Then, of course, there was “The Balloon,” one of Barthelme’s most reprinted and celebrated stories, which assembles roughly five pages of public commentary on the appearance of a non-specifically described balloon that appears above Manhattan’s 14th Street (“the exact location of which I cannot reveal”) and “expanded northward.” And while the balloon elicits much “public warmth” from “ordinary citizens,” the critical reaction bristles with complications:
The meaninglessness of personal life extends everywhere-into ilies, careers, cities, politics, and even the sky-across which Barthelme’s balloon-image of everythingness soars free from everything except human interpretation. His characters go looking to meet women at Manhattan loft parties where they encounter King Kong being groomed by his girlfriend, Cynthia Garmonsway. (“Cynthia formerly believed in the ‘enormous diversity of things’; now she believes in Kong.”)
And they often find themselves losing ground in systems of relationships that seem like surreal versions of musical chairs-every time the music stops, there are either fewer chairs or fewer players
In “City Life,” he charts the multitudinous relationships that come spinning out of Elsa and Ramona’s arrival to “the complicated city,” which involves their potential partners Jacques and Charles, a fireman named Vercingetorix, and a blues singer named Moonbelly, who achieves some commercial success with his hit record, “Cities Are Centers of Copulation.” When Ramona gives birth to a boy, she avoids the problem of assigning paternity by claiming it’s just “an ordinary virgin birth.” And yet however much Ramona tries to “soft-pedal” the idea, people “persisted in getting excited about it.” In Barthelme’s stories, love isn’t an act between two people; it’s a sort of sociopolitical riot.
But even when the stories bear some semblance to what readers might think an ordinary story looks like (wherever the hell that is), Barthelme never stops banging around and smashing and rearranging his words into sentences and his sentences into paragraphs until there’s hardly a predictable phrase or syntactical arrangement in sight, as if he was roving through traditional grammar textbooks with a wooden mallet and sticking the broken shards in attractive little configurations with anonymous white paste from a child’s school art project. Every passage is a form of play-the play of the author with the reader, the play of the reader with each weird little contraption of story, and the inevitable play of readers with one another. (“What the hell did the balloon represent?” “Maybe it didn’t represent anything!” “Maybe it did!”)
As Barthelme iterated in various interviews and essays at various times: “Writing should be playing, you know.” And it was his blithe addition of “you know” that made it clear he didn’t consider there was any other way to write. His stories are like magpie nests of brightly gleaming oddities and mismatched subjects. And while the stories were always surreal, they dealt with mundane realities: the inhospitality of men to women (and vice versa); the boring and inexplicable nature of most jobs and professions; and the unpredictability of everyday life, which leads to a sense of almost exhausted irony on the part of Barthelme’s protagonists.
At its worst, Barthelme’s quirkiness can wear you down, and reading a massive collection of Barthelme in one dense LOA volume like this might, at times, feel like a terrible responsibility. Each story features so many elisions, random juxtapositions, and broken categories of meaning that even the swift clear sense of narrative closure that usually arrives in the final paragraph can’t prevent a BHM Dating-app reader from thinking: OK, that was amusing. So what?
And while the political nature of Barthelme’s fiction doesn’t grow much more elaborate than ironic commentary on urban consumer culture, it’s hard to read any of his stories without laughing, or smiling, or maybe doing a little of both
Barthelme’s may be a meaningless world, but it is not an unbelievable one, especially coming out of the consumer-mad 1960s and ’70s, when everybody was filling their homes with junk they didn’t need. Friends recalled that when he wrote, he typed away happily, laughing out loud as he wrote; and it is one of the pleasures of reading him that our pleasures feel like they’re being shared with the now dead author.