“It’s a very particular kind of sense of humor and if it happens to get your funny bone, then it’s ridiculously funny.”
-Salman Rushdie on Donald Barthelme
“It is as if the French novelists do not know how to play. [And that inability] is a result of lack of seriousness.”
-Donald Barthelme, After Joyce
Donald Barthelme was a writer primarily known for his short stories. Many of those stories were published in the New Yorker and, according to this article, they received more complaints than any other writer at that magazine.
Here is Salmon Rushdie reading one of these stories on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast:
Here is another Barthelme story, “The Game,” read by T.C. Boyle:
These two stories are similar in that they’re both about a really specific relationship dynamic between two men. They both kind of oscillate between professional and personal considerations. The first focuses on the unbalanced power dynamic between a politician (?) and his bodyguard, and is told entirely in questions. The second one is longer and more silly/grim, focusing on the relationship between two government officials tasked with guarding the two keys to a nuclear weapon. I think this take on Cold War paranoia is what a lot of lesser fiction tries and fails to achieve.
“The Game” in particular reminds me of how critics always say that George Meyer’s Simpsons episodes reflect an innate distrust of social institutions like the government or the Catholic Church. Lots of Barthelme’s stories seem to be like that, but even higher stakes and more antic.
To absolutely force a connection, Barthelme died in 1989 (the year The Simpsons premiered) but he left behind hundreds of short stories, which people are still finding and being inspired by today. Here is another version of “The Game” read by YouTube user iamthebestartist:
Here is another of his stories, “The School”:
There are many Barthelme short stories in various forms on YouTube. Some of them, like the last one, seem to be school projects. I imagine he’s a good writer to teach in an English class because his stories are very short, he makes big choices at the beginning, and he leaves a huge amount up to interpretation. Who even is this guy the bodyguard is trying to protect?
Barthelme was very firm in his belief that that “collage is the primary art form of the 20th century” and that’s why many of his stories are less plot-based and more feel/tone-based. The point of “Bodyguard” is not the answer to any of these questions, it’s to triangulate some character in the middle of all of them. Unfortunately this seems to be a relic in the age of the clickbait headline, which is effectively the most potent distillation of plot possible. (“I jumped into a tiger cage – you won’t believe what happened next.”) If you can’t convey the value of a piece of writing in one sentence, it seems, nobody will really give a shit.
However, Barthelme’s work may not be totally stuck in the past – he was a practitioner of “flash fiction,” very short, high-impact impressions of an event rather than a full story. This medium especially appeals to me because it leaves the maximum amount of meaning to be supplied by the reader’s interpretation. (Also because it’s short.)
So much so even that this online English teacher uses it to teach English as a second language:
And apparently his work is pretty popular with filmmakers, although as you’ll see, his particular sense of humor isn’t necessarily the easiest to translate to the screen.
Isn’t that pretty cool, to see multiple interpretations of the same stories like that? I think it’s very cool, even if some of these are considerably less funny than they are on the page.
But that’s the whole point of written fiction: to leave all the imagery and interpretation up to the reader. So naturally I was a little bummed out to learn that audiobooks, a booming industry if you haven’t heard, are trending towards “audio theater,” i.e. adding sound effects, different voices, all these atmospheric sounds, etc.
Why? Why do that? I think we’ve all read at least one book after seeing the movie, and found/resented that the movie studio had already made all the creative visual decisions for us. Why do that with the whole thing, right from the very beginning?
And further, why make the entire thing into a series of ones and zeroes that I guess eventually we’ll just upload into our consciousness and forget about. Like the karate scene in The Matrix, except it just produces a mechanical Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Laugh Response.
As author Joshua Cohen argues (pretty stridently) in this PBS video, when a story or a joke or any kind of culture is reduced to an .mp3 file in a folder, it kind of becomes…nothing.
It is my belief that culture has to be paid for. If not with money, or even praise, then with time, or attention. There are more things to hear and read than ever before. But the cheaper it is to get your hands on, the cheaper your appreciation will be. The cost of a thing is the care you give it. […] Canons can’t survive. They can’t evolve, if the memory they animate is your computer’s and not your own.