Dienstag, 24. Juli 2018

Donald Barthelme’s Slick City-Sophisticate Disguise / Thomas Pynchon. In: The Paris Review July 23, 2018

Trying to describe Donald Barthelme’s politics is as dodgy as trying to label his work, but Watergate sure did get him revved up. Nixon by then had already mutated into a desperate and impersonal force, no longer your traditionally human-type president but now some faceless subgod of folly. Barthelme, perhaps as a species of anarchist curse, just calls him “the President.” The rage behind it, provoked by the ongoing spectacle of national politics in the U.S. as presided over by anybody, is natural enough if you look at the regimes Barthelme happened to be working under. Among many sad consequences of his passing is that we won’t know what he might have done with Bush as a subject, although “Kissing the President,”  in its consideration of Reagan, may give off premonitory hints.
One out of several humiliating features about writing fiction for a living is that here after all is just about everybody else, all along the capitalist spectrum from piano movers to systems analysts, cheerfully selling their bodies or body parts according to time-honored custom and usage, while it’s only writers, out at the fringes of the entertainment sector, wretched and despised, who are obliged, more intimately and painfully, actually to sell their dreams, yes, dreams these days you’ll find are every bit as commoditized as any pork bellies there on the financial page. To be upbeat about it, though, in most cases it doesn’t present much moral problem, since dreams seldom make it through into print with anything like the original production values anyway. Even if you do good recovery, learning to write legibly in the dark and so forth, there’s still the matter of getting it down in words that can bring back even a little of the clarity and sweep, the intensity of emotion, the transcendent weirdness of the primary experience. So it’s a safe bet that most writers’ dreams, maybe even including the best ones, manage to stay untranslated and private after all. 
Barthelme, however, happens to be one of a handful of American authors there to make the rest of us look bad, who know instinctively how to stash the merchandise, bamboozle the inspectors, and smuggle their nocturnal contraband right on past the checkpoints of daylight “reality.” What he called his “secret vice” of “cutting up and pasting together pictures” bears an analogy, at least, to what is supposed to go on in dreams, where images from the public domain are said likewise to combine in unique, private, and, with luck, spiritually useful ways. How exactly Barthelme then got this into print, or for that matter pictorial, form, kept the transitions flowing the way he did and so on, is way too mysterious for me, though out of guild solidarity I probably wouldn’t share it even if I did know. The effect each time, at any rate, is to put us in the presence of something already eerily familiar … to remind us that we have lived in these visionary cities and haunted forests, that the ancient faces we gaze into are faces we know.
Of course Barthelme could work in more daylit modes as well. The parodies of works that for one reason and another gave him the pip, though wicked, are straightforward enough. “Two Hours to Curtain” is a closely observed and affectionate piece of reporting. The radio plays and pieces like “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” suggest how much sheer fun he must have had writing dialogue. You can feel him sometimes getting light-headed with it. It could be generational, the result of coming up during the “golden age” of radio drama, when speech, music, and sound effects had to fill the audience’s attention and carry the whole show. I imagine him working on the Batman piece trying not to laugh too much at his own work because that might get in the way of maintaining the idiotically slow pulse he wanted, not at all his usual narrative tempo, which ran between frenzied and warp drive.
There are also pieces too free of form to be parody, too funny to be simple invective, that express Barthelme’s deep annoyance with any number of selected offenders—the federal government, Thanksgiving, just about anything from California, not perhaps geographical so much as psychological California, with its reputation for granting asylum to, call them wishful thinkers, seeking to deny, in mostly unorthodox ways, the passage of time, and what time brings in the way of aging, the evils of history, the turns of Fortune. Like most writers who are serious about what they do, Barthelme could not afford any such luxuries and so had little patience with anyone who appeared to him to be indulging them.
See, for example, The Teachings of Don B. Though it has the look of a writerly reflex to some piece of industry gossip about Carlos Castaneda’s deal with Simon & Schuster for the first Don Juan book, Barthelme is also here enjoying a surrender to annoyance with the parties involved, the book itself, and the culture of eternal youth that has allowed it to flourish. The operative text here would seem to be from 2 Corinthians: “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.” Wise satirical practice requires the sensitivity and skill of a fugu chef at controlling toxicity, that is, knowing how long to suffer, and how gladly, and when to give in to rage, and the pleasure of assaulting at last the fools in question. Barthelme’s timing in this regard was flawless, though unfortunately, he was prevented from becoming a world-class curmudgeon on the order of, say, Ambrose Bierce by the stubborn counterrhythms of what kept on being a hopeful and unbitter heart. Much of this journeyman impatience with idiocy concealed a tenderness and geniality that always shine through whenever he drops the irony, even for a minute. That and, of course, his inescapable sadness. That elegaic voice: “The wives of the angry young man are now married to other people—doctors, mostly.” That “mostly.” You think of the music of Dietz and Schwartz, of Fred Astaire singing Dietz and Schwartz, just that combination of grace and disenchantment, darkish lyrics and minor modalities. ... [mehr] https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/07/23/donald-barthelmes-slick-city-sophisticate-disguise/

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