Benjamin Chambers writes:
No doubt because we covered the publication of a new bio on Donald Barthelme a couple of weeks ago, Louis Menand has a long, juicy piece on the man and his biography in the February 23rd issue of The New Yorker. There’s even audio of Menand discussing it.
Meanwhile, Kyle Smith used the occasion of the bio, disappointingly, to diss Barthelme in The Wall Street Journal as at best an author who never lived up to this potential. There’s no question that Barthelme could be frustratingly obscure, but most writers produce dross as well as masterworks; the best, like Barthelme, display a willingness to keep trying. When Barthelme was “on,” he was funny, sharp, and unpredictable, a true pioneer. I’m thinking in particular of “The School,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 1974, and “The President,” from 1964, but there’s many more. Even his minor stories furnish bright flashes that still dazzle, though I suppose that anyone who dislikes even minor deviations from straight realism probably wouldn’t agree.
What puzzles me most about Smith’s assessment of Barthelme is actually something that’s present even in Menand’s piece: the assumption that Barthelme’s work must somehow be accounted for, the dust on his trophies measured to see if it’s commensurate with his achievements. I find this attitude startling, though perhaps it’s only because Barthelme was one of the writers who sparked my own interest in literary fiction. I simply don’t see him as a writer whose star has waned in the years since his death; to my mind, his constellation has never dipped below the horizon.
In his fascinating book The Delighted States (which is coincidentally as much sui generis as Barthelme’s work), Adam Thirlwell argues that while Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy has no obvious or immediate heirs, it’s had a lasting and discernible influence on later fiction. I suspect the same will be said of Barthelme in spite of those who, like Smith, wish to dismiss his work as a dead-end: irreducibly original, it will be a well to which many writers will return again and again to study its mastery of tone and style, its ambition, and its sheer joie de vivre.
Hello! I’m Emily Gordon, an editor, critic, copywriter, and pre-web internet nut. Emdashes, born in 2004, spent many years as a New Yorker fan blog. The project garnered some nice compliments and press.
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