Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Donald Barthelme's The Indian Uprising

The Indian Uprising is probably the key Barthelme work, and can illuminate his style and use of narrative structure to best effect. It appears, on first reading, almost meaningless. There are dizzying shifts in subject matter, sometimes within a single sentence. It begins: ‘We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds,’ and yet it is apparent that this is a modern-day city. The opening paragraph concludes with a question to a character called Sylvia: ‘Do you think this is a good life?’ to which she replies: ‘no.’ [1]

A Comanche Indian is being tortured but the narrator ‘sits there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love,’ and asks Sylvia: ‘Do you know Fauré’s Dolly?’ So it continues. The story of the uprising is interplayed with the personal life of the narrator. It is impossible to get any grip on the narrative. Time frames are meaningless. Characters glide in and out of the story with no apparent context. Because he ‘knows nothing’ the narrator is put in touch with Miss R, [2] a teacher who juxtaposes insults and tenderness, seems to give him sage advice, seems to be on his side but in the end betrays him and is seen to be one of the Comanches. We discover that ‘Jane’ who we do not know but assume to be a former lover, has been beaten up by a dwarf. The story continues to shift between the Comanches and the narrator, and at one point adopts the second person: ‘But it is you I want now,’ [3] drawing the readers into a story which so far has resolutely excluded them. If anything, the story gets stranger:

‘What is the situation?’ I asked.
‘The situation is liquid,’ he said. ‘We hold the south quarter and they hold the north quarter. The rest is silence.’
‘And Kenneth?’
‘That girl is not in love with Kenneth,’ Block said frankly. ‘She is in love with his coat.’

… Once I caught Kenneth’s coat going down the stairs by itself but the coat was a trap and inside a Comanche who made a thrust with his short, ugly knife at my leg which buckled and tossed me over the balustrade through a window and into another situation. [4]

At this stage, neither Kenneth nor Block have been introduced and we don’t know who ‘that girl’ is. It is my opinion (but only that, there is no definitive answer) that both Kenneth and Block are alter egos of the narrator, and that the girl is Sylvia. He is telling himself that Sylvia doesn’t love him, but is simply using him (his wealth, presumably, in the guise of the coat.)

But this is all conjecture. Does the story actually mean anything or is it a ‘dull and intellectually disingenuous tale,’ [5] as Schneider says in his vitriolic review? He complains that Barthelme’s apologists are ‘repeatedly stressing it must be understood within contexts that have nothing to do with the work itself.’ This is a narrow argument, one which would deny, for example, the power of 1984 or Gulliver’s Travels or even the parodies of Henry Fielding. The Indian Uprising is classic Barthelme, a collage of moments and episodes cascading on top of one another in a seemingly random fashion. Karl likens its quick cuts to a Godard film, [6] a description with which Barthelme himself concurred, with the additional complication of ‘the introduction of wildly dissimilar material, like commercials.’ [7]

However, the story can be deciphered. It’s important to remember when it was written – 1968, the middle of the Vietnam War, with America split and with increasingly vocal anti-war factions asserting themselves. Therefore, it can perhaps be seen as an ironic comment on the way the war, and war in general, was portrayed in the media. Barthelme says: ‘It was in part, obviously, a response to the Vietnam War.’ But he continues: ‘It was in response to certain things that were going on in my personal life at the time, and a whole lot of other things came together in that story.’ [8]

In other words – and this is the story’s strength as well as its weakness – it is operating at a global/political level and also at a highly personal one. He is using the same metaphor of the uprising to vent his feelings on Vietnam and to chart the break-up of an affair. In the story, the narrator is an older man having an affair with a young, free spirit, Sylvia. Therefore, Barthelme is conflating love and war.

It goes further than that. Barthelme is also using the Comanche raid as a way of examining the ways in which the left were latching onto ‘primitive’ styles (think of ‘Hanoi Jane’ Fonda, although she wasn’t called that until 1972.) The ghetto is ‘on heroin’ but the authorities ignore it, even complicitly assist them. Why? Because the ghetto is where the revolution starts, always, and if they can keep them quiet – through drugs – the status quo can be maintained. Barthelme says of this section:

the heroin is... a political comment on the fact that we allow the heroin traffic in our country to exist… In a way, the heroin traffic is paralleled by the Vietnamese war, so it’s a kind of political comment in the story. [9]

Meanwhile, in the personal strand of the story, the narrator and the much younger Sylvia are having an affair. Right at the start he asks her if she’s enjoying it and she says ‘no.’ Later – it may be the same day, or after a reconciliation – he says: ‘we have many years left to live.’ Her reply, cruel and cutting, is: ‘with luck you may survive until matins.’ [10] Despite this, he still craves her.

He asks Miss R for assistance. She is a schoolmarmish character, alternately abusing him and whispering tender entreaties. She is a complex character, suggesting the agony of uncertainty in the narrator’s mind. Therefore, she may not be real, or Reality, but simply his perception of reality, a shifting, uncertain thing. Miss R likes litany, lists, certainty, the ‘hard, brown, nutlike word.’ [11] The narrator, on the other hand, talks of ‘strings of language extend[ing] in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.’ [12] They are yin and yang.

The story accelerates to its climax. The Indians overrun the city. They ‘tread into the mouth of the mayor.’ In the same paragraph, the narrator and Sylvia are lying in bed but ‘the sickness of the quarrel lies thick.’ [13] He knows it is over between them. The war has seen terrible things, children have been casualties, mistakes have been made. Miss R orders the narrator to remove his belt and shoelaces. What happens next isn’t clear. Tanner talks of defeat spreading through the city, ‘the enemy is real… threat and coercion come in many forms, from many quarters.’ [14] Most reviewers suggest the narrator is about to be tortured. Perhaps he is, or perhaps, because he is going before the ‘Clemency Committee,’ they are saving him from himself. It is for the reader to decide. Whichever, the narrator looks into their ‘savage black eyes, paint, feathers, beads,’ [15] and the story ends.

In this story we see the principal facets of Barthelme’s writing: firstly, the choppy collage effect, a literary equivalent of a Picasso cubist painting, allowing the viewer to see the reality of the portrait from every angle simultaneously. It is what Karl described as:

that ordered and coherent expression of anarchic materials which, when verbalized, will express a visual, aural, imaged reality. That melange of materials reordered for synesthesiac (sic) purposes is Barthelme’s way of presenting America: a design of our life, in arrangements that recall layouts. [16]

Secondly, the fractured, fragmented nature of the text and, in consequence, the human relationships and the world he conjures. We saw that Tanner likened his work to pop art, but that is too shallow a comparison. ‘Can the life of the time be caught in an advertisment?’ [17] Barthelme wrote. Where Warhol put soup cans into art galleries, Barthelme went further and put the detritus of a society into the barricades at the very edge of civilisation. The question – one that Warhol could never imagine asking – is which side of the barricade should he (and we) be on?

Thirdly, and this is greatly overlooked in most analyses of Barthelme, is that, through the undoubted melancholy there is humanist hope in his words. Pynchon suggests:

Barthelme’s was a specifically urban melancholy, related to that look of immunity to joy or even surprise seen in the faces of cab drivers, bartenders, street dealers, city editors, a wearily taken vow to persist beneath the burdens of the day and the terrors of the night. [18]

This was not meant unkindly, (indeed in the same article Pynchon describes Barthelme as having a ‘hopeful and unbitter heart’) but the impression persists that Barthelme’s writing is cold and emotionless. Of course, Barthelme himself often referred to this, for example in an interview with O’Hara when, having been asked what his greatest writing weakness is, he replies: ‘I don’t offer enough emotion.’ [19] That may be the case: certainly, because of mostly non-existent characterisation, it is difficult to get to know or feel involved with many of his creations. And yet, rising above that, there is often a feeling of ambivalent hope in his works. The ending of The Indian Uprising certainly suggests it. So, too, does the resonant ending of Rebecca: ‘One should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm, tympanic page.’ [20]

That is classic Barthelme. It feels like a truism, but at the last moment he manages to subvert it into something more strange and more lovely. There is an aura of hopeful melancholy about the best of his writing which, even when he is at his opaque best (or worst) is beautifully human.

Ultimately, however, The Indian Uprising must be considered a flawed work. The conflation of contrasting ideas – a typically Barthelmian trait, as we shall explore – is interesting. Love and war being described through the same central metaphor, for example, is fascinating, and yet it means that the story becomes cluttered. It has no single, central theme. It is trying to say too much. This is where his structural anarchy fails him: points can be made, but not with a force which resonates. The work remains memorable for some magnificent lines, for its inspired invention, and one can perhaps forgive the ‘disconcerting slippage of sense,’ [21] but, as Gass points out Barthelme’s ‘blessed method is everything.’ [22] Gass meant this in praise, but it can only truly be a weakness if it means the story fails to convey its point to the maximum.


[I have removed the references to deter plagiarists. If you want a specific reference, let me know.]

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