Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme – serious frivolity
To give somebody these genre-bending short stories is to bestow on them a new sense of fiction’s possibilities
I first came across Barthelme at university, as I am sure is the case with many others. Like most people, I didn’t actually read him. His name was something to drop into conversation – a signifier of postmodern cool, a wink to the stalls. His fiction wasn’t actually discussed in seminars either: it was merely alluded to. But having now taken the plunge and read both of the most popular collections of his work, I cannot sing the author’s praises highly enough. I urge others to get stuck in, too.
I had read Sixty Stories, the first volume of his greatest hits, last year, so this year I took on Forty Stories. I say: “took on” because Barthelme is not an easy writer. Despite being best known for short stories that seldom extend beyond five pages, he is a high-minded artist who can be difficult to digest. His fictions are dense, surreal affairs that eschew conventional narrative and skip giddily between genres. Those looking for plot, character, linearity or any other hallmarks of creative writing workshops should look away now.
It is a cliche (but true nonetheless) that in 246 pages, the book covers more fictional ground than other authors could hope to in entire careers. This is slightly unfair given that it was a selection of his best stories, but even fêted contemporaries of his, such as Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, struggle to mach the furious, joyous mélange of styles. Just the titles – in stark and arch contrast to the collection itself – are a source of great enjoyment. As Dave Eggers points out in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition: “these 40 titles are among the best assemblages of titles ever assembled”. Eggers goes on to mention Porcupines at the University and Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby, but they are the tip of the iceberg.
Part of the greatness of Forty Stories derives from its vertiginous variety. In reading these tales, the reader is exposed to – among other things – a story composed of one long, slithering sentence; another composed almost entirely of questions; and yet more that are composed entirely of dialogue. There are legends, there are letters, there are fables, there are essays. Of course, the narrative does occasionally lapse into classical storytelling, but the majority of the stories are studied attempts to avoid the staid Chekhovian/Joycean, small-epiphany-delivering style that was and is so prevalent. The long shadows of Beckett, Kafka, Borges and Nabokov do hang low over the work, yet Barthelme nearly always sounds fresh.
Twenty-eight years since its publication, and 26 since Barthelme’s death in 1989, the book remains essential reading. Firstly, because its author is grossly under-appreciated and secondly, because reading him will give one fresh insights into recent short story greats such as George Saunders and David Foster Wallace. People should also read the book because Barthelme is a relic of a time long since passed: an author willing to take stylistic risks, an author who manages to be frivolous and intellectually serious at the same time. He is a writer who is not afraid to make the the reader roar with laughter – or to be wilfully difficult. He wanted his readers to work but was ready to reward them every step of the way.
What’s more, few writers have ever believed in the power of words as much as Barthelme, and even fewer have demonstrated the same conjurer’s deftness with them. His self-described artistic “project of restoring freshness to language” is one to be appreciated and applauded. I understand that these stories can seem dated to some or cold to others, but Barthelme’s genre-bending flash fiction, with its offbeat tone and surreal imagery, is just as relevant for the YouTube generation as it was for the Baby Boomers. To read him is to refresh your sense of fiction’s possibilities.
Donald Barthelme / Everthing This Strange Is Real