Barthelme treated the short story genre as a medium for improvisation, shifting his style and subject as he wanted to. (Image via The Paris Review)

The 3 Donald Barthelme Short Stories That Most Reflect His Style

Not all literature has to focus on doom and gloom, nor does it really have to make much sense.

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Not all literature has to focus on doom and gloom, nor does it really have to make much sense.

To many, Donald Barthelme’s writing signifies a celebration of the strange and outrageous.

And in many ways, this assertion is correct. Barthelme’s stories are not concerned with imitating reality, but rather celebrating it. What’s the difference? If you pick up any one of his short stories, you’ll immediately find that all is not normal and the boundaries of possibility are pushed as far as they can go, sometimes beyond the limits of reality. And yet, by the end of each story, readers can be assured that they are taking away some tidbit of knowledge that informs their everyday experiences.

Part of Barthelme’s writing reputation included not quite fitting into any certain category or genre. The man wrote whatever his pen led him to write and wasn’t so preoccupied with keeping up any kind of image. If you’re any kind of artist, you might understand the same pressures that come with developing your own voice and style, but take a lesson from this author: Your work can simply be what you want to create.

Not convinced that Barthelme’s fun and bizarre stories are for you? Here are three suggestions to get you started on the path to becoming a fan.

1. “I Bought a Little City”

Like many of Barthelme’s stories, this one begins right in the middle of a bizarre premise that spirals into hilarity. The narrator informs the reader that he bought a “little” city, which turns out to be a very large city: Galveston, Texas. He says he’s only going to change it gradually, right before he tears down a whole section of houses and turns them into a park.

He also decides, as the owner of the city, to shoot 6,000 dogs, leaving the dog population at 165,000 in the town, which is nearly double the human population. Innovations like these are meant to improve the city, but only seem to create more conflict until the narrator decides that he must sell the city and move on.

Sound crazy? It is. But woven in the details of this story are little truths that the audience will likely have felt themselves. Right before he begins changing everything, the narrator says, “It suited me fine, so I started to change it.” At first, the line might seem unusual and simply a humorous quip. But the truth is that you might also experience those antsy feelings in your own life when you feel suited to a certain habit, or even a certain person. It sounds ridiculous, but Barthelme’s stories often present these analyses of society and the human person.

A portrait of Donald Barthelme by Elaine de Kooning. The author was well respected in the artistic circles of his time. (Image via Curiator)

2. “The Balloon”

In this short story, the narrator describes an art piece he creates. It’s a large balloon that grows and grows until it covers over 40 blocks of Manhattan. The reason for the balloon or the meaning behind it is unknown throughout most of the story. Instead the reader gets a series of descriptions about the balloon, both how children played on it and what critics thought of it. The story feels very much like a collection of oddities surrounding the balloon, like a collage, which is often Barthelme’s aesthetic.

Many people reading this story might grow annoyed, wondering what the heck is going on and why anyone would care about a story as ridiculous as one about a giant balloon demonstration. But in the last paragraph of this very short story, the narrator reveals the real reason behind the balloon. He describes that it has to do with his lover, who he missed, and how he could blow up a balloon again if she ever left or if they argued.

In the matter of a few sentences, Barthelme turns from the absolute preposterous to a sentimental idea about love and the nature of missing a loved one, making this story charming as well as impressive.

3. “Rebecca”

By the time you read “Rebecca” you’ll have to have come to understand that most of the details of Barthelme’s stories are not meant to be taken seriously, but the repercussions of these details are meant in earnest.

In the story, a girl named Rebecca Lizard mourns the fact that she can’t change her name. She takes refuge in Hilda, her lover, but becomes upset that Hilda had drinks with another woman. The tension of the strange story rises when Hilda honestly tells Rebecca that she does not love her green skin (a ridiculous premise, yes) and Rebecca grows extremely upset.

The story concludes with a question of whether anyone wants to be loved in spite of some flaw that they have. Barthelme makes it seem as if the point of the story will remain unknown, but then states that there are ten reasons the story was written, nine of which are secret but the last is that human love should always be considered no matter what.

If anyone could spin such strange characters into a sweet and touching story, it’s Barthelme. Each tale will have you pleasantly surprised where you end up at the end and remembering the details of the stories long after you’ve closed the book. Much of literature focuses on serious matters, disturbing premises, and dystopian tales. Barthelme might be considered the inverse of this literature; he maintains the strangeness and unfamiliarity that dystopian literature provides but turns these details toward a lightness and humor that’s refreshing and even uplifting.

Sometimes it’s nice to simply be reminded of the pleasure of reading and the fun that can be had with a comical writer who crafts each and every sentence with intent. If you could use a little more lightness in your life, Barthelme’s your man.

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