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. Read More