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Books: The Product

3 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard



183 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $5.95.

Donald Barthelme hit the fan during the great Pop art inversion with his short-story collection Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964). Like his counterparts in painting, Barthelme was out to turn the boring, the banal and the shiny waste of the world’s largest consumer society into art with a small a—the smaller the better. “Fragments are the only forms I trust,” he wrote, and his plotless arrangements of culture-junk, blown-up clichés and absurd juxtapositions of daily monotonies showered down like confetti.

The intent was to satirize, and the target was anything that had become overgrown with acceptance or nostalgia. In 1967, he freshened his slant with Snow White, a novel whose transformed fairy-tale heroine swept away the Disney dust by writing dirty poems and commingling in the shower with the Seven Dwarfs, who otherwise labored over large vats, manufacturing Chinese baby food.

The delights of such an exercise are obvious. Moving from one effect to another is no great strain on two of the fastest-dwindling resources of the times: patience and attention span. Sadness, a new collection of stories again finds Barthelme at home with the malaise, detachment and emotional jaundice of the sophisticated, urban middle class. In The Party, King Kong, introduced as an adjunct professor of art history at Rutgers, enters and “all of the guests uttered loud exclamations of fatigue and disgust, examining the situation in the light of their own needs…” Poor old psychoanalysis gets its lumps again in The Sandman. The lover of the analysand writes a very convincing letter to the analyst, arguing respectfully that “Joy is not Susan’s bag,” and that she really would rather use the money to buy a piano.

New Yorker cartoons without pictures? Indeed, nearly all the stories first appeared in that magazine. At times Barthelme even dabbles in the first-person plural as if he were spoofing the “We” of The Talk of the Town. Only once does he break tone and give a hint of the robust tall-tale telling of his native Texas. He describes his grandfather, who, with good looks and a bottle of Teamster’s Early Grave, convinced a conservation-minded wood nymph to transform herself “into one million board feet of one-by-ten of the very poorest quality neatly stacked in rail road cars on a siding outside of Fort Riley, Kans.” Barthelme concludes: “Actually, he just plain cut down the trees.”

Human weakness is not quite so charming in The Temptation of St. Anthony. Living an ordinary life in an apartment with beige carpeting, the saint becomes the object of neighborly speculation aimed at bringing him down to the level of fallibility. The reason is simple: “If you decided that St. Anthony actually was a saint, then you would have to act a certain way toward him, pay homage, perhaps change your life a bit.”

As a satirist of a society in which ideas, emotions and talent are consumed and disposed of as readily as other products, Barthelme himself is in danger of going into the public maw. His distinctive style and fractured vision are now so refined and of such a predictable consistency that they begin to remind one of—well, Chinese baby food

∎ R.Z.Sheppard

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