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Donald Barthelme: Come Back, Dr. Caligari!

by Jerome Weeks 23 Feb 2009 10:21 AM

Q: Is the novel dead? A: Oh yes. Very much so. Q: What replaces it? A: I should think that it is replaced by what existed before it was invented. Q: The same thing? A: The same sort of thing. Q: Is the bicycle dead? — from “The Explanation” by Donald Barthelme Donald Barthelme was […]


Q: Is the novel dead?
A: Oh yes. Very much so.
Q: What replaces it?
A: I should think that it is replaced by what existed before it was invented.
Q: The same thing?
A: The same sort of thing.
Q: Is the bicycle dead?

— from “The Explanation” by Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme was one of the most influential, if not most important, writers to come out of Texas. A handful of modern American writers can be said to have shaped the art of the short story: Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, J. D. Salinger, Raymond Carver — and Donald Barthelme, the most startlingly unconventional of the lot. And the funniest. The man who made surrealism and dadaism mainstream in American fiction.

Because he lived for so long in New York City and because so many of his short stories were published in The New Yorker and because his work is so sophisticated, so drily witty, so knowledgeable about literary and cultural history (“Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” and “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” are two of my favorite titles), many people are surprised to learn that he was raised in Houston, the son of one of the city’s architects, worked at the Houston Post, managed the Contemporary Arts Museum there, lived his last years as the head of the University of Houston creative writing program.

The Texas evidence was always there in the stories — the autobiographical ones, for instance, about his character named Bishop mention early years on a ranch. And there’s always the lovely story, “I Bought a Little City” (“So I bought a little city (it was Galveston, Texas), and told everybody that nobody had to move”). When I interviewed Barthelme in Houston in the early ’80s for USA Today, he was wearing cowboy boots, and I quoted a line about how no one should wear them unless they needed to — unless they can ride a horse. He tapped one and said, he could, and he had.

One of the welcome aspects of Tracy Daugherty’s new book, Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme, is how central it makes Barthelme’s Texas experience. True, much of the famous quirky, collage quality of Barthelme’s writing has the feel of New York City (one of his great short story collections is even called City Life). But in an irony the author surely appreciated, “Barthelme” is inscribed on the frieze that honors legendary Texans  (Austin, Bowie, Fanin) along the top of the Hall of State in Fair Park. The name Barthelme was included there (it’s spelled out in the initial letters of the heroes’ names) because the authors’ father was the lead architect on the building.

The ego that would lead a man to have his name carved next to Crockett and Travis is also the ego that caused Donald Barthelme to have such a long-fought relationship with his father (as in his heartbreakingly poignant and funny novel, The Dead Father). (Personally, I like to think Barthelme’s Houston life can be summed up by the title of another collection: Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts.) Barthelme senior was also the architect behind Stanley Marcus’ first home — once an object of considerable discussion in Dallas.

I’m still reading Hiding Man so I’m not going to give it a full review here. I can certainly add to the tales of Barthelme’s heavy drinking (he put away the major part of a six-pack during our 90-minute talk), but mostly I wanted to post this to cite a number of welcome pieces online that the new bio has prompted, including a Q & A with Daugherty at Texas Monthly and a podcast-audio clip from Louis Menand, author of an excellent New Yorker review of the biography, basically an essay on Barthelme and his ‘post-modern art.’ (The review is by registration only.) Menand cites the prime influence of Samuel Beckett on Barthelme’s work (a point first made, I believe, by J. D. O’Hara in his Paris Review interview with Barthelme, which, unfortunately, PR has apparently not anthologized yet among its series of interview reprints). One of the most thought-provoking points Menand offers is the similarity between Barthelme’s collage style and the work, not of the ’60s pop art satirists to whom he was often compared (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein) but the work of fellow Texan Robert Rauschenberg.

  • Novel dead – well its’ not in a golden age and the consolidation of arts into a few media hands has pretty much taken any innovation out of the novel.
    What’s replacing it? The zine, more honest, heartfelt, current, lively, etc.
    Why don’t I know about zines? You tell me.

  • Two observations here: 1) “The Explanation” first appeared in the late ’70s, some 30 years ago, so we can take its declaration of the famous ‘death of the novel’ as somewhat erroneous or at least premature. But then 2) the question is clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek, as is clear by Q’s next question “Is the bicycle dead?” Barthelme found the ‘death of the novel’ a faintly ridiculous proposition. The novel, like the bicycle, will exist in our culture as long as that form of communication (or transportation) serves a function that both readers and writers (or riders) find satisfying. Even the ‘death of traditional mainstream publishing’ will not necessarily mean the demise of the novel itself.

    Schwinn can go out of business, but people would still find a way to make and use bicycles if they need to or wanted to.

  • Bill Marvel

    You need to learn a little cultural history. ‘zines are at least as old as BLAST, which in 1915 was regularly pubishing Ezra Pound. That period was a golden age for ‘zines, in fact, though they didn’t call that.
    The best artists and writers of the age regularly filled their pages. There were dozens of them. They did their work and, like Mayflies, died. Today we remember the poets and artists because thier work appears in books and on museum walls — two media you look down upon. The magazines we remember not so much, except here and there in scholarly footnotes.
    And so, Tom, try not to confuse the ‘zine with what or who is in it.

  • You are correct about the long history of the zine. It could be taken back to much earlier than 1915, with tracts and chapbooks. I should define what I mean – for me the ‘zine is the massive explosion of desktop publishing due to advances in computers in late 1980-‘s. That specific subset of zine history is the one that brought the flowering of a new form of literature that unlike novels or non fiction was a mix of fiction writing, journal, and book-making that has never quite been equaled before or since. That is what I salute when I began the Musea Zine Hall of Fame, now seen in full on the wikipedia for zines
    I encourage this forum to not neglect the thousands and thousands of publishers that have been at the forefront of great literature in our recent past. Dallas and Fort Worth plays a major part in zine history. How about an entry about zinewiki for starters. Let’s celebrate these great writers.

    • Bill Marvel

      I always hear you extolling the ‘zine, never an individual writer’s work that appears in a ‘zine. This suggest you are more interested in the medium than the message. It’s like being obsessed with cameras and projectors, but indifferent to the stories that unroll on the screen.
      No wonder you think the novel is dead and museums ought to close up shop. Frankly, it just doesn’t give you much credibility.

    • Bill I have reviewed zines for Zine World the leading national publication that reviews zines since it began. You can find hundreds that I’ve reviewed both good and bad.
      I’ve also started the national Zine Hall of Fame. For a complete listing of every inductee see and search Musea Zine Hall of Fame.