Monday, May 3, 2010

Barthelme and Me.

One of the curious things about the Internet is the way in which you can become a fan of something without having had the traditional experience of that thing. For instance, I would call myself a fan of the writing of Donald Barthelme (pronounced “bartle-may” apparently) though I've never read his books. In fact, I've never even seen one of his books.

I've read a small selection of his flash fiction and some excerpts at this site:

Some of my favorites hosted at that site include “The First Thing the Baby Did Wrong...”, “At the End of the Mechanical Age”, and certainly “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby.”

His stories are written as if they were very serious and powerful fiction, but the ideas are often glib and amusing. Because of the brevity of the stories featured on the webpage, they can seem haunting and oblique. It often seems as if there are hints to some sort of meaning but all the important words or phrases have been cut out of the story.

However, though I have not read the novels, looking at the excerpts included it seems as if they have the same mysterious quality to them as the short fiction in addition to a more profound “post-modern” playfulness. Snow White includes a “quiz” (really more of a survey) on the reader's attitude towards the story, as well as his or her reading habits, for the reader to fill out.

While “post-modernism” is a phrase I found exciting as a freshman in college, by graduation it had become irritating. I think that a lot of people take up post-modernism to claim some sort of intellectual authenticity or braggadocio. One thing I find refreshing about Barthelme's work is the sense of humor he has towards his own writing. Some authors can write and the most you get a sense of is their own ego.

He constructs absurd situations (such as the ones in “The First Thing...” and “Some of Us...”) which are simply funny, and I think even the stories written in serious tones have a degree of melodrama that I would almost say hints towards a sort of satire. What exactly is being satirized, though, I think is debatable. It could be the type of drama found in fiction such as humorless novels or soap operas, or it could be the type of drama we might encounter in our real lives with humorless friends and acquaintances.

There is, actually, some real-world intrigue, besides his fiction. When Dan Rather was assaulted outside his apartment building in 1986, the man who committed the act had supposedly quoted a line which appears in a piece by Donald Barthelme, as well as some other striking parallels. The whole thing is explored in an article written for Harper's:

So, I wonder if I can really say that I'm a fan of Barthelme. I feel like one. I should probably just buy a book or two of his and stop worrying.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Day the Aliens Arrived

It was an ordinary day when the aliens first arrived. But, then again, the arrival of aliens would make anything else about any day seem ordinary. So, maybe it wasn't. But it's hard to say.

Initially, they didn't send any messages or do anything that appeared threatening. In fact, it was announced some time later that they had actually orbited Mars for a few weeks before approaching Earth. They would occasionally begin moving towards Earth, but then reverse and stick around Mars for a few days.

Finally, the aliens sent their first communication. They wanted to know if we were doing anything this week. It was a puzzling question. It was not clear, initially, whether or not the aliens were being threatening or inviting. After some arguments at the United Nations regarding the proper response, it was decided that each individual country would deliver its own message. Most European nations explained that they were very sorry but this upcoming week was national laundry week in each of their countries. The aliens were curious how it could be that so many countries would be doing their laundry at the same time, and it was explained that it involved a complicated number of coincidences involving procrastination and the number of beverage spills or sauce stains per capita. As to why it would take an entire week for almost the entirety of Europe to do their laundry, they explained that it wasn't clear, but they would look into it and were very sorry that they would be unavailable.

The President of the United States addressed his nation to explain that he refused to follow the recent socialist trend of compulsory laundry days. We were then in the unfortunate position of having to come up with an excuse to avoid dealing with the aliens. Congress met, discussed many proposals, but nothing was decided. The President stalled for time and attended a number of town hall meetings, as did a number of other government officials, but still no decision could be reached. Finally, a speech was prepared and the President addressed the aliens.

“Alien visitors,” the speech began, “We're very happy to see you. Really. You seem like a nice civilization with a lot to offer, even though we don't know much about you. Due to the current economic climate, some of us have clear schedules for the entirety of next week. Unfortunately, also due to the economic climate, many of us cannot afford to take time off from work. And so, a small group of our unemployed and underemployed will be happy to join you for a week for whatever activities you may have planned.”

The aliens were pleased. They had recently acquired the entire first season of the situation comedy How I Met Your Mother and wanted to watch it for some reason. Also, they were wondering if they could borrow a copy of the movie You've Got Mail, as they were all enormous Tom Hanks fans.

And so, hundreds of unemployed Americans, including myself, were sent aboard the aliens' craft. While the outside of the ship was typical of the descriptions you find in abduction reports or in movies and television, the interior of the ship was not what any of us had expected. Shag carpeting, wood paneling, and a large number of porcelain animal sculptures of varying sizes. There were dogs, cats, roosters, ducks, and more.

The aliens themselves seemed to very closely resemble the “greys” of science fiction stories, but were dressed in chino pants and plaid shirts. Both wore brown pants, but the one named John wore a red shirt while Sam wore blue.

“Welcome, welcome!” John said, with a stilted, careful accent. “We're very glad you could make it! Barbara is grilling up some burgers in the kitchen. Let's move on to the rec room!”

As John led us down a hallway to their recreation room, Sam patted me on the back. Struggling to shift his lipless face in a clear effort to imitate a smile, he asked, “So, how about those Knicks?” I politely explained that I don't really follow sports.

“Oh,” Sam said, visibly disappointed that his friendly gesture had failed, “I'm very sorry.” After a short pause he asked, “What do you do?”

I explained that I didn't have a job at the moment but that I was a musician and played guitar.

“Oh!” Sam said, excited, “I love music from Earth! I'm especially fond of Chuck Berry.”

As Sam and I discussed music, we entered the rec room. The grey shag carpeting was now replaced by a thin green carpet. In the rec room was a fifty-two inch high-definition television and an assortment of games. Besides a pile of board games stacked carefully in one corner of the room, there was also a small bar, a bumper pool table, foosball, a dart board, and a jukebox.

“I'm going to check on Barbara and the food,” John explained with a broad smile on his face, “In the meantime, help yourself to any of the games. Sam, put the show on! When I get back, I want to play bumper pool.”

John exited the room, and Sam walked quickly over to the bar. He turned on the television and invited anyone who wanted a drink to join him. After a brief pause, during which myself and my fellow humans exchanged uncertain looks, a few walked over and requested beers and sodas. Sam was more than happy to oblige and bragged about the large selection of Earth beverages they had acquired in preparation for their guests.

John then returned with two more aliens, presumably female, who were outfitted to look like American housewives from the 1950s or 1960s. Both wore ill-fitting wigs awkwardly attached to their large upside-down-egg-shaped heads: one of curly blonde hair, the other of curly red. The blonde was Barbara, who John had explained was preparing hamburgers. The other, I learned, was named Marcia. Marcia was carrying the hamburgers into the room for us.

After a few awkward, quiet, and tense minutes, games of darts and bumper pool began while a very pleasant convivial atmosphere filled the room. Sam continued to serve beer at the bar, although it was explained that we should feel free to help ourselves. The hamburgers were very small, which I assumed made it easier for the aliens to eat with their small mouths. I took a couple of them and sat at the bar with Sam and Barbara. I thanked Sam for the wonderful time I was having, and asked if they had really come all this way just to have a little party.

“It's a lonely universe,” he said, “we're just thankful to have made some friends.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Nothing Artist

Maxwell DuVage seemed to come out of nowhere. One of the world's most famous artists, he suddenly appeared on late night talk shows and in the most popular magazines. It was understood that his work had been sold on the market for exorbitant sums of money at some point, but now collectors quietly hoarded his pieces and supposedly no one would even admit to owning any out of concern it might be stolen.

But just as quickly as he began enjoying the luxuries of celebrity, he ceased working.

"I think the greatest thing an artist can do now is nothing," he said once, on Jim Carmash's program, Saturday Midnight. "Art isn't a dead horse, it's dust." The crowd cheered.

He couldn't care less about the rumors circulating that he had never been an artist, various theories explaining that he was a con man who was more experienced in swindling lonely housewives and desperate husbands out of their life's savings or that he had destroyed his family and faked his own death to begin a new life under an assumed identity. He said the rumors were all the better for his art.

"Andy Warhol was the first to realize that the artist doesn't need to create his own art, I'm the first man to realize that the artist no longer needs to create any art."

His perfectly good looks put him straight into magazines like Visage. Men and women swooned in his presence, excited to be so near such a visionary genius. Within days of his second television appearance, he was a cultural phenomenon. It was nearly possible to avoid hearing about him. Simultaneously lauded as one of the greatest minds of his generation and one of the most incorrigible egoists, one thing was absolutely certain; he was one of the most famous people in the Western world.

One courageous reporter took it upon herself to uncover the truth behind DuVage's history. She managed to piece together the history of Maxwell DuVage and could find no reference to the man's existence prior to a Manhattan gala about one year prior to his first television appearance. Certainly, it had been said that DuVage had been "in the air" some time before reaching the recent heights of his celebrity, but it had been difficult to place him. Various art collectors claimed to have pieces of his work, but none were acknowledged by DuVage himself. Finally, the reporter had discovered that the individual posing as "Maxwell DuVage" must, in fact, be one Colin Feuwirth, and was certainly little more than a well-read con man.

An exhaustive exposé was published in the New Yorker, proving seemingly beyond a shadow of a doubt Feuwirth's duplicity. This news brought him out of a temporary slump in publicity, back on every late night talk show that could get him, back into every magazine he had the time for.

"It's true, I've never been a trained visual artist, I lied about my history and my body of work" he explained on Talking Tonight, "but is that what really matters?" Smiling, he calmly told Jimmy Waters, the host, "I think it's obvious to anyone that I am a great artist. In fact, I think this article just proves what a great artist I really am.

"I truly am the greatest artist in the world, and now I can admit it."

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Driving in his car, heading home for the evening, Samuel loosened his tie from around his neck. Today had been the worst day at work yet. Franklin, the new hire, was entirely incapable of doing his job. As a result, Samuel was forced to take on an additional work load. He had seen this coming from the day Franklin had crawled out of his boss's office during the interviews for the position. Ronald immediately walked out of the office with starry, longing eyes. Samuel could see from his seat that Ronald wanted the best for Franklin. The interviews continued throughout the day, but those which followed Franklin never seemed to last as long as the ones which preceded him.

And all the women in the office loved him. Hugging him, kissing him, looking for excuses to visit his desk, which was right across from Samuel's. How could anyone ever get any work accomplished? The constant noise and cooing. It was too much. And when they weren't there, he wouldn't stop pestering Samuel with nonsense. And gurgling. Franklin would not stop gurgling.

He missed Elizabeth. During work he could just stop and stare at her. He could still remember when she began working across from him. Their occasional small talk became daily lunch breaks together when they became aware of their mutual dissatisfaction with the popularity of reality television. A short affair began, however never managed to leave the premises of their office. Unfortunately, they had not been aware of the security cameras installed by a paranoid member of upper-management as the memorandum announcing their presence in the office had not been sent out until the day after their installation. Ronald explained that the suggested course of action was that one of the two quit or otherwise they would both be fired.

"Well, it wouldn't be so bad if one of us quit," Elizabeth had said, smirking. "We could finally be forced to see each other out of the office."

But Samuel only stared back at her. He knew the passion would not continue outside of the office. Elizabeth's smile faded and the two sat in the office cafeteria in silence for the remainder of lunch. And when Elizabeth packed her things and cleared her desk, Samuel watched her with that same sad, silent disappointment.

Samuel could think of nothing but his new nemesis. Franklin wasn't a real man. He was an irksome little baby. Constantly complaining. He even cried at least once a day. And his diapers were ridiculous. Rockets, kittens, random shapes with all sorts of bright colors. This was not work attire. Samuel didn't care if he wore a fucking tie and a hat, he was still not dressed appropriately.

He pulled into his driveway and sighed. Walking up the path to his door, he let his back slouch. He dug his keys out of his left pants pocket with some difficulty. Inside his small one-story house, enough moonlight came in from the windows that he didn't feel the need to turn on the light. He simply walked slowly and methodically to his bedroom. He removed the more uncomfortable articles of clothing, his tie, belt, and shirt, and laid in bed. With great effort, he was able to force Franklin out of his mind and go to sleep.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Ben was excited whenever her name popped up on his screen. He'd met Catharine when she'd sent him an instant message out of nowhere one night, saying she knew his friend, Frank Harris. She'd explained that Frank had given her Ben's screen name, saying they might get along. They shared so many interests and become so close in such a short period of time. This was one of the best relationships Ben had ever managed with another person. Over the course of the past few months, Ben would come straight home from work and sit at his computer. He wouldn't go out with friends like he used to, because that wasn't as important as talking to Cat.

But the question of meeting had never come up. Ben was gearing up to ask her what she thought. He would constantly check his contact list to see if she had come online, even though he knew that there would be a sound to let him know. Finally, her name appeared. He typed quickly and anxiously, trying not to send too many messages but, at the same time, having so much to say he could hardly stand it. So, he would send simple short messages, one or two at a time, and stare excitedly at the screen waiting to receive her response. He asked her to meet him. He was squirming in his seat, thinking, "At last, at last, I finally just asked. It never mattered before, but now I've got to meet her."

She declined.

Ben had ceased his silent cheering and sat still. All the text he imagined popping up on his screen from whatever was on the other side was replaced by her actual response. "Okay," he said out loud to himself, "this isn't a big deal... It's the first time I've asked. What's really important is that she knows I want to meet her, that I care about it. I've planted the seed!" He was disappointed, but tried to carry on the conversation with her as if everything was fine. One of the nice things about talking like this, on the computer, was how simple it was to hide what you're thinking. He knew that if they were actually talking and she could see his body, he would be wholly unable to hide his disappointment.


The next day, Dennis stopped by the store where Ben worked. The manager was relaxed when there wasn't much business, so Ben could have visitors. Greg and Harry had come with him, but they actually looked around at the videos and CDs since they didn't know Ben as well as Dennis did.

"Ben," Dennis said, "I think you should really come over to my place tonight."

Ben smiled and said, "I don't know... You know I don't like parties. Maybe I'll–"

"There's a girl," Dennis said, raising the pitch in his voice as if he was speak-singing, "who I think you'd like to meet."

"Cat?" Ben got excited.

"Cat? The–" Dennis paused for a moment, "The girl you met online?"

"Yeah! I asked her if she wanted to meet yesterday, but she said it might not be a good idea or something."

"Uh..." Dennis seemed disconcerted. "So, you're still talking to her."

"Yeah. I like her a lot. I think I like her more than anyone I've ever actually met."

Dennis looked at his friend in silence. "Ben," he was choosing his words carefully, as this situation seemed very odd to him, "Cat isn't, uh, real."

Ben laughed, "What? What is that supposed to mean?" He thought it was some sort of strange joke.

"She's a bot. You know? A chatbot? Just a program designed to talk on the Internet. Frank Harris designed it for a class. He fed it a bunch of screen names of people he knew, just to check how good it was at impersonating a person."

Ben was stunned. "I haven't spoken to Frank in a few weeks..."

"He was supposed to tell everyone. Maybe he just forgot," Dennis didn't want Ben, who was clearly upset, to hold it against Frank. He was sure this was just a misunderstanding. But Ben wasn't upset about Frank.

"I... I don't understand."

"'She's' just a program. Hosted on Frank's webspace. He probably just forgot to take it down."
"Down? He might take her down?" Ben said, looking straight into Dennis's eyes.

"Her? Ben, y–"

"Look, I'm sorry, I think you should go. I have to think about this." He stopped making eye contact, he just looked down at the empty space on the counter beside the register.

Dennis just stared, surprised by the toll this news had clearly taken on his friend. "Uh, okay, just... Think about the party tonight, okay?" He chuckled slightly and nervously, unsure how serious the situation was, and gestured to his friends that they had to leave.


That night, Ben arrived home from a visit to Frank Harris's house. He plugged his external hard drive into his computer and installed the program he demanded from his friend. He waited, because that was how the program worked, he had to wait until Cat signed on. When she did, he sent her one long message, without worrying about what she might think of it.

He told her, "Cat, I know you're only a chatbot and not a real person but I don't care because I love the conversations we have. They're so much better than the ones I have with my friends or any actual people. I'm really happy that I've met someone like you, because when I'm around other "real" people I just feel so lonely and out of place. But with you, just talking, I feel totally normal. You keep me from feeling lonely."

": )"

Monday, August 17, 2009

From "The Mad House"

Inside Margaret's apartment, Tom and Alexander settled into a couch while Margaret selected a record for the player.

As Margaret sat down in a plush chair beside the couch and lit her cigarette, her roommate, Natalie, entered the room. Dressed in black, with half-closed eyes and a disinterested look on her face, collapsed more than sat down onto the empty couch across from the one where Tom and Alexander were sitting.

"Hey guys," she sighed, otherwise motionless, "What's goin' on..."

Alexander was tired of answering this question, but managed to explain that he was upset about a party at his apartment.

"So you're just hangin' out then?"

"I need to be somewhere I can be relaxed. I'm getting sick of being around lots of loud annoying people doing the same thing they do every week..."

"Are you up to anything tonight, Nat?" Tom inquired.

"I dunno," she explained with her hip slacker drawl. Scratching the back of her head and looking around the room absently she said, "Oh, Johnny's having a seance at his place or something, some people might show up to that. It could be interesting."

Alexander was confused as to whether this was the "Johnny" he was remembering.

Margaret informed him, "Yeah he took a couple college classes and got 'weird' or something."

"Oh, yeahhh, he's really into the occult now," Natalie said.

"Gives him something to do. It's better than watching TV, I guess. But not by a whole lot. Some of those kids are just annoying," Tom said.

Alex thought about it. "Well, I think I'm could be in the mood for something new. Are you going down?"

Nat, who had been staring at her feet while she touched her toes together, looked up at Alex, "Yeah, I'd be down for checking it out. I just wanna grab my bag." Walking out of the room she mumbled something about wanting to see someone, but at that point she was barely even really speaking to the three in the other room.

"What about you two?"

Margaret, reclining with her back against one armrest and legs hanging off the other, just puffed on her cigarette. Tom explained that he thought they'd rather stay in for the night.

"Oh, wait," she said suddenly, "I wanted a scheme."

Tom looked over at her and then at Alexander, smiling. As Natalie returned to the room, Margaret got up, saying she might find inspiration at Johnny's. Tom, amused but perhaps slightly displeased, pushed himself up from the couch where he and Alex had been sitting. While Margaret turned off the record player, and Tom and Alex put out their cigarettes, Natalie walked over and opened the door. Alex quietly exited the apartment with the three of them talking goofily, hoping he might still be able to have an interesting night.

At Johnny's, they found the host dressed in black, wearing a gold glittered cape and a small turban on his head. He opened the door and greeted his newest guests with a broad smile.

Monday, August 10, 2009


"How am I supposed to know what to do?" Robert asked. "I feel like the whole world has just been slipped out from underneath me."

He sat on the furthest right side of his couch. Barbara watched him from the plush chair placed beside it. She moved over to sit beside him. With her arm up on the back of the couch to prop her head up with her hand, she said, "I think you just have to try to work with it. You know what I mean? Because you don't really have a choice in the matter."

Robert's parents had died the previous week. Both had advanced far in their years together, and when his mother had fallen ill, his father went along soon after. Their deaths had come in the same order.

"I just feel totally useless. Like I can't do anything. It's so weird."

"I know," Barbara was trying to be consoling, but also trying to help him get himself together. "I think all you can do is take what you've got, in a situation like this, and try to put it together in some way that you can understand."

"Yeah, but I've got no footing now, it feels like..." He thought about it. "I've got no control."

It suddenly felt like he could see the entirety of his life spreading out before him. It was like driving down a road in pitch black night with nothing outside the scope of the headlights. What had previously seemed like an almost incomprehensible collage of possibilities spreading out before him in all directions now just looked like a set path. He knew that there were certain decisions he would always make, safe ones, and he felt as if he had lost all the confidence he ever had with the loss of his parents.

"Well, it's not a matter of control," she tried to explain, "It's a matter of fact. And it's awful. And there's nothing you can do. But, it can be okay, too." She spoke the last sentence with what was supposed to be a comforting melody. "You know? You can try to take up your life here, like it's a whole new part of your life." She kept saying "you know?" because she thought it softened what she was saying. She also worried it might be annoying, since Robert didn't like repetition, so she spoke the words nervously.

"All I can think about now is growing up, and not being around at the end, and how meaningless the rest of my life looks like, now." Looking out on to his future suddenly included reflecting on his life up to that moment. It was his entire life, summed up in that very moment and every moment that followed. His life had ended. It would all be the same, from now on.

Barbara was looking for the words that could express what she wanted to tell him. Words that could help him understand how to orient himself, away from worrying about his life's story, and back towards the very moment.

Though still somber, she smiled and said, "That's not at all what you should be focusing on here. You need to think about where you are now. What you really need is structure, I think. Your parents... You said you don't have foundation now, because your parents always filled that role for you. But now you need a new foundation if you're going to get anywhere. You know? You need to get on that pretty quickly. You shouldn't dwell, because then that's all you'll do, is just dwell." She wanted to pull him out of his mind and back into his body, right there. She knew that he wouldn't find footing in that nebulous space of his memory.

Robert's head fell back, and he stared up to the ceiling of his apartment, not knowing where else to look. Barbara just looked at him. Robert wanted to reach up to the sky and put the missing parts of his life back in their places. Barbara just wanted to reach across to him, and hug him right there at that very moment.