A few months before Donald Barthelme’s “Game” appeared in the July 31, 1965, issue of The New Yorker, a cloud moved over Los Angeles. The cloud originated in Jackass Flats, Nevada, born from a nuclear rocket test. The Atomic Energy Commission wanted a “controlled excursion.” That excursion rode hundreds of miles before drifting into the ocean.
This was the era of Dr. Strangelove. A time when hundreds of kilograms of Uranium-235 went missing from a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. The years when American B-52s secretly flew above Europe, hydrogen bombs at the ready, first strike only a moment away.
In a 1982 interview, Barthelme captured the sentiment that charged “Game.” His words could apply to the Cold War, as well as our painful present: “The doomsday clock has been set up a few notches, I gather. The way our present government is talking is absolutely mad.”
“Game,” reprinted in Sixty Stories, is a paranoid, recursive, claustrophobic, uncomfortable tale. It takes place a single room. Shotwell and the narrator are two military officers stuck in an underground bunker “in Utah, Montana or Idaho” for 133 days, “owing to an oversight.” They are bored; they are frustrated. Shotwell is stubborn. He plays jacks but does not let the narrator join the game. The narrator wants the jacks, but Shotwell stuffs them into his attaché case.
This double game—a game of hiding a game—continues as they watch the console. They both are outfitted with .45s, along with hidden backup pistols, and are supposed to shoot “if the other is behaving strangely.” They are strange from the first word to the final word of the story, but strangeness is relative in Barthelme’s box of a story.
Their job is significant: If “certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys.” They are to release the “bird,” the missile that will destroy a city. It is a hypothetical situation. It never happens. But it could, and its possibility is the story’s profluence. Barthelme’s recursive tale moves between several repeated signs—birds, guns, attaché case—but I am most drawn to its anomalies, its variables.
A great short story has a pulse. A great short story is tightly wound—no wasted words or breaths—but a great short story has new contours when we return to it. I first read “Game” in the basement of a university library, among the dark stacks of nearly discarded issues of Popular Mechanics. But now, even reading the story in a brightly lit classroom, I can still appreciate how the bunker’s “pale green reinforced concrete walls sweat and the air conditioning zips on and off erratically.” Anaphoric, with the occasional aside and quirk, his sentences are like incantations—liturgical, even (not surprising—although he later lapsed, Barthelme had a nostalgia for Catholicism cultivated by his years at St. Thomas High School in Houston; think James Joyce sneaking into the back of churches, sentimentality tempering one’s skepticism).
The narrator wonders if they are subjects of an experiment. Maybe. But we the readers are the experiment, so often, in Barthelme’s fiction. He pushes and strains the expectations we have for fiction. He asks us to play his game, with his rules. What is the syntax of a mind gone mad? Not just any mind—soldiers who can destroy cities. Mass destruction, “Game” suggests, is always in the wrong hands—because such power stains the soul.
In Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound, Helen Moore Barthelme said that her ex-husband claimed the story had touched an official nerve: “According to Don, ‘Game’ evidently stirred considerable interest among the military. He said that ‘Game’ had knocked them all for a loop in the Pentagon, but ‘not because it was true.’ He later told me that although the story caused a small furor, he heard nothing further about it.”
Neither Shotwell nor the narrator can sleep well at the end of “Game.” Two soldiers, close together and underground, cradle and rock each other to sleep. “Game” is a horror story. It is suffocating, and it is simple. We are in that bunker with these soldiers, and whatever postmodern games Barthelme was playing with language, the result is frightening. Sooner or later, the keys will be turned, and the bird will fly.
Ever since I moved from New York to Tucson seven years ago, I’ve been restless about my reading. Some of my favorite Saturday afternoons in New York were spent wandering from bookstore to bookstore, and I liked the bookseller-favorite recommendation shelves and the back tables that held the off-the-radar titles. I miss browsing for discovery’s sake.
That’s one of the many reasons I decided to start reading the entirety of the PEN/Faulkner nominees, dating all the way back to the 1981 list. My biggest hope was that I would have the browser’s pleasure returned to me, even if the sense of discovery wasn’t really my own; a prize list is a curated one, after all. Three lists and 17 books in, the result has been a mixed bag. For one thing, books by women are scarce and books by writers of color even more so (five women and one African-American writer so far, with the added irony that these books ended up being some of the most intriguing and substantial — so much for tokenism). I’ve also been enjoying how my odd reading project inspires conversation about the books that have stuck around and how much people love or hate them. Like Housekeeping, which holds up superbly on reread and inspires warm coos of approval whenever I mention it, or A Confederacy of Dunces, which I learned not to say much about if I wanted to keep a conversation civil, or Sixty Stories, which made one friend roll her eyes and say, “That’s 59 too many.” On the other hand, there have been genuine and wonderful surprises, like Walter Abish’s entrancing and masterful How German Is It, which I had known only as the lonely, drab unreturnable New Directions paperback with the black-and-white cover on the top shelf of the Brookline Barnes & Noble where I worked years ago. I would scan it every three months with my inventory gun, but I wasn’t curious enough back then to bring it down from the shelf and rescue it with my employee discount. Right now, I’m only halfway through the 1983 list and suspect that, if I had finished it in time, I might have written something about William S. Wilson’s Birthplace: Moving into Nearness, an epistolary novel set on an island long after a nuclear catastrophe. High on style, with lushly disorienting long sentences, it’s a disarmingly complex book, made all the more enticing by its provenance (San Francisco’s North Point Press, from the time before the conglomerates swallowed up all the indies, but that’s another story).
But if “interesting” is the guiding principle here, then I have to choose August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running. My good friend from graduate school, Ken, has a completist’s temperament as well, and it was his idea to read and discuss the entirety of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle (one play about the African-American life for each decade of the 20th century). I went along with it because I know little to nothing about drama and figured I could learn something from a literary art that, at least from my fiction writer’s eye, hangs everything on dialogue and space.
Two Trains Running is set in a Pittsburgh diner in 1969. The date alone is a striking avoidance of the obvious flashpoint of the previous year, a reminder that history might be marked by our major national traumas, yet it is experienced by ordinary people living through the times right after. The central conflict is that of Memphis, the diner’s owner, who is debating what to do in light of the city’s urban renewal schemes. Does he sell or risk losing his property to eminent domain? Everyone has an opinion, from the savvy funeral-home owner West to the philosophical regular Holloway to the numbers-running Wolf, who uses the diner as his central booking site. It took several readings of the play for me to see that it privileges the diner more than characters, that each of the characters casts the space in the regret of past wishes and the urgent, sometimes already frustrated, dreams for the future. Each of the characters, of course, except for one, the fascinating Hambone, who wanders into the diner with his singular and repetitive complaint over his lack of payment for a fence he painted years ago. “I want my ham!”
The play, which I read in the spring, has lingered in my imagination all year, and it’s even withstood what Ken calls August Wilson’s Purple Rain period: “Because, except for Prince, I can’t think of another artist who packs as many punches in a row as he does with Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and The Piano Lesson.” I keep thinking about how sharply Two Trains Running insists upon a plurality of experiences and my rereading keeps me at a constant attention to how the play’s language holds all sorts of tonal ambiguities, just waiting for an actor or a director to draw them out. I’ve been inspired by how the play contrasts the sometimes naïve and boisterous impatience of youth (where the only story that matters is the one that’s happening now) with the pain of stories long held close to the chest (where what we consider “history” is still not powerful enough to muscle out the voices that most need to be heard).
I’m still missing four of the plays (Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, and Radio Golf), but it’s inspiring to experience a writer deeply invested with his community and capable of creating such a panoply of characters, all of them starkly different from each other. The plays have been my new poetry, pieces I can read in a single evening sitting, then reread multiple times, the music deepening with each contemplation. The accomplishment of Wilson’s Cycle is so audacious and impressive that I agree with Ken when he maintains that, had Wilson not died so early, he might have been the writer to break the American Nobel drought. We’re always too quick to believe it’s the fiction writers who have the most to tell us.
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Seeing as the latest Dave Eggers book consists of all dialogue, it’s a good time to look back on the history of all-dialogue novels. Alexander Kalamaroff, writing for The Rumpus, identifies a few examples, among them The Waves by Virginia Woolf and numerous works in Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme.
Putting together a new syllabus reminds me of making mix tapes back in high school, something I really liked to do. I devoted a lot of thought to them, and their purpose was always a proselytizing one: to turn the recipient into a kindred spirit, or at least a fellow traveler. I hoped that if I came up with the right selections and placed them in the right order then the listener would find herself spellbound by songs that in another context might sound simply weird or loud or dated or spooky — and ultimately she would be changed by these songs, as I had been, and together we would see the world in a different light.
A syllabus offers me a lot of the same hope and pleasure that a mix tape once did, and this year all of my hopes were met, and more. The focus of this particular syllabus was experimental fictobiography (a clumsy term for a fluid form), and I wanted to include works that I not only loved but that also demonstrated a variety of methods for telling the story of a “real” person’s life: collage, verse, photographs, fragments, rebuses, found texts, etc.
The reading list looked like this:
Kathryn Davis: Versailles
Donald Barthelme: “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” and “Cortés and Montezuma” from Sixty Stories
Anne Carson: “The Glass Essay” from Glass, Irony, and God
Michael Ondaatje: Coming Through Slaughter
Anna Joy Springer: “Kathy Acker’s Mystickle Snail and Bone Pedagogy” from Encyclopedia Vol 1 A-E
W. G. Sebald: The Emigrants
Todd Haynes: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Jonathan Coe: Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson
John Haskell: I am not Jackson Pollock
And I don’t know exactly why, but this turned out to be the best mix tape I ever made. Somehow the possibilities suggested by these texts gave rise to the most surprising and beautiful work I’ve seen in a writing class. Students were writing about subjects ranging from Helen Keller and John Hinckley, Jr. and Messalina to Amie Huguenard (girlfriend of Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell) and Alisha Klass (gonzo porn star) and Bando Tamasaburo (kabuki actor), and doing so with supreme confidence and insight and adventurousness. Never before has one of my syllabi (or my mix tapes) brought forth this sort of thrilling response. It made for a year of elated reading.
Recommended Collections:The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart DybekDybek owns a specific part of the literary universe, a several square-block section of the south side of Chicago. He focuses on that, hones it, and reproduces it beautifully. His stories – sentimental (but not sappy), funny, and moving – describe a world where cultures and generations rub against each other, sometimes producing sparks. If you don’t read collections in order, or if you happen upon Dybek’s stories in an anthology, start with “Hot Ice,” “Pet Milk,” or “Orchids.”Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. GassBoth of these are challenging collections, or at least they were for me, yet both are also adventurous and mind-altering. Barthelme, who has experienced a renaissance of late, did more with the form of the story than anyone I can think of. His stories – brief, wild, audacious – will cure whatever boredom might have possessed you. Gass’ stories, typically quite long, describe the emotionally bleak and unforgiving Midwest, with its brief moments of untold beauty buried within quotidian horrors. At one moment, a Gass character might be counting the peas in his pot pie; in the next, he’s contemplating freedom in the backyard. The titular story contains what is, at the moment, my favorite sentence: “It’s true there are moments–foolish moments, ecstasy on a tree stump–when I’m all but gone, scattered I like to think like seed, for I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween.”Recommended Stories:”The Christian Roommates” from Early Stories by John UpdikeAn ode to the classic freshman double. This story pretty much was my first year of college. I played it pretty straight in high school, and had my mind completely blown open by all the nuts I met in school, including my freshman roommate [God bless you, Glen, you beautiful bastard]. Updike captures that so well that the first time I read this, I couldn’t believe it had been written before I was born.”The Fall of Edward Barnard” from The Collected Stories of W. Somerset MaughamSort of a precursor to The Razor’s Edge, this is the story of a man who goes to Tahiti to find his best friend, Edward Barnard, who’s fallen off the grid and who also happens to be engaged to his best friend. I spent two years of my life trying to adapt this story for the screen to no avail. If I were pressed, I’d say this is my favorite story.