Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Uncollected Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme, c. 1964

Found by accident whilst looking for something in Peter Schjeldahl’s magazine Mother: A Journal of New Literature, an uncollected piece by Donald Barthelme:

      ASTONISHMENT, surprise and disappointment were so great for a few seconds after the discovery that the best part of the party—the ice cream—was gone, that no one knew what to say. Then Flossie burst out with:
      Then the feast began, and such a feast as it was! Mrs. Bobbsey, knowing how easily the delicate stomachs of children can be upset, had wisely selected the food and sweets, and she saw to it that no one ate too much, though she was gently suggestive about it instead of ordering.
      Then a chair would be taken away, so as always to have one less than the number of players, and the game went on. It was great fun, scrambling to see who would get a seat, and not be left without one, and finally there was but one chair left, while Grace Lavine and John Blake marched about.
      Then Freddie, anxious as to what would become of Snap if he fought a snake, looked back. He saw a strange sight.
      “Then don’t you come any nearer if you don’t want to get wet,” said Bert. “This hose might sprinkle you by accident, the same as it did when Freddie had it,” he added.
      Then came all sorts of games, from tag and jumping rope, to blind-man’s bluff and hide-and-seek. Snap was made to do a number of tricks, much to the amusement of the teachers and children. Danny Rugg, and some of the older boys, got up a small baseball game, and then Danny, with one or two chums, went off in a deeper part of the woods. Bert heard one of the boys ask another if he had any matches.
      Then she thought she saw something long and black wiggling toward her, and, with a little exclamation of fright, she, too, turned to follow the others. But, as she did so, she saw their dog Snap come running up the hill, barking and wagging his tail. He seemed to have lost the children for a moment and to be telling them how glad he was that he had found them again.
      “Then I’m surely going to be one, too,” declared Flossie. “I like good things to eat. I hope our minister isn’t very hungry, ’cause then there’ll be some left for us when we come home from this picnic.”
      “Then how do you account for this?” asked the chief, as he held out a box partly filled with cigarettes. “I picked these up in the living room,” he went on, for the boathouse had one room carpeted, and fitted with chairs and tables, and electric lights where the family often spent evenings during the Summer.
      Then he felt embarrassed at asking it and before Macomber could answer he went on, “We all take a beating every day, you know, one way or another.”
      “Then let’s eat ours now,” suggested Flossie. “I’m awful hungry.”
      Then Mr. Bobbsey sat down to read the evening paper.
      Then came closing days at Ocean Cliff, the home of Uncle William and Aunt Emily Minturn at Sunset Beach. School was soon to open, and Mr. and Mrs. Bobbsey were anxious to get back to their town home.
      “Then take that!” exclaimed Danny, and he gave Bert a push that nearly knocked him down. Bert put out a hand to save himself and struck Danny, not really meaning to.
      Just then there came along two large boys, Frank Cobb, and his particular chum, Irving Knight.
      Then the lumber merchant gave certain orders to his grocer and butcher, and if a number of poor people were not well supplied with food that gladsome season, it was not the fault of Mr. Bobbsey.
      From then on Mr. Rugg did some hard thinking. He began “putting two and two together” as the old saying has it. He remembered the Bobbsey boathouse fire. On that occasion Danny had come in late, and there had been the smell of smoke on his clothes.
      Then how the children laughed and clapped their hands! And Snap barked so loudly—for he liked applause—that there was noise enough for even jolly Aunt Sarah. After that there was no trouble.
      Then, when they had on dry garments, and could go out, there was no one with whom to play.
      “Then come with me, and I’ll let you help hold the hose,” said the fireman. “I’ll look after him,” he went on, to Mrs. Bobbsey, and she nodded to show that Freddie could go.
      “Then we’ll have to give him up I suppose,” and Mrs. Bobbsey sighed, for she had grown very much attached to the fine animal.
      But the strange dog did not need lifting. He sprang into the tonneau of the auto as soon as the door was opened. Mr. and Mrs. Bobbsey lifted in Flossie and Freddie, and Nan and Bert followed. Then in got Papa and Mamma Bobbsey and Mr. Blake started off.
Found in Mother No. 3 (1964) between three pieces by Tony Towle (“Innocent-looking floorboards give way and I can’t stop my fall . . .”) and a collaboratory cartoon by Kenneth Koch and Joe Brainard called “Size 40” (thinking bubbles of a T-shirt: “To lie across her breasts all day—aye, ’tis a pretty thought . . .”) and signed, “Donald Barthelme and Laura Lee Hope.” The latter being the pseudonymous author of the Bobbsey Twins series—The Bobbsey Twins, or Merry Days Indoors and Out (1904), The Bobbsey Twins in the Country (1907), The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore (1907), &c. Barthelme’s “Then” is constructed, then, by simply lifting and rearranging a number of paragraphs out of the Edward Stratemeyer syndicate-produced fourth book in the The Bobbsey Twins series The Bobbsey Twins at School (1913). Reworking with ironic intent what Barthelme once called* “cultural artifacts of ambivalent status,” putting ready-made American detritus into new contexts. And hiding, amidst the Bobbsey slurry, a nugget of Hemingway. (The source chapters, in sequence, with all repetitions detailed and the “unmannerly intruder” compris, go: Chapter XIV “A Coat Button,” Chapter XIII “An Unpleasant Surprise,” Chapter XIII “An Unpleasant Surprise,” Chapter XI “Danny’s Trick,” Chapter VII “At School,” Chapter X “A Scare,” Chapter XI “Danny’s Trick,” Chapter X “A Scare,” Chapter XIX “Who Was Smoking?,” Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Chapter X “A Scare,” Chapter XV “Thanksgiving,” Chapter II “Snoop Is Gone” (with Barthelme truncating the final sentence, removing the clauses “for Flossie and Freddie were to start regular lessons now, even though it was but in the kindergarten class” after “home”), Chapter VIII “Bert Sees Something,” Chapter XVIII “A Night Alarm,” Chapter XV “Thanksgiving,” Chapter XX “A Confession,” Chapter XIII “An Unpleasant Surprise,” Chapter VII “At School,” Chapter VI “Danny Rugg Is Mean,” Chapter XXII “Snap and Snoop,” and Chapter IV “Home in an Auto.”) In a 1981 “Art of Fiction” interview in The Paris Review Barthelme points to one source of such brash formal license in jazz:
You’d hear some of these guys take a tired old tune like “Who’s Sorry Now?” and do the most incredible things with it, make it beautiful, literally make it new. The interest and the drama were in the formal manipulation of the rather slight material.
Pertinent, too, is a remark Barthelme made to George Plimpton in a 1984 TV interview (reported in Tracy Daugherty’s 2009 Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme): “I originally began writing in rather traditional, ersatz Hemingway fashion, and it was really terrible, it was truly terrible. It was in reaction to my own inability to satisfy myself with traditional forms that I sort of began throwing things on the floor and looking to see what sorts of patterns they made.”
* In Barthelme’s c. 1985 essay “Not Knowing,” wherein he relates how he once bought “a set of brass knuckles . . . in a pawnshop, not to smash up someone’s face but to exhibit on a pedestal in a museum show devoted to cultural artifacts of ambivalent status. The world enters the work as it enters our ordinary lives, not as worldview or system but in sharp particularity: a tax notice from Madelaine, a snowball containing a résumé from Gaston.” He’s referring to an exhibit called “New American Artifacts: The Ugly Show” he assembled in 1960 for Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum. Barthelme’s list of some of the exhibit’s wonders:
A baby blue Styrofoam chrysanthemum. An auto hubcap, brand unrecognizable. A hideous jukebox. Paint-by-number pictures of lambs, sans paint. An unbelievably ugly plastic chair. A giant-size Vaseline jar. An imitation shrunken head. A plaster “flamenco.” Reader’s Digest. Official Detective. Ricky Nelson Magazine. A TV antenna. A whiskey decanter disguised as a Greek vase. Bunny rabbit decals. Big Bonus stamps. A gilded baby shoe coin bank. Klutch denture adhesive. Plastic-bright artificial fruit. Tiki Joe’s Luau Kit. A plastic red rose in pseudo crystal vase. Three (bad) reproductions of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. An “obscene” ashtray. A large Coke bottle. A box of All. Half-ceramic, half-wooden totem poles. A toy machine gun. A plastic soldier’s helmet. “A roseate and gaudily commercialized” badly-printed stuffed head of Christ. A copy of the American flag printed out of register on flimsy plastic.