From Sixty Stories, PMC, and the collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968, this 6-page story was one of the first of Donald Barthelme’s that I encountered, read on a podcast some years ago. I was quite unprepared for its wild surrealism and bizarre non sequiturs – but beneath the surface charm and throwaway appearance of ease is a subversive seriousness – I think.
It begins with a typically allusive, short sentence that immediately sets the tone of strangeness and mystery:
We defended the city as best we could.
Who are ‘we’, what was the nature of the threat that had to be defended against, and which city? The next sentence suggests a Western genre:
The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds.
We’re then told of ‘earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark’ – why the French term, and who is Mark Clark? The distinguished American officer who served in both World Wars and Korea?
‘People were trying to understand.’ So is this reader. Each accumulating sentence takes us not closer to comprehension or coherence, but further from it, as more and more unrelated details are added:
I spoke to Sylvia. “Do you think this is a good life?” The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. “No.”
The time-frames are telescoped unsettlingly. Characters’ names are dropped in as if we should know who they were. What’s the relationship of this first person narrator with Sylvia, and why does he ask this question? Why her negative minimal response? Later she seems to be in league with the Indians. Who is the ‘Miss R.’ who appears later?
There’s a paragraph about a ‘captured Comanche’ being tortured to reveal information about his tribe’s plans that seems to allude to perhaps the Vietnam war (or the genocidal history of How the West Was Won). The IRA are also name-checked.
Then there’s another of the strange lists of seemingly random objects of which much of this story is composed, when we’re told that in the ‘outer districts…trees, lamps, swans had been reduced to clear fields of fire…’
Until I came across Barthelme I’d been accustomed to short stories that gradually clarified the significance of the details within the narrative, arriving at either an epiphany (Joyce, Mansfield, Woolf) or resolution (almost everyone else). That doesn’t happen with this writer. Instead all is dislocation.
After another stretch of dialogue between the narrator and Sylvia, in which they cite Fauré and making sex scenes in movies, as if this was the most natural combination possible, the story turns back to intermittent coverage of some kind of urban defence against the ‘Red men in waves’ – Barthelme isn’t interested in politically correct vocabulary.
Barricades had been hastily erected from another strangely implausible list of items:
Window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colours), wine in demijohns, and robes.
At this point I abandon any attempt to summarise the rest of the story; to do so would require quoting every sentence, for to omit any detail would be to diminish the overall, dizzying effect.
Breton cited the proto-surrealist, the Comte de Lautréamont (1846-70), and his iconoclastic prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror (published 1868-69) – another non-linear, untrustworthy narrative – in defining the surrealist impulse: in canto 6 a boy is described as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’. Max Ernst described a surrealist work as a linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.
A random example from this story that fits that description, to add to those given already: the narrator states with disarming sang-froid that the attackers had infiltrated the ‘ghetto’ (what ghetto?!), a development that causes ‘we’ to send in ‘more heroin’ and ‘hyacinths’. The allusion to ‘The Waste Land’ develops subversively: Sylvia says: “You gave me heroin first a year ago”. A line from Hamlet also pops up. Valéry. ‘Death in Venice’. Jean-Luc Godard. Among others.
The final paragraph mentions how ‘we killed a great many in the south suddenly with helicopters and rockets but we found that those we killed were children’. It’s tempting to interpret (Vietcong? White Russians?), but to do so is to fail to interpret. The narrator is ordered to remove his belt and shoelaces, perhaps about to be tortured himself; his future, like this story, seems uncertain. The knockabout style deployed for what purports to be a war story is disturbing, and subverts the complacency that conventional narrative might invite.
This kind of fragmented collage narrative won’t appeal to some, and I can’t read too much of it in one go: it becomes a glut. ‘Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole’, says the narrator at one point; Miss R, on the other hand, prefers the horizontal (or it can be vertical) lists of ‘the litany’, and dislikes the increasingly ‘unpleasant combinations’ [of language? Dialectic?] favoured by the young as they ‘sense the nature of our society’; she insists
“I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word.”
The story, then, could be seen as a postmodern metafiction about the making of stories with language. Or the importance of socially systematic…something: values? Youthful ideals? Of love and sex?
Whatever it might signify, and despite the wiful obscurity of this story, I like its exuberance and irreverent wit. Many of the sentences are prosometric, like Lautréamont. Barthelme as counter-culture poète maudit, perhaps.