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An Aftertaste of Astringency : FORTY STORIES by Donald Barthelme (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $17.95; 256 pp.)

October 18, 1987|John Leggett | Leggett is a former director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His most recent novel is "Making Believe" (Houghton Mifflin)

"Forty Stories" is Donald Barthelme's 14th book. It will surprise no one in the literary community by its brilliance and no one in the brigade of general readers by the limitations of its appeal.

Barthelme knows just how supple our language is, and he is a magician with it. His wand summons the precise jargon, the trendy words and phrases that can demolish the pretensions and complacencies of a generation.

He is clearly a serious man, taking on the big issues--the corporate life, the family, adultery, the church. Paradoxically, reading him is great fun. His eye and ear are quick for the absurdities of our quotidian ways and literary manners. His darts are facetiousness and wit.

His work is impressionistic, and these 40 pieces put me in mind of what a Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec might do in trying his brush on a scrap before turning to the canvas. Often they make one smile at the exquisiteness of detail, which allows for the outrageousness and the remarkable familiarity.

For me, this recognition is as if Barthelme had burgled my own dreams for his visions and incidents. Like dreams, the impressions are elusive--vivid one moment, vanished the next. Reading these pieces is like dreaming and waking, often maddening in that one remembers the dream's explicitness without being able to recall the dream itself.

Most of them are only a few pages long and are not, strictly speaking, stories at all. This comes as no surprise either, for Barthelme has been contending for some years that plot, with its doormat, complications, climax and denouement, is long overdue at the museum.

He dispenses not only with narrative but also with any real concern for character, to rely almost entirely on absurdity, caricature and a re-minting of language.

For the most part, Barthelme's people are parodies, intentionally two-dimensional, with such names as Pia, Harris, Bluebeard and Natasha. In "Terminus" they are simply "he" and "she." In spite of himself though, he cannot avoid some splendid characterizations, notably in dialogue. For example, I was enchanted by Edwina Rawson, the beautiful black model who is the heroine of the piece called "Lightning."

As a regular player for the Post-Modernist All Stars, Barthelme maintains that our language, along with our society, is bankrupt. Thanks to the jargons of business and the professions, of advertising and politics, it has become nearly impossible for us to communicate intelligently with one another.

This dehumanizing of our language reflects a civilization so trashy it can no longer find meaning in the kind of storytelling that once revealed us to ourselves. Thus the only way out for a sensitive writer is to "make it new."

Such trail-blazing demands a certain indifference to, possibly scorn for, popularity. For Barthelme it means declining to write about the real world, a leaning toward capriciousness for the ordering of events and ignoring the literary conventions in general.

Language itself is Barthelme's material, the form and sound of it. What interests him is not the whole of an experience, but its fragments, as a contemporary painter uses "found objects," junk, in composition.

In "Forty Stories," Barthelme may have achieved his goal of astringency and cleared our literary palates of yesteryear's cloying puddings. However, for all their brilliance the stories lack a substance of their own. As I pass from one fragment to another, I find it difficult to recall the last.

The pinwheels of facetiousness and satire, the dazzle of language has lit up the sky for an hour but as I walk home from the fireworks display it is as dark as ever.

I feel a bit cheated, too. What struck me as absurdity at the time now seems perversity. Moreover, I feel rather patronized, left out. The thought that there was a hubris to the performance leads me back to Barthelme's premises.

I go along with him on the corruption of language in our time and on the urgent need for its renewal, but I cannot share his belief that storytelling itself is in an equally bad way and must be given its last rites.

Reading "Forty Stories" has not shaken my faith in the ever-renewing power of storytelling and its dependence on character and narrative. The point of fiction is the exchange of emotion between writer and reader, and story is the coin of that exchange. Only through story can the author allow readers the joy of participation, of making discoveries for themselves.

These feelings are only intensified by the knowledge that Barthelme is so adroit at all the fictional skills.

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