Fragments are the Only Form I Trust: Donald Barthelme (1)

Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme

I am currently reading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories and, while I’m only on page 101, there is so much going on that I would hate to try and squeeze the whole book into one post. What I have read so far covers his stories from the 60s. I thoroughly enjoyed every single story — so let’s look at a few of them.

sixty-stories

all page numbers refer to this edition

“Me and Miss Mandible” consists entirely of short journal entries secretly written by one of Miss Mandible’s students during geography classes, when she is not looking. This in itself is not an original setting, except… this student is not your run-of-the-mill eleven year-old. “I am in fact thirty-five, I’ve been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone” (17). Quite a misfit in a group of eleven year-olds! Gradually, we get hints of what may have happened, what caused him to be in this peculiar situation – a situation he is not altogether unhappy with, until the ‘other kids’ start picking on him for being the teacher’s pet.

Our protagonist explains that he must have been transferred from his regular job at the Great Northern Insurance Company to Miss Mandible’s class not by error, but because he has been betrayed. “At times I believe [the conspiracy] was instigated by my wife of former days, whose name was… I am only pretending to forget” (20). It is more likely, however (and he knows this), that his ‘transfer’ is the result of his getting the insurance’s claimants more money than necessary. He comes to see this development as an attempt to turn him into a functioning member of society again, after his military experience and his work have somehow damaged him: “It is clear even to me that I need reworking in some fundamental ways. How efficient is the society that provides thus for the salvage of its clinkers!” (25)

Even before we find out anything else about him, we learn that there is some kind of sexual tension (at least perceived by him) between the ‘boy’ and the teacher. This is something that occupies his mind quite a bit: is she or is she not interested in him? What should he do? “It is only in the matter of sex that I feel my own true age; this is apparently something that, once learned, can never be forgotten. I live in fear that Miss Mandible will one day keep me after school, and when we are alone, create a compromising situation. To avoid this I have become a model pupil” (22). At the same time, he cannot completely ignore that Miss Mandible herself is “in many ways, notably about the bust, a very tasty piece.” Eventually, both adults give in to this sexual tension. Miss Mandible is “charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor” and the ‘minor’ is sent to a doctor for observation.

This story is one of the less unusual pieces in this first part of the book. Yes, you read that right. Barthelme’s tongue is tightly in his cheek throughout this first batch of stories; he plays with narrative conventions, with specific uses of language, such as dialect, technical language, the language of story-telling, even the language of bad writers. “For I’m the Boy” zig-zags from formal English to the convincing, but decidedly less ‘formal’ tone of dialect just as it moves from ‘sophisticated’ interaction to crudeness and violence.

“Will You Tell Me?” is a bizarre story that revolves around an unusual gift: “Hubert gave Charles and Irene a nice baby for Christmas,” begins the tale. From there, the movement is not chronological, instead going back and forth without explanations. This fits well with what the characters (don’t) do: Hubert refuses to explain where the baby came from, only saying he got the little boy from the bank. Hubert and Irene do not explain to Charles that they are having an affair. Hubert’s son Eric cannot compete with Charles or Paul for the attentions of Hilda, and then there are Inge and Rosemarie, and failed love connections all around. All the while, Paul grows up to be an anarchist and builds bombs for this friends at school to terrorize their fathers. This story has some of my (so far) favorite bits of tongue-in-cheek writing in it: in the middle of his own, strong writing, Barthelme switches into “bad writer” style. Here goes:

Charles! Irene exclaimed. You’re hungry! And you’ve been crying! Your gray vest is stained with tears. Let me make you a ham and cheese sandwich. Luckily I have just come from the grocery store, where I bought some ham, cheese, bread, lettuce, mustard and paper napkins. (43)

This passage is full of the mistakes beginning writers make: unrealistic dialogue, trying to explain everything (whether important or not), odd exclamations — here’s another gem:

Irene, Hubert said, I love you. I’ve always hesitated to mention it though because I was inhibited by the fact that you are married to my close friend, Charles. Now I feel close to you here in this newsreel theater, for almost the first time. (ibid)

I laughed so hard when I read this, it made my day.

Then, there is a sort of modern-day fairy tale: “The Balloon” is enormous and continues to expand until it covers a large part of New York City. It becomes part of the cityscape, part of people’s lives, even creates a number of new points of reference for the people who live near or under it. In the end, the balloon is revealed as a ‘solution’ to societal but also personal problems.

Then there’s “Game.” It read just like one of those 60s style sci-fi shorts I love so much: the strangeness of perspective that at the same time does not acknowledge itself as strange. A mental world with a different but convincing inner logic of its own. It also has an ‘atomic age’ theme to it: two men who have been isolated on their job in a secret installation for months, for so long that they have lost grasp of what it is they are there to do, or how to interact, how to be human adults, how to be professionals.

And “Alice” — I’ve decided to say little, if anything about “Alice” because it needs to be read to be understood. It’s not so much the actual content of the text as it is the experience, I think, that matters here.

The last story I want to comment on for this post is “Report.” Unlike “Alice,” this is fairly straight-forward fiction. With some fun language. “The engineers […] were friendly. They were full of love and information,” says the protagonist, who is member of an anti-war group. He has gone to meet them and find out whether or not the engineers plan to use their “thing” for military purposes. These engineers are much more than pale guys with pocket protectors, they regard themselves as priests, rabbis, maybe even minor gods:

We will open our hearts and heads to you, Software Man, because we want to be understood and loved by the great lay public, and have our marvels appreciated by that public, for which we daily unsung produce tons of new marvels each more life-enhancing than the last. Ask us anything. (79)

The problem with the “thing” is that it works, which leads the anti-war group to try to get more information. “In the midst of so much dysfunction, function is interesting,” explains our protagonist to the engineers. This might as well be social commentary, even just this sentence on its own. But of course the ‘thing’ is a weapon of mass destruction, like an atom bomb, that the anti-war group fears. As it turns out, the engineers are sitting on a whole pile of WMDs which, out of the goodness of their characters, they have not unleashed onto mankind:

We could, of course, place up to two million maggots in their rice within twenty-four hours. The maggots are ready, massed in secret staging areas in Alabama. We have hypodermic darts capable of piebalding the enemy’s pigmentation. We have rots, blights, and rusts capable of attacking his alphabet. Those are dandies. We have a hut-shrinking chemical which penetrates the fibers of the bamboo, causing it, the hut, to strange its occupants. This operates only after 10 P.M., when people are sleeping. Their mathematics are at the mercy of supporating surd we have invented. We have a family of fishes trained to attack their fishes. We have the deadly testicle-destroying telegram. […] We have a secret word that, if pronounced, produces multiple fractures in all living things in an area the size of four football fields. (81)

With the rice and the bamboo huts, of course Vietnam comes to mind. These WMDs are at the same time  odd and improbable. The only thing that stands between mankind and large-scale destruction is the engineers’ “moral sense.” When our protagonist returns to his organization, “I said, It’s all right. I said, We have a moral sense. I said, We’re not going to do it. They didn’t believe me.”

hiroshima

“Fragments are the only forms I trust” is actually a quote from “See the Moon?” I chose it as the title for this post because virtually all the stories in Sixty Stories so far are fragmented, pieced together (or pieced apart, in some cases) from various points in time, various registers of language, various perspectives. It feels like somehow, these fragments, “these … souvenirs… will someday merge, blur – cohere is the word, maybe – into something meaningful” (91).  

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: Hush Hush, by Steven Barthelme | Outside of a Cat

  2. John Kelin

    Thanks for your remarks. I love DB: The Teachings of Don B, A Yankee Way of Knowledge (Guilty Pleasures). I came across this post after Googling for a long-ago magazine profile of DB in which he declared, to a (fictional) press conference held in a crowded Laundramat, that he loved fragments.

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