Donald Barthelme is among those writers, like Kurt Vonnegut and (please, no laughter) Richard Brautigan, whom I found funny—sometimes brilliantly so—before coming to resent them as one-trick ponies, responsible, albeit indirectly, for much of the dross which passes for humor in today’s literature. Years ago, when McSweeney’s appeared on my radar in website form, I found it funny for a while before getting the sinking feeling that many of its contributors were just “doing” Barthelme, piggybacking on a beloved formula. The consistent deadpan, the jarring concatenation of allusions and non sequiturs, the compulsive goofiness: It was déjà vu. It was depressing.
James Wolcott’s brilliant essay on Barthelme articulates perfectly the pleasures and limitations of his fiction. Having read it, I’m prepared to admit that I’ve been too hard on Don B. and his acolytes (not that they care one way or the other). How could they have resisted the influence of what they so thoroughly enjoyed in Barthelme’s work? To hear Wolcott tell it, nobody could escape that pull:
Over the years, Barthelme’s antic break with the traditional tactful manner of the classic New Yorker story, where every stick of furniture and motivation was neatly, firmly in place, would expand into an entire wing of the magazine’s house style. His mastery of incongruity and curveball allusions helped liberate the whiz brains in the office and scramble the genetic code of the magazine’s humor and fiction irregulars: By the ’70s, the set-piece fictions and “casuals” of Ian Frazier, Veronica Geng, Mark Singer, Marshall Brickman, and George W. S. Trow abounded with absurdist dialogues, box scores, chess notations, chicken-scratch scribblings, send-ups of familiar minigenres (liner notes, movie blurbs, capsule reviews, wedding notices), multiple-choice quizzes, and mash-up satires . . . . They ran riot while Ann Beattie stood slightly off to the side, strumming her hair.
Today, I would hazard (I’ve always wanted to hazard), the track marks of Barthelme’s suave, subversive cunning are to be found less in postmod fiction—although David Foster Wallace’s dense foliage of footnotes suggests a Barthelmean undergrowth and George Saunders’s arcade surrealism has a runaway-nephew quality—than in the conscientiously oddball, studiedly offhand, hiply recherché, mock-anachronistic formalism of McSweeney’s, The Believer, The Crier, and related organs of articulate mumblecore.
I would say to those heirs apparent that my disdain, for what it’s worth, is a classic case of “I’m not mad at you—I’m just disappointed.” They haven’t done the difficult job of dynamiting their idols, our idols, and building something new and superior with the rubble. A few days ago, after reading a string of disappointing “comic novels,” I asked my friends to name the funniest books they’d ever read. The list is growing pretty long—I hope to share it one of these days—but not a single person named a Barthelme collection. Perhaps when the market is flooded with knockoffs, even the Louis Vuitton can start to look a bit phony.