Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Barthelme and Pynchon

Winfried Fluck, comparing Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme:
The case is different [from Pynchon] in the work of Barthelme which is, in certain ways, the more experimental of the two but also the less rewarding in terms of aesthetic experience. Barthelme's work is more radical because it acknowledges the linguistic arbitrariness of world-making even more strongly than Pynchon and thereby takes away the last suggestions of meaningfulness and depth on which Pynchon's texts still thrive. Barthelme's art is one strictly of the linguistic surface; consequently, a story such as "The Glass Mountain," a parody of the search for the holy grail, consists of a collage of 100 divergent, arbitrarily connected paragraphs, in which the sacred and the profane, the medieval world of quests and the vulgar life and lingo of contemporary New York are intertwined in order to foreground the linguistic logic of textual world-making.
Hmmm. I suspect I may be in a minority here, in preferring Barthelme to Pynchon, who I've always rather struggled with. I like Barthelme. I remember having an up-and-downer of an argument with my old writing tutor, Alex Keegan, about "An Indian Uprising." Of course, Alex is always right, and I accept that, but he wasn't on this occasion. And I don't agree with Fluck when she says Barthelme's writing "takes away the last suggestions of meaningfulness and depth". Certainly, his work demonstrates "the linguistic arbitrariness of world-making" but it doesn't follow that the result is a loss of meaning and depth. "An Indian Uprising" still resonates with me long after supposedly better stories have faded. I find it an extraordinary story, and the arbitrary world it evokes seems to be absolutely full of meaning and depth. I re-read it every few months and luxuriate in its strangeness and abstraction. Accusing Barthelme's writing of showing only "linguistic surface" seems to me to do it a disservice.

Pynchon, on the other hand, always feels like hard work to me. Perhaps I should try him again. The Crying of Lot 49, perhaps, since its short...

5 comments:

Jim H. said...

Winfried Fluck sounds like a Pynchonian or even a Barthelmean name for a Pynchon critic, no?

Many, many Barthelme stories resonate. And it's been years since reading any, particularly Indians. You make me want to reread—as the Salinger documentary (which I saw this weekend) makes me want to reread "For Esme, With Love and Squalor" and Franny and Zooey.

B & P are different pleasures. I have Bleeding Edge nearing the top of my reading pile even as we speak. There's something to be said for outliving one's rivals.

Tom Conoboy said...

Haha, you're right it does!

Funnily enough, I've been thinking of Franny and Zooey recently as well, because of Salinger being in the news. Might see if I can find my copy.

Jim H. said...

The movie informs that he completed 5 books before dying and left instructions to his literary trust to parcel out their releases beginning 2014 or -15. A novel and some more stories re the Glass family. A religious thingy—Vedanta-inspired. Some sort of memoir.

Tom Conoboy said...

Yes, I've read about the new stuff. I have to say I'm nervous about it. Usually, when stuff hasn't been published, there's a good reason for it. In this case, that reason may just be that Salinger was a bit of a strange one, but the quality of the work may be questionable.

I generally think it's best not publishing stuff afterwards. There's a whole heap of Kafka stuff that may emerge if they can find a way through the legal wrangling. Would any of it add to his existing body of work?

And wouldn't it be terrible if a load of new Harper Lee stuff emerged after she dies? It's probably best leaving the legacy as it is.

Although if I was the inheritor of the Salinger estate I may think differently....

Jim H. said...

That implicates another of the movie's points, to wit: JDS was a perfectionist in his writing. Down to the commas. One of his ex-wife's talked about seeing manuscripts in a safe with markings signaling what was finished and what required further revision. She and others claimed he wrote practically full time.

He became publishing-shy after three separate assassins cited "Catcher" as their reason. I suppose if someone had killed John Lennon and another shot Pres. Reagan (and I forget the third, in California IIRC) and blamed it on a misreading or misunderstanding of one of my own novels, I would retreat from the world as well to lick those wounds and might not allow any of my work to see the light of day until I was long out of the way of any blame as well.

Who's to say how the new work will be? Who's to say, even after it comes out, how it will be received? Even 65 or so years after 'Catcher' there's still plenty of love (and some serious hate) for the man. It will certainly register—a literary event of galactic proportions no doubt.