Articles

Mini Modern Classics (3) Donald Barthelme

In Books on April 4, 2011 by Miche Tagged: , , ,

Back coverWell, this turned out to be a treat, but it didn’t start that way. I knew nothing of Donald Barthelme except that he was an American writer now dead. Seeing that the 75 pages of Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby (probably around 50 pages of a normal-sized paperback) contained no fewer than nine short stories, I feared that I was in for a series of those vague little vignettes that infest the pages of the New Yorker. And so, at first, it seemed.

In the title story, Colby’s friends decide that he has “gone too far” and must be hanged. It’s all very civilized on the surface: Colby is consulted about the music, there’s a discussion about whether to serve drinks, and about whether an indoor or outdoor hanging would be preferable. The comic tension between the awful act and the committee-style way it’s carried out sustains the humour of the story till the last full stop – but only just.

The second story, The Glass Mountain, just perplexed me. A weird allegory in 100 numbered statements (I nearly said 100 sentences, but number 80 is a full paragraph, perhaps to break the monotony), it left me wondering whether I should carry on reading. Fortunately, I did carry on.

The next story, I Bought a Little City, was the one that clicked. An impossibly rich man buys the city of Galveston, Texas, and tries to change it for the better. Maybe you can imagine how well that works out, but probably you can’t predict the ways it fails to work out in Barthelme’s telling. By now, I suppose, I was tuning in to Barthelme’s comic mode. Certainly I was starting to enjoy the stories. The Palace at 4 A.M. is a weird, funny and sad parable. Chablis is probably funny if you have a baby (or maybe it’s only funny if you don’t); The School is a great black comedy in which the pupils’ gerbils, fish, grandparents etc keep dying.

And so on. Lovely comic-serious playfulness.

Jings, my “to be read soon” pile is getting top-heavy already.

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