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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
ì[Barthelmeís] first inclination is to laugh at rather than flail angrily against the forms and themes of an earlier style ...îKlinkowitz 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 ...îBut 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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Thus the public constantly invades the private in Barthelmeís narratives.The private voice that can still exist for Kafkaís cockroach, however demeaned by his transformation, is a frequency in Barthelmeís world which is constantly invaded by bursts of signals from the public broadcasts of newspapers, TV, random social occasions, movies, popular songs, and especially advertising.
ìFragments are the only form I trust,î says a character in one of the most frequently quoted lines from ìSee the Moon?îAnd so Klinkowitz finds the most fragmented narrative unit of all--lists--a perfectly expected and constant component of Barthelmeís work.The narrator of ìThe Indian Uprisingî admits that lists and litanies serve to ìbind the world together into a rushing, ribald whole.îSuch stylistics create an atmosphere both chaotic and suggestive: ìWhere no order is prescribed, the readerís eye invents one.î
Klinkowitz goes on to assert that ìCity Life (1970), Sadness (1972), and Guilty Pleasures (1974) are the collections that seal Barthelmeís reputation not only as a short story master but as the direction-setting writer of his age,î filled with stories whose narrative style ìputs Barthelme straight on the road to The Dead Fatherî in that they helped Barthelme develop the technical depth necessary to sustain a narrative over the broader canvas of a novel.
And thus finally Klinkowitz arrives at The Dead Father, a novel whose ì[b]eginning, middle, and end are clear from the start, as the task of hauling the Dead Father to his grave has only one possible destination...îThe title figure--the Dead Father--is a perfect stand-in for Barthelmeís modernist ancestors, as ì... in The Dead Father the central figureís speech is a functional reality: it is because he speaks that there is a problem, it is the nature of his speech that makes it significant, and it is an archetypically narrative task to shut him up ...î
The work after The Dead Father is, Klinkowitz writes, more ìrecreational,î ìthe great obstacle of decayed modernism out of the way and the structural challenges of devising something new in its wake successfully met ...îThe narrators of Barthelmeís earlier work seemed often ìdriven nearly to exhaustion by having to come up with marvel after new marvel to delight audiences.îBut in Amateurs (1976) ìthere is no such worry. ..îìYouíre not a father figureî one of the women says to Simon, the central male character of Paradise. ìThat surprise you?î
Finally, Klinkowitz makes some extremely interesting observations about the placement, choice and structural effects which result from the ìinterleavingî of Barthelmeís unsigned The New Yorker pieces with ìconventionalî stories, which is the format of Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983).These are stories of people ìcaught up in the world of textuality, struggling to read their way through a culture where signs can be of more substance than the reality they might be presumed to signify.î
Klinkowitzís retrospective exhibition of Barthelmeís life and work makes an extremely significant, easily readable and vitally necessary contribution to the surprisingly meagre body of critical work on Donald Barthelme, who was, as Klinkowitz writes, perhaps ìthe most imitated fictionist of this generation.