Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Books: Forty Stories, by Donald Barthleme

Here is a slippery author upon whom I cannot get a grip. One story, like Jaws, like Visitors, like 110 West Sixty-First Street, like Sakrete is beautiful—ever-so-slightly strange, off-kilter, nagging—but beautiful: emotionally valid, tender, human, wistful, hopeful, triste. Then, the stories before and after it, post-postmodern thought experiments, are basically unreadable, unless one has the kind of book-bulldozing OCD that I have. These are stories like On the Deck, The Genius, the infamous Porcupines at the University and At the Tolstoy Museum. They are structured as interviews, dotted with Qs and As, or dashes to mark new speakers, or they are broken into bits by illustrations—not Vonnegut cartoons, but inscrutable black Malevich boxes, Escher-like floor plans, or they go on and on and on, describing a disjointed tableau, and then stop abruptly, without ever engaging us in any part of it. Only one such experiment, Sentence (a six page story that consists completely of one unfinished sentence), actually works, because the narrator has a personable voice, offers a human connection; the others are a bog thicker than any Beckett, Joyce, and Pynchon could have created, even working together on an Exquisite Corpse. And yet, I will soon find myself reading his Sixty Stories, his Dead Father, his Paradise. Not because there is something wrong with me, but because, somewhere, buried in this mess, are moments of brilliance.

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