I first discovered the work of Donald Barthelme while in college -- and it did feel like a discovery, like a pulsing new continent, ordered according to shifting, unfamiliar laws, swarming with strange and colorful beasts. I had thought of literature as a stable realm ruled by all-knowing narrators and populated by things called characters, which were by needs complex and, like empty parcels of downtown real estate, capable of development. Fiction was an even exchange: You gave it your attention, it delivered a ready-made world. Then an otherwise innocent writing teacher suggested I check out Barthelme's 1975 novel, "The Dead Father," and it was all over for me. Barthelme proved a gateway drug to stronger stuff. Literature would never be simple again.
It would be fun, though. Barthelme's work immediately called into question the supports that hid behind the writing: the unspoken relationship between the writer and the reader, the stability of setting and the reality of characters, the reliability of the reporting narrator. Sometimes he caused trouble in the very first sentence: "The part of the story that came next was suddenly missing, I couldn't think of it, so I went into the next room and drank a glass of water," begins 1973's "And Then," one of the 45 stories collected in "Flying to America."
Literature had never been the even trade I had imagined, Barthelme's stories impishly implied, but a crowded conversation freighted with ritual and history. And Barthelme was the wag who, with a chuckle and one raised eyebrow, called attention to the invisible conventions that had kept the party running smoothly, who insisted that consciousness of artifice could be part of the conversation and that no one need be embarrassed -- we could all keep talking and have a good time. Thus, without even a wink to let you know he was playing, he turned the narrator's glass of water in "And Then" into vodka by the story's second page, then beef broth, then "herb tea with sour cream" and finally a "glass of chicken livers flambe," which he soon tossed about the room, all over the narrator's mother and her policeman boyfriend.
This is extremely silly, but -- not that silliness requires an excuse -- it is not just that. "The aim of all literature," one of Barthelme's characters suggests in an early story, "is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart." That too is silly, and not just that. Melancholy and whimsy intermingle here. This is the landscape of irony -- not the sarcastic posturing that had become part of the basic hipster argot by the time of Barthelme's death in 1989 but the real stuff, which is always tinged with tears.
In the less-than-snappily titled "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel" (not included in this collection), Barthelme took up philosopher Soren Kierkegaard's understanding of irony as "a means of depriving the object of its reality in order that the subject may feel free." This is the work of poetry, per Kierkegaard, via Barthelme, which "quote opens up a higher actuality, expands and transfigures the imperfect into the perfect, and thereby softens and mitigates that deep pain which would darken and obscure all things unquote page 312." Preferring religious reconciliation to poetic flight, Kierkegaard frowned on this. Barthelme ran with it.
Despite his divergences from the realist straight and narrow, Barthelme was no outsider. His rebelliousness was rarely brazen. He borrowed freely from Breton and from Beckett and buffed their more ornery edges to a warm, soft glow. It's almost inconceivable now -- the New Yorker's pages these days are about as unconventional as a pair of chinos -- but Barthelme was a regular New Yorker contributor in the early 1970s, at times publishing a new story almost monthly.
For all their formal innovation, his stories couldn't have stood out too much. His characters, no matter how fabulistically rendered, shared the milieu of that magazine's cartoons. They go to their analysts, have affairs, get divorced and feel angst over mortality, meaninglessness and domesticity. "Is it true," wonders one character, "that furniture music is the sweetest music, that purchasing the towels, the cups and saucers, the wastebaskets and wine racks is what it's all about?" Sometimes they drink too much. ("Edward worried about his drinking. Would there be enough gin? Enough ice?") They are invariably white and middle class. Poor people, black people and youth culture make them slightly nervous. They can play at being radicals, but not for very long. "I am tired of talking about the revolution," thinks a recurring character named Perpetua.