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.”