Barthelme’s short stories, anachronistic, alienating, disorienting, amusing, edifying, esoteric, referential, really weird, were kind of exhausting to go through all at once. Clearly it was a different time, when these sorts of pieces could run in the NEW YORKER in the 60s and 70s. Not so much now after its corporate buy-out. i cant imagine handing in something like these stories in an MFA workshop, but i could be wrong, and folks would find a way to work with them. It’s telling, though, that like Raymond Carver, these stories are really, really short; their conceptual energy works better in tiny bursts. i love Barthelme’s prose, which is tight and clear the way people value, but is such in order to convey an insidious unhinged nature, occurring in response to the politics of the times. The compulsive repetitions in “Game,” for instance:
Shotwell and I watch the console. Shotwell and I live under the ground and watch the console. If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys. Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies. But the bird never flies. In one hundred thirty-three days the bird has not flown. Meanwhile Shotwell and I watch each other.
i was also a fan of “The Rise of Capitalism,” where such limpid writing serves a funny riff on leftist rhetoric’s inclination for direness:
Capitalism arose and took off its pajamas. Another day, another dollar. Each man is valued at what he will bring in the marketplace. Meaning has been drained from work and assigned instead to remuneration. Unemployment obliterates the world of the unemployed individual. Cultural underdevelopment of the worker, as a technique of domination, is found everywhere under late capitalism. Authentic self-determination by individuals is thwarted. The false consciousness created and catered to by mass culture perpetuates ignorance and powerlessness.
It’s the kind of blandness that we might associate these days with gentrification and neoliberal uniformity — from a glance at the new apartment buildings, or across so much flat and hollow contemporary writing as a result from plumbing market research rather than the unconscious.
This mingling of radical ideology and conservative/totalitarian force is what Barthelme’s prose inhabits, making for an odd and essential commentary on the New Left.
im focusing on the story that has stuck with me most vividly, “Paraguay.” It unfolds in fifteen paragraphs, all but one of which have a simple title. Off the bat things are odd, because the first paragraph is sourced to a 1906 travelogue, announcing perhaps the target of this story’s parody, that imperialist genre of nonfiction, fueled by and re-stoking a condescending Western imagination. Travel writing is still big in the nonfiction landscape — and arguably drove the impulse to documentary as a cinematic genre. All the pieces before to this one in SIXTY STORIES were centered on life in the US and especially New York, but here Barthelme is following the gaze of the New Left, which idealized the Marxist uprisings in Latin America just as it romanticized Eastern Communism. The oddness gets compounded in the next sections, headed “Where Paraguay Is”
This Paraguay is not the Paraguay that exists on our maps. It is not to be found on the continent, South America; it is not a political subdivision of that continent, with a population of 2,161,000 and a capital city named Asuncion. This Paraguay exists elsewhere. Now, moving toward the first of the “silver cities,” I was tired but also elated and alert. Flights of white meat moved through the sky overhead in the direction of the dim piles of buildings.
Like the other stories, we’re in a space without an actual referent; somewhere that can only exist in the writer’s and reader’s imagination. i remember reading way back some puff piece by Chuck Palahniuk about using his story with a bunch of gross shit happening for readings, and the visceral reactions it produced in audiences. “This where only books can go,” he said (paraphrasing). i always resisted that point. Sure, making people imagine gross stuff is possible in prose, but surely the place only writing can take us is somewhere way more abstract, where pieces of information from other, older books can disperse and join up freely, like in the compositions of Barhelme’s stories, or W.G. Sebald, or more radically minimalist in David Markson. So whatever Barthelme is going to do with the travelogue genre and the political culture of the US and Latin America in the 60s, it’ll happen in this un-grounded experimental landscape of modernism.
i stumbled on this interesting paper that reads “Paraguay” in light of postcolonial critique. it struck me because it hasnt escaped my notice that the blog has been all white dudes all the time since this summer (except for Sadiya Hartmann, whose amazing book is still haunting me). ill make up for this in the future, but the paper’s opening raised questions about the boundaries of postmodernism in world literature. id always imagined the pomo canon as including men from Europe and Latin America, with US writers representing with massive novels that while cool weren’t the main attraction. But maybe that was my wishful thinking, hoping that canon construction could fight imperialism. Maybe the power boundary keeps the white men inside, while Latin American writers are given alternative labels like Magical Realism or Baroque. It’s mired in acadamese, but i valued the goal of bringing in transnational thinking to an author conventionally held in the wonderbread pomo community. There are some good critical insights worth sharing and responding to — maybe im gonna try that English-to-English translation i was musing about last time.
In this non-mapped, bizarro version of Paraguay, the narrator encounters a mestizo woman named Jean Mueller. The writing is stripped of details, like the other stories — the likenesses of the characters or the landscape eludes the reader. There are dry factoids about the people of Paraguay, they like to have sex when it’s between 66 and 69 degrees for example, but the people themselves are nowhere to be found except for Jean and Herko Mueller (who may be an historical figure, and Jean’s husband? but it’s not certain). It’s a familiar pomo trick, to deliberately withhold the goods, since representation is merely a stand-in for reality anyway, and the colonial gaze compromises the enterprise, not to mention that searching for the “real” Paraguay would only apply another layer of imperialist violation. It’s part of the conceit of telling a story in an abstract textual world, but it’s also, according to the paper, a reflection of how US policy views the rest of the world as “placeless,” as “promising vessels for the U.S. political and cultural imagination.” We treat the rest of the world as a playground for our manufactured weapons, and in our gated community we’re isolated from the experiences of violence and exploitation that sustains us, so that a bizarre comet-looking thing in the sky is a UFO, rather than the newest horrifying piece of hardware being tested by the army.
But as we spend more time, we see the cultural processes afoot that serve the neoliberal agenda.
The problems of art. New artists have been obtained. These do not object to, and indeed argue enthusiastically for, the rationalization process. Production is up. Quality-control devices have been installed at those points where the interests of artists and audience intersect. Shipping and distribution have been improved out of all recognition. (It is in this area, they say in Paraguay, that traditional practices were most blameworthy.) The rationalized art is dispatched from central art dumps to regional art dumps, and from there into the lifestreams of cities. Each citizen is given as much art has his system can tolerate.
Bizarre and unsettling, the democratic distribution of art as described here is also trivializing art, making it so modular it’s like it doesn’t even matter what exactly this art the narrator’s talking about is.
And the section immediately after, “Skin,” hints at Jean shedding her dark mestizo skin for a lighter one — talk about making readers imagine gross stuff.
Then the skin placed in the green official receptacle.
Now imagine all these discarded dark skins on a massive consumer scale. The value of whiteness is implicated in the rest of this bland-ifying of Paraguayan culture, in the name of “letting all cultures interact.”
A big part of the fun in Barthelme’s stories is explicitly using older texts, classic literature or Kierkegaard, to stitch together new, abstract worlds. Alongside the opening paragraph, Barthelme swipes a passage from Le Corbusier, a proponent of radical, ground-breaking modernist architecture yet a darling to the European fascists. Like the quote from “The Rise of Capitalism,” this is the combination of radical and reactionary sensibilities that should disturb us.
The great wall space would provide an opportunity for a gesture of thanks to the people of Paraguay; a stone would be placed in front of it, and, instead of standing in the shadows, the Stele of the Measures would be brought there also. The wall would be divided, by means of softly worn paths, into doors. These, varying in size from the very large to the very small, would have different colors and thicknesses.
Le Corbusier was talking about a huge boring concrete wall which he made more interesting by carving in decorative panels of varying sizes. Above, Barthelme changes it to make it more irreverent and exaggerated. The paper informs us that Le Corbusier advocated “regimented, universal solutions” to the crisis of modernity, but even he couldn’t stand certain instances of homogeneity.
It’s a tease from the author that art and politics can’t be neatly linked, despite all we read about evil regimes attacking artists over there and complacent regimes de-valuing it over here. (The same goes with philosophers.) Oregon’s state capital building is a massive marble edifice, huge blocky chunks, and the rotunda is not even a dome but more like an overturned tumbler. The original building burned down, the new building, a WPA project, was designed by an Eastern European emigrant architect. So they ended up with a fascist building whose epic freize sculptures are a pean to democracy. i guess im saying that these kind of enigmatic or at least weird relationships are what Barthelme is bringing to our attention. And he also makes a jab at his own gleeful overturning of conventions and deferral of meaning, the denial of a “point” that gives a perverse pleasure to experimental art.
She explains to me that in demanding (and receiving) explanations you are once more brought to a stop. You have got, really, no farther than you were before. “Therefore we try to keep everything open, go forward avoiding the final explanation. If we inadvertently receive it, we are instructed to 1) pretend that it is just another error, or 2) misunderstanding it. Creative misunderstanding is crucial.”