FORTY STORIES By Donald Barthelme Putnam. 256 pp. $17.95

FORTY STORIES is a collection which comprises work published, for the most part, since the 1981 Sixty Stories, although there is a handful of stories here which could have been included in the earlier book but were omitted at the author's discretion. It hardly matters, since the stories of the present volume insist on being read as extensions of the earlier book, and none of them can be intelligently read as discrete examples of the author's talents. This volume, then, is no more a "Barthelme's Greatest Hits" than was Sixty Stories. To read the 100 stories as a single work is to understand that Barthelme's agenda has been the investigation, by multifarious approaches, of some of the formidable problems that face the contemporary writer. Although some of the stories are "weaker" than others, they hardly damage Barthelme's intentions.

To note, all too simplistically, the bones of these problems: The grammar and syntax of language force many of its tropes, so that sentences like "He quickly unlocks the door and switches on the light"; "The eyes were very dark blue and steady"; and "How bright it was outside!" (by respectively, Kafka, Joyce and Mann), are "written" by language itself, and are sentences of which Danielle Steele is capable. Indeed, they are common parlance. To complicate things further, these sentences, in order to be thought of as manifestations of a unique creativity, are often gussied up so as to look like "literature": they fall victims to craftsmanship, or what Barthes calls the "{attempt} to combine predicates." This craftsmanship might give us (pace Joyce): "The eyes were the very dark blue of a winter sky and as steady as a rock." The imagined writer of this sentence, initially uneasy at his unearned trope, wades into the sea of selection and "creates art."

The rub is that the new sentence is but another trope, almost automatically fashioned by means of what William Carlos Williams called the "lateral sliding" of comparison. Such linguistic constructs are wholly conventionalized, so much so, in fact, that an entire work made up of them (i.e., most of the fiction of our time) barely resists any reading other than the parodic. We are in a hell of a fix, then, for if the fiction proffered straight-faced by our latest literary genius becomes the unintended occasion for a reader's mocking laughter, how does serious fiction get written?

This is not to suggest that the vast armies of writers worry about these problems; on the contrary, most are busily involved in the deployment of a language that exists in a perfectly cozy relationship with reality. To them, those eyes that are as blue as a winter sky are a unique formulation functioning in a perfectly unambiguous dance with the actual.

This parenthesis is offered as a ground on which Barthelme's work may be considered. He is so self-consciously aware of all these problems that, in these stories, a sentence or phrase produced by language's internal machinery is almost invariably intended as ironic. Irony and suspicion are the forces behind Barthelme's language, those and the knowledge that the sky, battered as it may be into submission by a complacently inscribed word-thing linkage, is as remote from the page as ever.

IF IRONY is the author's primary device, he also uses many others: the faux-nai f (a kind of irony); the unexpected malapropism; a discontinuous surface, in which the syllogisms of cause-effect discourse are followed to a "t" but are devoid of logical meaning; colloquies that function as nonsequential designs; the subversion of elegant periods by cliche's, and vice versa; a reliance on the formal manifestations of metonymy; and the metaphor that lacks one term of its equation. There are other techniques used, but they are variations on these major devices.

These stories, then, show a very serious writer at work. They must, as I have noted, be read as a single work, a chain of renewed attempts to find and "fix" a workable language. Each story returns to the starting point of this enterprise, i.e., what now? There are notable perfections in this project to slip language's huge joke on us: In the book under review, "Great Days," and in Sixty Stories, "A Manual for Sons." The only potboiler I find is "Visitors," a piece of magazine frill. There is, too, an un-Barthelme-like story, "Chablis," which is neither parody nor imitation of Raymond Carver & Co., but reads like a story that Carver might write had he a sense of humor about his oddly transitive, transparent prose.

My only cavil, and it is a small one, is that there seems to be, in all of Barthelme's work, a shying away from a truly anarchic comedy which, I sense, stands just outside the texts. As I write this, I know how impertinent and "reviewish" it is to criticize a writer for what he has not made. Barthelme has given us a good deal in what he has made, in his praxis and its implications. If he is not always "successful," who is? To give him the last word, in "The Sandman" (from Sixty Stories), he writes, "Let me point out, if it has escaped your notice, that what an artist does, is fail."

Gilbert Sorrentino's new novel, "Rose Theatre," will be published this fall.