WHEN WE LOOK BACK on this period, will the work of Donald Barhtelme seem the forerunner of a whole new variety of consciousness or merely a particularly skilled and elegant example of decadence? Great Days , his most recent collection of short fiction, is another emotional and linguistic demolition derby in the. characteristic manner: whimsical, elusive, and miraculously inventive.

Barthelme's aesthetic elevates the liberation of pure imagination above all other notions. Bringing novelties into being is his primary objective, and he faces the task with the sure-footedness of a tightrope walker and the precision of a clock-maker. He believes utterly in the delights of mind-travel and in the healing powers of dreams. Art, as it embodies these modes, is one of the new human activities, he seems to be saying, to save us from despair.

Despair has become one of his favorite subjects for jest. "At dusk medals are awarded those who have made it through the day," someone quips in his story, "The New Music." "The New Music" is a collage of fractured dialogues, where the characters are seen "sighing and leaning against each other, holding their silver plates" -- as if to say, "If we're so rich, how come we ain't happy?" Another, more consoling voice chimes in: "Luckily we have the new music now. To give us aid and comfort." The implication is that "the new music" will save us from despair, or "sadness," as Barthelme called it in another of his books; and "The New Music" is, after all, not simply music but also the title of his own literary concoction.

Characteristically, there is always something else going on in a Barthelme story, something other than the apparent subject or content. Metaphorical traps and tricks proliferate in an apparent effort to describe emotional conditions and human situations too obvious, personal, ridiculous, difficult, embarrassing, or full of pain to confront directly. The astute reader is stimulated to speculate at length over these hidden mountain ranges of feeling -content, or else to supply his own filler. Snatches of eavesdripped conversations as matter-of-fact and believable as those overheard in the local bus station may alternate with subconscious voices answering implied questions the reader must seek on his own. Meanwhile, on the surface of the narrative, the laws of nature are suspended as are the laws of human probability. The improbable is commonplace, and ironies abound.

In "Cortes and Montezuma," for example, we are entertained by a wealth of bizarre customs and sights: puddles of gold, crickets in cages, gods with names like Smoking Mirror and Blue Hummingbird. We are apparently the privileged observers of the historical meeting and "friendship" between the Spanish explorer Cortes and the Aztec emperor Montezuma (prior to Cortes conquest) in ancient Mexico. It is a dreamlike landscape rife with ominous tensions and signs, cross-cultural misunderstandings and lurking paranoia, wherein the two leaders discuss, for instance, the relative merits of the Holy Trinity as it incorporates the pagan concept of human sacrifice. Each man, secretly suspicious, hires a detective to follow the other. "Visions are best," Montezuma remarks, "better than the best detective," as if to glorify his own powers of surveillance. But, ironically, Montezuma himself is stoned to death at the end, in a manner foreseen in a vision by Cortes' lover.

"The Abduction from the Seraglio" is an oddly affective tale of unrequited love told as a comic/surreal sciencefiction yarn. The characters live in enormous I-beam-constructed buildings, and the hero spends his creative energies making "welded-steel four- thousand-pound artichokes." Constanze, the girl for whom he yearns, has run off with a Plymouth dealer, who "has this mysterious power over people and events which is called ten million dollars a year, gross."

There are repeated complaints and bitter jokes throughout Great Days about betrayal and the impermanence and difficulty of human relationships. Barthelme's characters evidently need someone to love them forever, but they are of the opinion that such love is a romantic delusion.

More than ever before, Barthelme begins to seem, in some ways, a classic satirist, obsessed by the predominance and multiplicity of human vanities. Yet, the typical Barthelme protagonist whistles along good-naturedly in the teeth of the boredom, despair, absurdity, betrayal, moral decay, and deplorable behavior surrouncing him. He has access to all the best technical information from a gamut of fields, but he is simply swamped by it. He has little sense of which bits of endless data should prove useful to him. The promise of science and technology -- to make the world ultimately knowable -- has backfired by overwhelming him with unclassifiable facts.

Great Days is challenging and funny -- further froof, if we needed it, that Donald Barthelme deserves his reputation as a major literary phenomenon of these great days. Whatever his standing in the year 2000, I predict that other writers and anthropologists of the imagination, when searching for creative folklore, will continue to peruse his pages, like so many interior decorators combing through books of wallpaper samples.