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.