21 Jun J. Perelman’s long career (he was one of Barthelme’s early fictional influences) to Woody Allen
Angell had never displayed much interest in avant garde fiction, but Barthelme seemed to fit into The New Yorker’s fictional timeline quite neatly-providing a segue from the end of S. And the medley of feelings that strike an individual simply by walking up and down the same busy and always changing streets-sadness, joy, surprise, wonder, boredom, fear, anomie, angst-is just the emotional soundtrack that a typical Barthelme story requires.
Barthelme’s was a restless, hungry and, to a large extent, unformed intelligence, and almost every one of his stories encapsulates his odd narrative charm in all its loose and shaggy glory. A lifelong “fan of” (rather than, say, “adherent to”) the existentialism of Sartre and Kierkegaard, he sympathized with their notions of the human personality as a vast, always-yearning shopping bag of emptiness. In his story “Daumier,” the central character designs surrogates who can go out in the world and (unlike their progenitor) achieve satiation. The “authentic self,” the narrator argues,
is a great dirty villain…. It is insatiable. It is always, always hankering. It is what you might call rapacious to a fault. The great flaming mouth to the thing is never in this world going to be stuffed full.
For Barthelme, the notion that individuals are continually “hankering” after more stuff with which to make themselves feel whole is more than a philosophical concept-it was a way of producing stories that often resemble hungry collages of various wild stuff the author has seen, imagined, imitated, and heard-which is probably why the typical Barthelme paragraph is stuffed with numerous unrelated facts, fantasies, quotations, and the names of real people who aren’t actually the real people they might have actually been. (Such as, for example, Daumier, and the surrogates he releases into the world.)
Some of his earliest stories in Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964) are so densely fragmented with allusions to artists, philosophers, and pop icons, and so thin on anything resembling a story or a point of view, that they can be hard to follow. The oddly sculpted sentences are stitched together like tessellated fragments of absurdist comedy, like swathes of Bretonian automatic writing that have been systematically rewritten to elicit pleasurable, and pleasurably broken, prose rhythms.
The city-jumble of always-shifting relationships between people, their jobs, and their locations on the city map provided the perfect ambience for stories in which weird things just generally happened as part of the landscape
Under Angell’s editorship, Barthelme’s stories grew imaginatively leaner and less chaotic, and the wild dense surrealist flights of his early stories were threaded along thin semblances of plot that usually somehow worked. “The aim of literature,” a character pronounces (in one of the earliest stories, “Florence Green Is 81”) “is the creation of a strange object covered with fur that breaks your heart.” For Barthelme, they were words to live by both inside and outside the realm of his fiction, for he seemed like a man whose heart was broken many times.
Manhattan was the perfect subject for Barthelme’s comic method, and he certainly produced most of his best short fiction while living there in the 1960s and 1970s
Barthelme always seemed to be fleeing one formal restriction for another-ic played out in his fiction, which began blossoming in the mid-1960s during his second divorce. He roved constantly and restlessly from one idiosyncratic story structure to another. He told stories in the form of text and marginal commentary (“To London and Rome”), as a sequence of bubble-like bursts of experience (“Bone Bubbles”), as a tourist guide to a country that sounds like one we recognize but is actually another country entirely (“Paraguay”), as a six-page single sentence that never finds its ending, and as a lengthy catechism that begins: