IT IS A WHOLLY ORIGINAL writer like Donald Barthelme, who seems to come from nowhere, whose antecedents multiply like guinea pigs once you begin wondering who in the world they could be. Put an Ionesco play into prose and you have something like Barthelme. Alfred Jarry, Borges, Kafka, Jardiel Poncela, Mandelstam--none of these, all of these. We are aware on every page of Barthelme that there were some giddy years at the century's beginning in which people had enormous fun with something called Dada. One of its exponents was a German named Max Ernst, who died just a few years ago, a distinguished and handsome old man.
Max Ernst perceived early in his career that our century wears out its symbols almost as soon as it invents them, that the chic fashions of 1900 were beginning to look deliciously ridiculous by 1915. In 1920 we noticed that Victorian furniture was insane, that clothes, early bicycles, kitchen appliances, Edwardian underwear, bustles, and high-top shoes seemed bilious, preposterous, and strangely sinister.
In 1911 two literary Englishmen who had retained their schoolboy humor in full measure, E.V. Lucas and George Morrow, wrote--for the lark of it--a little book called What a Life! They wrote it by clipping woodcut illustrations from a mail-order catalogue and concocting around them an hilariously lugubrious autobiography of a gentleman of the times. The effect, we can now say, is very Edward Gorey.
This little volume, which students of modernism have always cherished, has now been reissued by Dover, with an introductory essay by John Ashbery. The sentence he chose not to write is: "This book explains Donald Barthelme." (Ashbery, a man learned, like Barthelme, in the visual arts, longs to show that Ernst derives his two books of woodcut collages, La femme 100 tetes and Une semaine de bont,e, from Lucas and has to settle for saying that it's a matter of the Zeitgeist, when all he had to do was notice that the headless woman emerging from the steamer trunk on page 21 of What a Life! turns up in an Ernst collage).
By some divine accident Lucas and Morrow stumbled onto one of the most useful discoveries of 20th-century art. They were scarcely alone, of course. Joyce was compiling a vast collage of the vernacular for Ulysses. Newspaper clippings and commercial labels were turning up on Cubist canvases. What Lucas and Morrow did was make a distillation of the kind of parody that a great many modern writers and artists would find eloquently useful.
What Barthelme invented, 11 books ago (the present one is a retrospective selection from all of them), was a brash new version of What a Life! Instead of visual clich,es showing their age, he took clich,es of every conceivable kind and speeded up their obsolescence. A typical Barthelme story (if there is such a thing) deals with last week's smart talk. He can hear what the trendiest phrase and latest theory will sound like when we have tired of them (in six months hence), and can make them sound as asinine as if they were decades old. The man has escaped from time. He is, in this unnerving capacity, our Diogenes.
But there are scads of Barthelmes. There is Barthelme the total surrealist with an imagination as loony as Krazy Kat. There's Barthelme the parodist noticing that our world really doesn't need parodying: it parodies itself. There's Barthelme the ironist, the mythologist, the farceur, the master of slapstick. He can be as spooky and symbolic as Bergman, as silly as Laurel and Hardy, as cryptic as di Chirico. Only Calvino can manage as many tones and styles.
And to what end? Well, he's writing stories. They have every quality of the short story except that sincere realism invented early in the 19th century, brought to perfection by writers as diverse as Tolstoy, Kipling, and Proust, and inherited by us as the only serious way to tell a story. At least by 1910 there were writers saying, "No. You can also tell a story this way. Watch." It has taken a long time to see what they wanted (and what Barthelme wants) us to see. Mandelstam in Russia, Jarry in France; I would also say O. Henry and Bret Harte in the USA. Joyce. Kafka. Walser. And in all their experiments the urgent sense that literature must keep noticing how swiftly in our time a style wears out. Gertrude Stein tried to keep everybody on his toes about this. Were she around now, she would be nattering at Barthelme to change faster, faster. As it is, Barthelme can scarcely keep up within himself. He hasn't yet begun to go in circles (as some bewildered critics have intoned). These 60 stories show him inventing at full pitch.
Barthelme can probably write any way he wants to. He has chosen to remain a comic writer whose subject matter is disorder. (This phrase will fit Voltaire, Twain, and Beckett.) He has given no hint of a predilected order, and I can't think of one that wouldn't depress him. He accepts the absurdity of everything with the clarity of a saint or the absoluteness of a nihilist. He does not bereave us of our intelligence, our wit, our material comforts. He lets us keep every advantage we have against an absurd and futile existence, and proceeds to show us the absurdity and futility of our best and brightest, especially these.
His method is simplicity itself. There are no more contexts. Every attempt at ceremony parodies itself. Barthelme relocates our world back in Eden, apple in hand, wiseacre snake hissing psychiatry, advertising, marketing, personality tips, economics, weight watching, art appreciation, group therapy, our lovely brassy swinging culture from Philosophy 700 (Kierkegaard to Sartre) to bongo drums in the subway. But we feel suddenly naked, embarrassed, and unwelcome in the garden. Barthelme doesn't know why we feel this way either, but he can focus our feeling into a bright point that can raise a blister.