevertheless, nevertheless.” Other times he gives what he calls his “commercial announcements,” which are really appeals to his former wife. “Here we are, me speaking into the tube, you lying on your back most likely, giving an ear, I don’t doubt. Swell of you to tune me in.” He goes on to describe his memories of their life together, from “sweeping the chestnuts into the gutter” to eating raspberry ice to “going happily to sleep. Man and wife! Was there ever anything, old skin, like the old days?”
In this story, as in many others, not much is accomplished with the effort to be heard. Rarely do characters make themselves understood within the frame of the story. Their problems remain unsolved; they remain as bewildered by the world as ever. The husbands are usually rejected by their wives, lovers give up on each other, friends betray friends. But this is part of the turmoil of confusion. We come to know more about the experience through its vivid depiction, but at the same time we can’t explain it away. While confusion may be possible to enact, it’s not easy to understand–and this, for Barthelme, is a conundrum worth exploring.
In the most memorable stories of Flying to America, Barthelme depicts individualized confusion. In the title story, a film director laments the problems with his project, day by day. He can’t decide on a sequence for the scenes. It’s raining, and he has no interiors scheduled. “I wanted to film everything but there are things we’re not getting,” he admits. His effort to make something comprehensively meaningful culminates in his use of a babbling actor he calls “the genius.” He puts the genius in front of the camera and films him speaking whatever comes into his head. The genius in the clip sounds like he stepped out of one of Barthelme’s early stories: “Preterminal mummification of the deserving poor has been spoken of but I don’t think we’ll actually do it–not yet. Managerial capabilities and leadership potential may yet be discovered in you, predicted by your colored felt-pen drawings as a child.” What’s different here is that the fiction provides a situational frame for the babble; the specific context sharpens the effect of the confusion. Since the nonsensical speech has a different meaning for the genius than it does for the director, we can consider its complexities through its diverse effects.
“I prefer the inane,” reports Henrietta in “Henrietta and Alexandra,” a story published in 1971 (the same year “Flying to America” appeared in The New Yorker). Henrietta goes on to explain: “The ane is often inutile to the artist.” It’s the ane that Barthelme calls into question in his strongest stories. The ane–with its certainties, its direct connection between words and meanings, its assumption that we can express truth through language–proves less than helpful to many of Barthelme’s characters. Henrietta tries to explain what has been lacking from her education: “I knew what I was because I had been told,” she said, “but I had not been told that I was going to die…and that it would all be over, then, and that this was all there was and that I had damned well better make the most of it.”
The unknowable, the inexpressible, death, time, God and everything else beyond the scope of human consciousness–these were the targets for Barthelme’s Modernist predecessors. In many of his own stories written in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Barthelme strains against the confines of grammar in an effort to speak the unspeakable. When he makes confusion integral to specific characters, instead of treating them as vessels of confusion, as in “Bone Bubbles,” the stories have more punch. In the last story included in the collection, the marvelous “Tickets”–published in 1989, the year of Barthelme’s death–the narrator imagines assembling a group of friends and relatives and strangers, a symphony of individuals who will do nothing but shout, “Let’s go!” in imitation of workers at the car wash. The direction being suggested by “Let’s go” may not be clear, but as long as it’s shouted with gusto, that’s enough for this narrator–it’s exciting just to put old words in a witty new context, even if the point is obscure to the characters.
Directly or indirectly, in all his fiction Barthelme expresses a preference for the territory of the inane. What occupies this territory, or what he offers as most interesting about it, changes over time. He never tired of mixing up art and politics and American pop culture in improbable combinations (a good example is in “Perpetua,” when the “Elks Honor Guard” celebrates a cathedral’s dedication with M-16s “sent back in pieces from Nam”). But since the references are determinately topical, they tend to mirror the decade in which the story was written. Some of the stories have a dusty quality because of this. In the early “Hiding Man,” for instance, the narrator considers the possibility that a stranger is simply what he pretends to be, a “well-dressed Negro with dark glasses in closed theater. But where then is the wienie?” Though racism seems to be under scrutiny here, Barthelme goes on to clutter the story with silly titles of horror films, absurd news items, concerns about Mars bars and Thunderbirds, and it’s hard to tell where the focus is.
In its most effective form, a Barthelme story conveys the author’s enthusiasm for engaging in difficult verbal challenges. Even if the unspeakable will never be spoken, even if we can’t decipher the meaning of nonsense or the answer to a riddle, we learn something about the impact of the inane by paying attention to the diverse symphonies of voices, to the clamor of life and to all the spirited individuals who are shouting, “Let’s go!”
In an essay reprinted in Not-Knowing, Barthelme writes that though the sentences in his story “Paraguay” may not be verifiably beautiful, they made him happy to write them. If he was happy writing the story, then the reader should be happy reading it. There’s a reason it’s risky for an author to go on record defending his work–it can make the work seem an insufficient advocate for itself. But while his defensiveness is off-putting in this short essay, he includes a helpful description of his technique: “Mixing bits of this and that from various areas of life to make something that did not exist before is an oddly hopeful endeavor.”
Mixing bits of this and that–Barthelme attempted to refine this process through the course of his life, not in order to make something beautiful but to make something new. The aim expressed here is repeated and elaborated elsewhere in his essays and interviews. Barthelme has some harsh words for writers who make their work too clear (he is relentless in his mockery of Graham Greene). In contrast, the writers he celebrates–Beckett, E.M. Cioran, John Hawkes–are those who put words together in unexpected ways, who generate new meaning by taking advantage of “the combinatorial agility of words.” In other words, the best way to know the world is to think about how we think about it. In the title essay of Not-Knowing, he argues that “art is always a meditation upon external reality rather than a representation of external reality” and imaginative writing in particular should pursue “the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.”
Barthelme’s stories ask some of the same questions that Beckett’s narrator asks in the opening of The Unnamable: “Where now? Who now? When now?” The problem of the now was of particular concern to Barthelme. Even if we can’t ever satisfactorily describe “the as-yet unspoken,” we can say something about life, through art, by reassembling chaotic experience in chaotic new ways.
Whether art is defined as a representation of or response to reality, it demands an intense engagement with things we haven’t managed to understand fully. For Barthelme, the crowded here-and-now provides the material for this engagement. Mix things up, make something new with the detritus of culture, and the ineffable can be pondered, if not clearly defined. He made this point in a panel discussion in 1975 (an abbreviated transcript is included in Not-Knowing) when he said, “I would suggest…that there is a realm of possible knowledge which can be reached by artists, which is not susceptible of mathematical verification but which is true.”
William Gass, on the same panel, objected to this argument. It’s not the ineffable he’s interested in, he said. “I want to find out what it is that is known and whether I should believe it and on what grounds.” His comment is an important reminder that the mystification of the ineffable can be a way to avoid really confounding problems. Readers might find with some of his stories that Barthelme’s method of approaching confusion is, well… too confusing. And his most typical stories might begin to seem too typical. There are times when he seems tired of his own basic recipe and ends up borrowing from himself. And because it’s an easy recipe, at least in theory, it is easily available for other writers to borrow.
Yet Barthelme persistently changed the ingredients of his fiction. This is the key that keeps the work relevant. He mixed new elements in imaginative ways, to different effects, while deliberately avoiding answers and prescriptions. As one of his characters declares as he marches in a picket line–it’s important to subject “this state of affairs to a radical questioning.” At their best, the stories in Flying to America clearly prove that there’s something worth investigating within all the confusing clutter of experience.