Books: FACADES

4 minute read
Paul Gray

Frederick Barthelme’s third book is a textbook example of what has come to be called minimalist fiction. It does not follow that Tracer is better than the best works by Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Mary Robison or Frederick’s older brother Donald. They are among the most prominent writers who have experimented in various ways with the notion that in storytelling, less is both more and positively too much. But those who are curious about what the minimalists are up or down to can learn a lot by starting right here.

The first lesson is that television has replaced clocks and calendars as an index of significant events. Martin, the narrator, recalls the moment when his wife introduces the subject of divorce: “Alex had turned to me during one of those postcard breaks on MacNeil-Lehrer and said she thought we’d be better off if we just forgot the marriage.” As the legal wrangling winds down, Martin flies off for no apparent reason to stay at the motel on Florida’s Gulf Coast managed by his sister-in-law Dominica. Before long, the two of them are in bed together, with the TV again bearing witness: “About nine we started to make love but then quit in the middle of things and went for a walk. We got hamburgers at a beach dive called the Rubber Shack that specialized in scuba gear, then went back to the motel. She fell asleep ten minutes into David Letterman.”

Given this pervasive electronic wallpaper, Martin naturally describes characters in terms ready made for a passive audience. The lawyer he chooses to represent him in the divorce is “a guy who looked like Wayne Newton.” An oddly menacing figure who turns up at Dominica’s motel “looked like Dustin Hoffman, for some reason.” Similarly, Martin reports on natural scenery most confidently when he can compare it to name-brand products. Walking along the beach, he notes that “the Gulf shined like mylar.” Out for a drive, he remarks, “The clouds were like spills of dark Cool Whip going in slow motion across the sky.” In fact, the real world impresses Martin most when it seems artificial. Seeing Dominica standing at night beside the motel’s illuminated swimming pool, he observes, “It was as if we were on the set of some strange movie, caught for a second in the middle of one night.” In a small town near the motel, he finds “a street that could’ve been used in a movie about the thirties.”

What takes place in front of the pasteboard façades? Many unconnected things. Martin senses that his behavior with the two sisters is a mite unusual: “I tried to feel peculiar about being married to one and sleeping with the other, but it didn’t work.” Then his soon to be ex-wife shows up at the motel. So does Dominica’s former husband Mel, who may be the one who has spread glass on her beachfront and menaced her in other ominous and anonymous ways. On the other hand, Mel may be innocent. His brother Minnie arrives, bearing a big statue of a horse. Martin, Alex, Dominica, Mel and Minnie, along with some others who also lack surnames, go off to the local Pancake House. Later, Martin throws a half-filled can of Tab at Alex that hits her on the rear end. Still later, nearly everyone splits.

Barthelme, 41, offers these vignettes in the approved minimalist manner, the precise, noncommittal tracing of non sequiturs. Underlying Tracer and the growing number of novels and stories that fundamentally resemble it is a serious critique of contemporary life. People have been anesthetized by electronics and lobotomized by the throwaway imperatives of a consumer culture. Shrinking attention spans can no longer embrace any but the briefest encounters. Old notions of cause and effect have been superseded by the new primacy of random spectacles. The brave new world is populated exclusively by victims. Barthelme portrays such conditions with astringent severity, but he does not address the central question raised by his art. Why should anyone care about characters who so manifestly care for nothing? –By Paul Gray

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