Thursday, July 28, 2011

Donald Barthelme: A New Principle HEIGH-HO

“Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how” ~ Donald Barthelme
Reading Donald Barthelme is like being inside Daedalus' labyrinth expecting to confront the Minotaur at every turn. His writing can put horns on the dullest of heads.

Like Samuel Beckett, Barthelme knows there's nothing to be done, that there's no cure for being here and yet he thumps at the darkness with the only bludgeons in his arsenal - words, words, words.

"Head in the Clouds" by Richard Niman
If I were stuck in a bucket, stories such as "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby" or "Glass Mountain" would provide a modicum of comfort. I would laugh and wince about how some friends are trying to arrange Colby's execution in as dignified a manner as possible despite his protestations. I could then join Barthelme climbing "Glass Mountain" while stepping nimbly over every sentence he has numbered (100).  Or maybe I'd buy me a city like his Galveston.

During his heyday in the sixties, Barthelme retold "Snow White" and turned the dwarfs into horny little curmudgeons who also sell Chinese-themed baby food to pay the bills. His incandescence shines on in both the brutal humour of George Saunders and in the gentle fandango of Billy Collins. As Lev Grossman wrote in Time:
A prodigious smoker and drinker, Barthelme died in 1989 of throat cancer, having already seen critics begin to dismiss him as a novelty act. In truth, the mistake we made with Barthelme was expecting him to be the beginning of something. He was the end of something--the green flash in the brilliant sunset of modernism. But in his ceaseless reconfiguration of broken words, he gave voice to our longing for unbroken ones and freed us to go off in search of them--like the dwarfs in Snow White who, on the novel's final page, "DEPART IN SEARCH OF A NEW PRINCIPLE HEIGH-HO."

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