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Posts Tagged ‘Donald Barthelme’

Under the Volcano

July 21, 2014 | by

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John Gardner in 1979. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, “There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.” Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living.

That’s John Gardner, from his Art of Fiction interview, which The Paris Review published in 1979—three years before Gardner died in a motorcycle accident. As far as lines in the literary sand go, this one seems defensible enough: make salutary art, wall off the volcano, protect the crania of your babies, et cetera. But here Gardner has given us the distillate of what had been, a few years earlier, a very controversial opinion; he’s paraphrasing his thesis from On Moral Fiction, a polemical book of criticism in which he took to task nearly every prominent American writer, pissing off a good number of them in the process. As Dwight Garner wrote a few years ago, “It wasn’t Gardner’s thesis, exactly, that made him enemies. It was the way he indiscriminately fired buckshot in the direction of many of American literature’s biggest names.”

Pynchon? Too inclined to “winking, mugging despair.”

Updike? “He brings out books that don’t say what he means them to say. And you can’t tell his women apart.”

Barthelme? Merely a disciple of “newfangledness.”

And the whole New Yorker crowd? Too into “that cold, ironic stuff … I think it’s just wrapping for their Steuben glass.”

If you’re thinking that picking fights is a pretty poor way of seeding one’s literary philosophy, you’re completely correct. As Per Winther, the author of The Art of John Gardner, has written, “One cannot help but think that Gardner’s cause would have benefited from less stridency of tone … What Gardner risked in couching his arguments in such bellicose terms was a hasty dismissal of his book and all its views.” Read More »

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The Birth (and Death) of Edward Lear

May 12, 2014 | by

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You’d think it would be easy to invent nonsense words. After all, the real lexical bummer usually rests in the burden of definition: your average neologism has to mean something. Nonsense words, on the other hand, are not merely devoid of but entirely divorced from meaning—creating them should just be a matter of aesthetics. Throw a couple consonants together, make sure there’s a vowel in there someplace: voilà. And yet—

Hlerkjer—not a very good nonsense word.

Grimblurp—better, but still aesthetically lacking…

Runcible—now, that’s quality nonsense.

Lear_Runcible_spoonRuncible is a creation of Edward Lear’s, arguably his pièce de résistance—though it faces stiff competition from the likes of tilly-loo, Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò, tiniskoop, cheerious, meloobious, gromboolian, mumbian, bruffled, dolomphious, borascible, fizzgiggious, himmeltanious, tumble-dum-down, spongetaneous, and blatter-platter. Lear, born today in 1812, was a prolific painter and illustrator, but the poem—especially the limerick—is where he really left his mark. In such volumes as The Book of Nonsense; More Nonsense Songs, Pictures, Etc.; Nonsense Botany; The Quangle-Wangle’s Hat; and Scroobious Pip, he cultivated an ear for twaddle, malarkey, and piffle that remains largely unrivaled in letters to this day. His nonsense words have a certain authority to them, so much so that one feels compelled to define them—and on the tongue they have an inimitable springiness, an Anglo-Saxon lilt. When Lear’s characters aren’t named after nonsense or spouting it, they tend to be pursuing it in some form or another, as they do here, in the first stanza of “The Jumblies”: Read More »

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Raskolnikov Meets the Caped Crusader, and Other News

April 8, 2014 | by

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Image via Open Culture

  • If you’re having trouble getting serious reading done, you can go ahead and blame the Internet, which fosters deleterious skimming habits. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.”
  • Yesterday was Don B.’s birthday, making today the perfect occasion to reread his 1987 essay, “Not-Knowing.” “Let us discuss the condition of my desk. It is messy, mildly messy. The messiness is both physical (coffee cups, cigarette ash) and spiritual (unpaid bills, unwritten novels). The emotional life of the man who sits at the desk is also messy—I am in love with a set of twins, Hilda and Heidi, and in a fit of enthusiasm I have joined the Bolivian army.”
  • “Every April, ‘O, Miami’ attempts to deliver a poem to every single person in Miami-Dade County.” (There are at least 2.591 million of them—I just checked.)
  • Crime and Punishment and Batman: all in one scintillating, thrill-packed issue of Dostoyevsky Comics. One wonders which superhero moonlighted in the Brothers Karamazov issue.
  • From the annals of game-show history comes Bumper Stumpers, a late-eighties Canadian television curio in which contestants parsed the wordplay in vanity license plates. (E.g., VTHKOLM, which means “fifth column,” obviously.)
  • Meet Todd Manly-Krauss, the “writer” with the world’s most irritating Facebook presence.

 

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Realism for Everyone

April 7, 2014 | by

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Donald Barthelme would’ve been, and should be, eighty-three today. It would be an exaggeration to say that I feel the absence of someone I never met—someone who died when I was three—but I do wonder, with something more than mere curiosity, what Barthelme would have made of the past twenty-odd years. These are decades I feel we’ve processed less acutely because he wasn’t there to fictionalize them: their surreal political flareups, their new technologies, their various zeitgeists and intellectual fads and dumb advertisements. Part of what I love about Barthelme’s stories is the way they traffic in cultural commentary without losing their intimacy, their humanity. They feel something like channel-surfing with your favorite uncle; he’s running his mouth the whole time, but he’s running it brilliantly, he’s interlarding his commentary with sad, sharp stories from his own life, and you’re learning, you’re laughing, you’re feeling, because he’s putting the show on for you, lovingly, his dear nephew.

But I’m losing the thread. My point is not to reveal a secret wish that Barthelme was my uncle.

I wanted to say something about lists. Barthelme was a master of many things, but one of them was, of course, the list—the man could make a prodigious inventory. I don’t mean to be glib when I say that. List-making is often dismissed as sloppy writing, but in Barthelme’s hands, a list never functions as an elision or a cheap workaround; he makes marvelous profusions of nouns, testaments to the power of juxtaposition. His lists feel noetic—they capture the motion of a mind delighting in how many things there are, and how rampantly they’re proliferating, and how strangely they collide in life, when they do. Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Don B., B. Dole, /u/backgrinder

March 7, 2014 | by

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“How hard was it to supply archers arrows in ancient battles?” Bryson Burroughs, The Archers, 1917.

Sozzled novelists (aka, lit lit) seems to be the thing to write about lately, but it’s more fun to read great writers making fun of great writers drinking a lot. In one of his short pieces originally written for The New Yorker’s Notes and Comment section (more quotidian than Talk of the Town and funnier than Shouts and Murmurs, it’s a section I wish they’d revive), Donald Barthelme describes having received a questionnaire from Writer’s Digest that inquired about his drinking habits. Asked if he’s a light, medium, heavy, or “other” drinker, Barthelme says medium: “Light is sissy and Heavy doesn’t go down so well with Deans, Loan Officers and Publishers, and who in the world would want to be Other?” Only a few days before reading this gem, I’d discovered Niccolò Tucci’s essay on drunkenness in issue 19 of The Paris Review. Tucci starts by recounting a pop-sci study on the hangover. We’d do well to heed one of its findings: “Alcohol itself is perfectly harmless. It cannot be blamed for anything … not even for death. What kills you is malnutrition. Drinkers forget to eat. If they ate more, they could drink more. In fact, obesity kills more people than alcohol. People should eat much less.” —Nicole Rudick

Steve Jobs famously quipped, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”—which is often how I feel about the content I find on Reddit, the Internet’s ultimate rabbit hole. Mastering the abbreviated jargon can take some time, but it’s well worth the plunge; I tumbled in, head first, after The Paris Review’s recent AMA. Take, for instance, /u/backgrinder’s response to the very reasonable, if incalculably arcane, question, “How hard was it to supply arrows to archers in ancient battles?” (TL;DR: Surprisingly hard.) —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

I have Bob Dole’s voice in my head, and it’s Richard Ben Cramer’s fault. “Dole’s voice was made for the empty distance and mean wind of the prairie,” Cramer writes in What It Takes: The Way to the White House, his thousand-page opus on presidential politics, published in 1992. Cramer died last year, and I’ve been meaning to delve into this book ever since—for once, the promise of the flap copy is no exaggeration. “An American Iliad in the guise of contemporary political reportage, What It Takes penetrates the mystery at the heart of all presidential campaigns: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate?” In writing about it here, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew; there’s no way to convey how exhaustively researched it is, how lovingly chronicled, how immaculately well-written. All I can say is that it drove me not just to feel a deep kinship with someone like Bob Dole but to watch the entirety of a Dole debate from the eighties, and to enjoy it. Publishers always like to claim that a given work of nonfiction “reads like a novel,” and it’s so seldom true—but What It Takes has the scope, pace, style, and psychological acuity of the best fiction. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

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Staff Picks: Alcoholics Anonymous, Hollywood Star Whackers

December 17, 2010 | by

Clancy Martin. Photograph by David Eulitt.

The cover story in this month’s issue of Harper’s: “The Drunk's Club,” by Clancy Martin. An irreverent, harrowing, tough-minded account of Martin’s experience in Alcoholics Anonymous, which he describes (characteristically) as “the cult that saved my life.” —Lorin Stein

I’ve begun reading George Gissing’s New Grub Street, a late Victorian novel of the literary demimonde, which one of the characters calls “the valley of the shadow of books.” It’s a grim place: The editors are stupid, the writers are desperate, and everyone seems to live in a garret. A conflict is shaping up between the Pragmatist, who writes for money, and the Idealist, who writes for love. But Gissing was a Realist—which means, I think, there will be no happy ending for Literature. —Robyn Creswell

Pick up the January issue of Vanity Fair with Johnny Depp on the cover. Look at all the beautiful people. Then turn to page sixty-four, and read about the delusional world of Randy and Evi Quaid. The two are racked with debt and living out of a Prius in Canada. They are convinced they are being hunted by an anonymous group called “the Hollywood Star Whackers” and that Randy’s royalty checks are being funneled into an account under the name of “Ronda L. Quaid.” Says Randy to the reporter: “I guess I’m worth more to ’em dead than alive.” —Thessaly La Force

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