Monday, December 10, 2007

A Barthelme renaissance: 20 years after his death, new anthology draws attention


Flying to America: 45 More Stories.

By Donald Barthelme. Edited by Kim Herzinger.
Shoemaker & Hoard, $26.

Throughout much of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Donald Barthelme's quirky, erudite short stories were at the cutting edge of American fiction. A former entertainment editor and critic for the Houston Post, one-time director of the Contemporary Arts Museum and longtime mainstay in the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, Barthelme was so hip that in 1993, four years after his death from cancer at 58, MTV ran a public-service announcement trying to entice viewers to read using Barthelme's short story Chablis. (The clip, featuring actor Timothy Hutton, can be found on YouTube if you're curious.) Today, his influence can be seen on writers such as Aimee Bender, Miranda July, George Saunders and Owen Edgerton, to name just a few.

Now, nearly 20 years after his death, attention is once again returning to his work. The first sign of a renaissance came earlier this year when hipster literary journal McSweeney's pleaded "Come Back, Donald Barthelme" and published appreciations from fellow writers including Ann Beattie, David Gates and Oscar Hijuelos. Now comes the appearance of Flying to America: 45 More Stories, the third and final volume of Barthelme's unpublished and uncollected works.

Flying to America caps a project by author and bookseller Kim Herzinger to bring Barthelme's entire opus into print. Two earlier volumes — a gathering of miscellany titled The Teachings of Don B and Not-Knowing, a collection of essays and interviews — appeared in 1992 and 1997, respectively; both will be republished in January.

Flying to America offers 15 previously uncollected stories, including three never before published, as well as 30 stories left out of Barthelme's two self-selected anthologies, 60 Stories (1981) and 40 Stories (1987), where you'll find his best-known work.

Reading any posthumous anthology of uncollected or unpublished works is like panning for gold with the foreknowledge that the best stuff has likely been plucked, polished and put on sale by the author himself. Fortunately, Barthelme was so prolific and talented that Flying to America contains a few "Eureka!" moments.

One example is Tickets, which appeared in the New Yorker just three months before his death. It offers the interior thoughts of a husband weighing a conflicting pair of invitations to attend the symphony — one with an opera singer (his wife's constant companion and possible lover), the other with an arrogant painter who superimposes his own paintings on top of others. Before you realize it, Barthelme has turned this simple story into a disquisition on art — all in a mere five pages.

This erudition is common to nearly all his stories. Throughout his career Barthelme consistently deployed a catalog of abstruse cultural allusions, often wedding obscure references to a nonlinear, non-narrative story. The references are often barbed, and those I understood, such as his description in Tickets of an Edvard Munch painting as "Scandinavian miserablism," were often very funny. Urbane Houstonians will appreciate that Barthelme at times seems to be addressing them in particular, since so much of his work refers to the subtle gamesmanship of socializing, be it on the charity balls circuit or at the rodeo.

The stories in Flying to America span Barthelme's career. Florence Green Is 81 was originally published in 1963 and appears here for the first time since it opened his first collection, 1964's Come Back, Dr. Caligari. It features a birthday party in which a cacophony of voices compete to trumpet their worldly accomplishments. In the midst of the story, Barthelme seems to stop and address the reader directly: "I am free associating, brilliantly, brilliantly, to put you into the problem. Or for fear of boring you: which?" It's a foreshadowing of his career, both brilliant and unforgiving (his stories are often impossible to decipher) and never, ever dull.

Barthelme was, among his many talents, a master of the second person plural (the "we"). It appears in his much-anthologized story The School and here in Pandemonium, one of three new stories. While not fully realized, the piece offers a glimpse of how Barthelme, a progenitor of the radical '60s and '70s, employed the second person plural to embody both the populist masses and the impersonal bureaucracy against which they rebelled. It's no surprise: Barthelme, the rebel, honed his writing voice at the New Yorker, the ├╝berestablishment magazine famous for employing the royal "we" until well into the 1990s.

As with any anthology of this sort, it is important to approach it with skepticism and question its intent. Barthelme was a deliberate, incredibly self-conscious writer — one who balanced the volatile elements of humor and grim reality, public politics and personal sexuality, like a scientist trying not to accidentally blow himself up.

Did a writer so careful intend for these pieces to be read again? We'll never know, though Herzinger has done his fans a justice by filling in the gaps. That said, the original books, many with wonderfully evocative titles such as Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts and Overnight to Many Distant Cities, are also worth seeking out, if only for their value as fetish collectibles.

Barthelme's legacy resides as much in his sensibility as in the stories themselves. His style melded the personal and the political with reams of detailed book learning.

It's likely a combination of those elements — the confessional, polemical and esoteric (I quiver to think what Barthelme would have done with the Internet) — that people are responding to in his work today.

He may have been radical in his time, but he's perfectly suited to our own.