Ever since Donald Barthelme's first story appeared in The New Yorker in 1963 and his first collection of stories (Come Back, Dr. Caligari) appeared in 1964, his short fiction was both much complained about and much imitated. Critics complained that Barthelme's work was without subject matter, without character, without plot, and without concern for the reader's understanding. These very characteristics, of course, placed Barthelme with such writers as Robert Coover, William H. Gass, Ronald Sukenick Raymond Federman, John Hawkes, and John Barth on the leading edge of so-called "postmodernist fiction."
The term "postmodernist" is difficult to define. Most critics, however, seem to agree that if "modernism" in the early part of the century manifested a reaction against nineteenth century bourgeois realism i(n which writers such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, frustrated conventional expectations about the cause-and-effect nature of plot and the "as-if-real" nature of character), then postmodernism pushes this movement even further so that contemporary fiction is less and less about objective reality and more and more about its own creative processes.
According to the basic paradigm that underlies this movement--grounded on European phenomenology and structuralism and further developed in psychology, anthropology, and sociology--"everyday reality" itself is the result of a fiction-making process whereby new data are selectively accepted and metaphorically mutated to fit preexisting schemas and categories. One critical implication of this theory is that literary fictions constitute a highly concentrated and accessible analogue of the means by which people create that diffuse and invisible reality that they take for granted as the everyday.
To study fiction then is to study the processes by which reality itself is created. The primary effect of this mode of thought on contemporary fiction is that the story has a tendency to loosen its illusion of reality to explore the reality of its illusion. Rather than presenting itself "as if" it were real-a mimetic mirroring of external reality-postmodernist fiction makes its own artistic conventions and devices the subject of the story as well as its theme. The underlying assumption is that the forms of art are explainable by the laws of art; literary language is not a proxy for something else, but rather an object of study itself. William H. Gass notes that the fiction writer now better understands his medium; he is "ceasing to pretend that his business is to render the world; he knows, more often now, that his business is to make one, and to make one from the only medium of which he is master--language."
The short story as a genre has always been more likely to lay bare its fictionality than the novel, which has traditionally tried to cover it up. Fictional self-consciousness in the short story does not allow the reader to maintain the comfortable assumption that what is depicted is real; instead, the reader is made uncomfortably aware that the only reality is the process of depiction itself--the language act of the fiction-making process.
Readers schooled in the realistic tradition of the nineteenth-century novel found Donald Barthelme tough reading indeed. For Barthelme, the problem of language is the problem of reality, for reality is the result of language processes. The problem of words, Barthelme realizes, is that so much contemporary language is used up, has become trash, dreck. Barthelme takes as his primary task the recycling of language, making metaphor out of the castoffs of technological culture. For Barthelme, as for the poet always, the task is to try to reach, through metaphor and the defamiliarization that results, that ineffable realm of knowledge which Barthelme says lies somewhere between mathematics and religion "in which what may fairly be called truth exists."
It is the extreme means by which Barthelme attempts to reach this truth that makes his fiction so difficult. Barthelme has noted that if photography forced painters to reinvent painting, then films have forced fiction writers to reinvent fiction. Since films tell a realistic narrative so well, the fiction writer must develop a new principle. Collage, says Barthelme, is the central principle of all art in the twentieth century. The point of collage, he notes, is that "unlike things are stuck together to make, in the best case, a new reality. This new reality, in the best case, may be or imply a comment on the other realities from which it came, and may also be much else. It's an itself, if it's successful." One of the implications of this collage process is a radical shift from the usual temporal, cause-and-effect process of fiction to the more spatial and metaphoric process of poetry.
The most basic example of Barthelme's use of this mode is "The Balloon," the premise of which is that a large balloon has encompassed the city. The persona of the story says that it is wrong to speak of "situations, implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension." In this story there are no situations, only the balloon, a concrete particular thing that people react to and try to explain. Although we discover at the end that the balloon is the objectification of something personal to the speaker, we realize that because the speaker's feelings must be objectified in images and language, it is removed from life and cut free of meaning. The participant or viewer then becomes an artist who constructs or manipulates whatever responses the balloon elicits. The balloon is an extended metaphor for the Barthelme story itself, to which people try to find some means of access and which creates varied critical responses and opinions.
The fiction of Donald Barthelme required a major readjustment for readers who came to it accustomed to the leisurely linear story line of the traditional novel or the conventional short story. To plunge into a Barthelme story is to immerse oneself in the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary society, for his stories are not so much plotted tales as they are parodies and satires based on the public junk and commercial media hype that clutter up and cover over our private lives. Because they are satires, many of the stories are based not on the lives of individuals but on the means by which that abstraction called society or the public is manipulated. Consequently, some of Barthelme's pieces insist that the reader have a background knowledge of contemporary philosophic thought (albeit philosophic thought that has become cheapened by public chat), while others are based on popular culture.
Barthelme is not really interested in the personal lives of his characters; in fact, few seem to have personal lives. Rather, he wishes to present modern men and women as the products of the media and the language that surround them. Furthermore, he is not so much interested in art that serves merely to reflect or imitate the world outside itself as he is concerned to create art works which are interesting in and for themselves.
The basic fictional issue overshadowing the work of Donald Barthelme is this: If reality is itself a process of fictional creation by metaphor-making man, then the modern writer who wishes to write about reality can truthfully only write about that very process. To write only about this process, however, is to run the risk of dealing with language on a level that leaves the reader gasping for something tangible and real, even if that reality is only an illusion.
Tomorrow: Robert Coover's "The Brother"