I'm reading Sadness and I'm not loving it. The stories move, but they are too clever, too experimental, too distracted by pop culture, fads, and crappy contemporaneous slang. And I'm wondering, why did I ever love Barthelme so? Is the romance over? Is he yet another love lost to age? But then I remember that I'm probably not old enough to ask those questions, and that there were things I loved when I was 10 that I no longer loved when I was 16. Maybe. But I recently re-read Barthelme's "The School" and "Me and Miss Mandible" and they're awesome, and I have no doubt that "Crotez and Montezuma" is as great as I remember, and hell, "The School" is one of the best short stories written in English. But so far most of these stories in Sadness have been a disappointment. So I plow on...
Ok, I'm still not loving these stories. They're ok, but not great. Mere cleverness and experimentation - encapsulation of the worst aspects of McSweeneys and post-modernism. I mean, "A City of Churches" has a nice ending, and - oh damn, wait - this story about Paul Klee and the secret police is damn good. Not perfect, but damn good.
Wow. Ok... "The Sandman" is amazing. So is "Departures." Earlier, I was wondering if I was sitting in the right chair, or if I was surrounding myself with the right reading environ. But nope, I think those earlier stories - most of the stories in the front of this book - are simply "eh." But "The Sandman," a study and critique by an erudite narrator that I bet $500 influenced the shit out of David Foster Wallace (footnotes and all) is simply awesome. It's a letter written to a psychologist, a full out throw down against singular interpretations and about the multiplicity thereof. It is supersmart, supergood, superinsightful, and in the end is a beautiful argument for loving someone flaws and all. "Departures" is just funny. And touching. Eight tiny vignettes that are fantastic, esp. the story about dryad-love which made me laugh out loud and kick my couch in joy (I'm laying down across my brown couch, book on stomach, back propped by many pillows, so my kickedfeet rapidly flipped from air to couch, all a parody of a teen girl).
And now I'm done. Barthelme is as good as I remember. He is an especially fantastic stylist - and I typically don't know what that means, "fantastic stylist," but Barthelme can style sentences, paragraphs, juxtapositions, and sometimes, stories, fantastically. He has a supple and outrageously inventive mind. Sometimes his inventiveness is too much for my taste, as with the almost-dazzling "The Rise of Capitalism," which takes so many liberties with what-makes-a-short-story, or story, or even writing, that it pushes me past the Dazed Cartoon (with birds, stars and question marks floating around my head) to the Confused Blob, sitting there left behind, not even sure if what it just did was read, or what.
Still, when he's on, he's on. And sometimes he'll do something like "The Flight of Pigeons" which isn't even a traditional story, but is a wood-cut collage-novel like Max Ernst'sHundred Headless Women
orUne Semaine de Bont
. (And actually, Barthelme wrote an entire collage novel, which is pretty much a graphic novel, calledSam's Bar
, which is damn cool). All in all, he's brilliant. Each story is something new. But that is also the difficulty. When he's on, he's one of the best short story writers in English, but when he's off, his stories are incomprehensible. On a chart of 1 to 5, his stories are only 0: "What the fuck was that?" or 4: "That was... huh? Wow, wh-wh-what was that?" or 5: "Holy shit."
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