Donald Barthelme would have celebrated his birthday today had he not died in 1989. 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. Here, for instance, is a list of breakfasts from “The Zombies,” which I once heard Emily Barton read aloud at a panel on Barthelme:
A zombie advances toward a group of thin blooming daughters and describes, with many motions of his hands and arms, the breakfasts they may expect in a zombie home.
“Monday!” he says. “Sliced oranges boiled grits fried croakers potato croquettes radishes watercress broiled spring chicken batter cakes butter syrup and café au lait! Tuesday! Grapes hominy broiled tenderloin of tout steak French-fried potatoes celery fresh rolls butter and café au lait! Wednesday! Iced figs Wheatena porgies with sauce tartare potato chips broiled ham scrambled eggs French toast and café au lait! Thursday! Bananas with cream oatmeal broiled patassas fried liver with bacon poached eggs on toast waffles with syrup and café au lait! Friday! Strawberries with cream broiled oysters on toast celery fried perch lyonnaise potatoes cornbread with syrup and café au lait! Saturday! Musk-melon on ice grits stewed tripe herb omelette olives snipe on toast flannel cakes with syrup and café au lait!” The zombie draws a long breath. “Sunday!” he says. “Peaches and cream cracked wheat with milk broiled Spanish mackerel with sauce maitre d’hotel creamed chicken beaten biscuits broiled woodcock on English muffin rice cakes potatoes a la duchesse eggs Benedict oysters on the half shell broiled lamb chops pound cake with syrup and café au lait! And imported champagne!” The zombies look anxiously at the women to see if this prospect is pleasing.
The list is the ideal vehicle here. It’s an efficient mechanism for comedy, yes, but it also pulls back the curtain a bit, letting the reader share in the wry wonder that I imagine Barthelme might’ve felt as he composed it: How did it come to pass that we, in our kitchens and our restaurants and our fluorescent supermarkets, developed such a sophisticated vocabulary for food, for breakfast? How is it that we eat so many things, that the human experience has come to encompass rice cakes and fried liver, to say nothing of courtship rituals centered on ingestion? I would guess that Barthelme was not so wide-eyed about these things as I am—but what his lists offer, in effect, is the working of a mind, an invitation to join him in doing the math, connecting the dots, asking the questions, and so on. To those who would dismiss it as merely goofy, I offer this bit from his Art of Fiction interview:
Wordsworth spoke of growing up “Fostered alike by beauty and by fear,” and he put fearful experiences first; but he also said that his primary subject was “the mind of Man.” Don’t you write more about the mind than about the external world?
In a commonsense way, you write about the impingement of one upon the other—my subjectivity bumping into other subjectivities, or into the Prime Rate. You exist for me in my perception of you (and in some rough, Raggedy Andy way, for yourself, of course). That’s what’s curious when people say, of writers, This one’s a realist, this one’s a surrealist, this one’s a super-realist, and so forth. In fact, everybody’s a realist offering true accounts of the activity of mind. There are only realists.