The Dead Father

Satisfactory Essays
The Dead Father

Jerome Klinkowitzís remarkably insightful review of Donald Barthelmeís work begins with an anecdote about an evening they spent together in Greenwich Village (Barthelmeís home for most of his life as a writer), and how a perfectly Freudian remark by Barthelmeís wife put a stop to the writerís boorish mood:ìëWhy Donald,í she said, ëyour fatherís is bigger than yours.íShe was referring to their respective biosin Whoís Who in America.î

It is Klinkowitz's well-argued contention that Barthelmeís mid-career novel The Dead Father (1975) not only represents the high-water mark of his skill as a technical master of postmodern prose, but that it also embodies the central neurosis/inspiration driving nearly all his work, from his first published story, ìMe and Miss Mandibleî in 1961, to his last novel, Paradise (1986).(Though The King is mentioned by Klinkowitz, it is clear he considers it to be barely part of the Barthelme canon.)For Klinkowitz, Barthelmeís near-obsessive goal as a post-modernist is to ìburyî his modernist father.For instance, Klinkowitz writes that, while at first glance ìMe and Miss Mandibleî seems a perfectly Kafkaesque tale of a man awakening to grotesquely transformed circumstances, in fact it is ì[f]ree of overweening anxiety and not painfully dedicated to existential questioning or angst ...î[1]

ì[Barthelmeís] first inclination is to laugh at rather than flail angrily against the forms and themes of an earlier style ...î[2]Klinkowitz cites ìThe Indian Uprisingî and ìThe Balloonî as oft-anthologized stories which epitomize Barthelmeís work prior to The Dead Father; pieces which came to represent the postmodern short story with all its socially savvy and technically sophisticated style, yet stories whose primary tone is comic rather than the stilted existential dread of Barthelmeís modernist precursors.Thus anxiety of influence is defused through comedy and exaggeration.Klinkowitz implies that, in Barthelme we have our first authentic American Beckett, but one in whose work optimism is neither desperate nor self-canceling.

Skillfully mixing criticism and biography, Klinkowitz demonstrates how Barthelmeís life influenced his work; how his time in the army as a service newspaper writer, and later as a publicity writer and editor prepared him to handle ìwords and images as blocks of material rather than as purveyors of conceptions ...î[3]But the use of autobiographical material makes a point beyond that relevant to critical biography.Klinkowitz argues that a consistent thematic in Barthelmeís writing was life as text--and therefore text as some sort of incarnation of life.As Klinkowitz writes of his meeting with Barthelme in the village, Barthelme ìwas firmly inside his text.
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