On Rereading Donald Barthelme

By Peter Ho Davies

Worse even than the books and writers we should have read but haven’t, are the ones we have read, but haven’t got.

Take Lydia Davis.

Admired by friends, colleagues, students and critics that I admire, I reread her periodically with a feeling of amusement and befuddlement. (The Emperor has no clothes! Or – wait – is it my eyes, the light? My hang-ups?) And yet reread her I do, partly because of the high opinion of those others, partly because of my anxieties about my own judgement, and partly because every so often some writer I didn’t get before will suddenly speak to me with visionary freshness.

Take Donald Barthelme.

You want to like Donald Barthelme (especially in grad school). The wit, the invention, the scampish coolness. He’s a day-go Kafka, a Beckett of the American dream, William Burroughs with better aim. I always wanted to like him, and yet for years the stories left me feeling not cool, but cold. They struck me as flip, easy, fish-in-a-barrel satires. And then I tried them again, in 2005 or so, and something was different, the stories laced me with a poignancy and a fury I’d never felt before. Part of the change was in me, of course. Older, wiser, and – crucially in my case as an expatriate Brit – more American. But part of the change was in our times.

Take this, from “The Indian Uprising”: “We interrogated the captured Comanche. Two of us forced his head back while another poured water into his nostrils. His body jerked, he choked and wept.”

The first fictional description of water boarding I’d read, and it dated from 1965.

Not all of Barthelme’s stories map so directly onto the Bush years, but their absurdity, as I reread them, felt tonally right, an appropriate, even an essential response to a cultural/political crisis, echoing the period of upheaval – the late 60s and early 70s – when many of Barthelme’s best works were published. Is it fair to read work like this as an anachronistic allegory, or fictional prophesy? Not entirely, probably. And yet, it’s a power of such work – Kafka’s most famously – that we reinvent it, repurpose it so. It’s tempting to wonder, too, if the rise of a loose school of contemporary absurdist writers (the “goofy realists” as a student once dubbed them) – George Saunders, Miranda July, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, etc. – might be a similar reflection of our times.

But of course, the times are still a-changing.

As I reread Barthelme in 2010 to draft this piece, some of that revelatory energy has receded (perhaps it’ll only return as the silver lining of the Palin administration), yet some has also advanced.

Take the opening of “The President”: “The darkness, strangeness, and complexity of the new President have touched everyone…”

Peter Ho Davies is the author of the novel The Welsh Girl and the story collections The Ugliest House in the World and Equal Love. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and Paris Review, among others, and his short fiction has been anthologized in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. He was a 2008 recipient of the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story.

Originally appeared in NOR 8.

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