Guilty Pleasures

By Donald Barthelme

Original Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Current Publisher: Out of Print

Charles Yu writes:

First of all, look at that cover. Seriously, look at it.

I don’t care what you say, those are hipsters. That’s an entry from the VICE magazine Dos and Don’ts page, and those are three Dos. They are bona fide, certified, Grade A hipsters, circa 2012, from Silverlake or Williamsburg or whatever other burg may have become a regional capital of hipsterdom. Except, of course, that this book was published in 1974, which means Barthelme was approximately four decades ahead of the culture. Which sounds about right. As James Wolcott said, “Barthelme converted the short-story format in to a highbrow variety revue.” If, as Alfred North Whitehead said, “all Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato,” then on a much smaller scale, all funny Tumblr blogs are footnotes to Barthelme. There’s a set of overlapping styles that can be seen in many places where satire is found these days, including places like McSweeney’s and its progeny, as well as many other funny blogs and sites, which are varied but have key elements in common, including formal experimentation, an emotional affect that can best be described as deadpan whimsy, and a love of all things old-timey (especially anachronistic mashup pictures of old-timey people in new-timey places), and these styles trace some of their DNA back to Barthelme, who predated, prefigured, and prepared readers for this mode of humor. Each of his stories is its own clever, satirical Tumblr: sometimes pastiche, sometimes variations on a theme, pretty much always tantalizing and sly and oblique.

The particular pleasure of reading Barthelme is the feeling that is the sum of the following: (i) not having any clue what is going on, while (ii) feeling afraid that I might never know what is going on (due to my own abject lack of knowledge about books, history, art, the world in general), and yet (iii) knowing with absolute certainty that there is something going on and (iv) trusting that although I probably won’t know what it is by the end of the story, that something will stay with me, burrowing deep into my dense and puny brain, until at some later date (days, months, even years), the something will open up like a flower, and in the process, expand the dimensions of the aforementioned puny brain.

Guilty Pleasures offers this feeling in abundance. In “L’Lapse (A Scenario for Michelangelo Antonioni),” Anna and Marcello are two lovers in an art-house film who enjoy flinging suggestive nothings and even meta-nothings at each other:

ANNA (slowly, sadly): A superb drama. An engrossing film…penetratingly different…makes cinema history.

MARCELLO (wealthy, bored): If I’m going to teach you the business, cara, you gotta learn not to make adverbs out of words like “penetrating.” Now go on. It’s one of the year’s ten best, I suppose?

ANNA: One of the year’s ten best. Urgent. Sheer cinematic excitement.

MARCELLO: A magnificent ironic parable?

ANNA: A magnificent ironic parable. Eerily symbolic in intent and effect. Beautiful to watch. (Inserts thumb)

But our lovers discover that despite their best efforts, and much to their dismay, they are committing a cardinal sin of the genre, something so shocking and explicit they can hardly bring themselves to talk about it:

ANNA: We have to face it, Marcello. We communicate. You and me.

MARCELLO (shamed, looks away): I know…

ANNA: We communicate like crazy.


ANNA: It’s so déclassé. I can’t bear it. (Reinserts thumb) 

MARCELLO: It’s my fault. I have a tendency to make myself clear. I mean…

ANNA (bitterly): I know what you mean.

It’s pure, distilled Barthelme: the compression, the economy, the surgical precision. It manages to satirize the pretensions of both filmmakers and film critics at the same time, skewering both with one well-placed needle, not popping the balloon but piercing it, so that we can hear the hot air escaping ever so slowly.

But most of all, I love that thumb. I love that Barthelme is never above good old-fashioned silliness. The Cahiers du Cinema crowd sucking their thumbs. Or even sillier, a running joke based on the fact that the long, medial or descending ‘s’ based on the Roman letterform (formerly used where s occurred in the middle or at the beginning of a word) looks like an ‘f’, giving us a story (“A Hesitation on the Bank of the Delaware”) full of typographic gags which makes me laugh for no other reason than it just looks funny on the page:

No houfe for my poor horfe! Oh, vile! My horfe, houfeless. Suddenly I feel infecure, Kinsolving—terribly, terribly infecure.

More often, though, the state in which I read Donald Barthelme can be described as one of expectant bewilderment. I’m confused, I’m baffled, I feel dumb, and yet for some reason I like it. The pleasure of reading Barthelme is inextricable from the difficulty. It’s English, I know all of these words, and yet it seems like I’m reading a foreign language. The diction veers sharply between archaic and colloquial (and all points in between), to say nothing of the juxtaposition of words that have no business being next to each other, and the net effect is one of de-familiarization, forcing the reader to slow down and re-examine parts of culture that she might otherwise take for granted at normal life speed. Mass culture, pop culture, the whole spectrum of brow from high to middle to low, television shows, advertising, consumer products. Barthelme scrambles it all up, cracks it into pieces until it is unrecognizable, forcing the reader to pay attention, to re-read the world. It’s a remaking of the world through odd syntax alone.

Which is not to say there is anything reductive about Barthelme’s work. In fact, it’s the opposite. Barthelme is a chemist in his laboratory, breaking down compounds, and dissolving them in irony, but he also achieves synthesis, rearranging and recombining elements, gluing it all together with wit and humor and, ultimately, creating new kinds of materials, as in the final piece in Guilty Pleasures, entitled “Nothing: A Preliminary Account,” in which Barthelme, through some feat of alchemy manages to produce, out of a beaker full of his patented acid, a whiff, a trace, a sweet-smelling vapor of hope:

It’s not the yellow curtains. Nor curtain rings. Or is it bran in a bucket, not bran, nor is it the large, reddish farm animal eating the bran from the bucket, the man who placed the bran in the bucket, his wife, or the raisin-faced banker who’s about to foreclose on the farm…What a wonderful list! How joyous the notion that, try as we may, we cannot do other than fail and fail absolutely and that the task will remain always before us, like a meaning for our lives. Hurry. Quickly. Nothing is not a nail.

Charles Yu was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection for his short story collection, Third Class Superhero. His first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, was a New York Times Notable Book and named by Time magazine one of the Best Books of 2010. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, The New York Times, Playboy, and Slate, among other places. He lives in Santa Monica with his wife and their two children. (Photo: Michelle Jue)

Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: Thomas Williams for The Hair of Harold Roux

Fiction Judges That Year: Stanley Elkin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Locke

The Year in Literature:

  • The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Eugenio Montale won the Nobel Prize for literature.

More Information: Barthelme won the National Book Award in 1972 in the Children’s Books category for The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine or The Hithering Thithering Djinn.

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