Donald Barthelme | Critical Essay by Patrick O'Donnell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Donald Barthelme.
This section contains 3,989 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Patrick O'Donnell

Critical Essay by Patrick O'Donnell

SOURCE: "Living Arrangements: On Donald Barthelme's Paradise," in Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, edited by Richard F. Patteson, G. K. Hall, 1992. pp. 208-16.

In the following essay, O'Donnell illustrates how Barthelme comments on various aspects of contemporary life and society in Paradise.

      Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
      The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
      Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
      The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
      A part of labor and a part of pain,
      And next in glory to enduring love,
      Not this dividing and indifferent blue.
                  —Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning"

Donald Barthelme's third novel. Paradise (1986), is, perhaps, his least-read and most disregarded work. Poorly received by many reviewers, it appears to be Barthelme's failed attempt to write in a more traditional novelistic mode. Even at that, its status as a novel remains questionable, as it is, conceivably, a patchwork of more recognizably Barthelmean short fictions (such as the exchanges between the protagonist, Simon, and his physician scattered throughout Paradise, and collated in the story "Basil from Her Garden" previously published in the New Yorker) cobbled together to form a series of interrelated vignettes of uneven intensity and quality. In Paradise, there is, ostensibly, a more conventional narrative situation than can be found in Snow White or The Dead Father. Here, those familiar bourgeois subjects of the traditional novel—middle age, adultery, marriage, and domesticity—are at issue, and the autobiographical elements of the novel are foregrounded (Simon is a Philadelphia architect; he has experienced a failed marriage and is recently divorced; he is taking a sabbatical from marriage in Manhattan) while its fabulistic qualities are largely confined to Simon's dreams. And while the major events of Paradise may arise from the projection of a male fantasy (three beautiful young women, looking for a temporary residence, move in with Simon for eight months), there is such a lack of causality in this "utopian" vision as to intimate the careless, unmotivated, ironic "realism" we associate with Woody Allen's representations of contemporary heterosexuality. The "paradise" of Simon's ménage à quatre is as ordinary as one could imagine, as the novel consists largely of whimsical, everyday conversations between Simon and the women, scenes of cooking, concerns about housecleaning, and so on. Yet, despite its somewhat unexpected nature, this ignored novel reflects upon certain formal issues that rejoin Barthelme's important, characteristic concern with "living arrangements" in postmodern society—a concern that reveals his profound skepticism regarding the permanence of human relations matched by a desire for order and continuity in an environment where order and repression are equals.

As these preliminary comments indicate, Paradise may be regarded as a compilation of Barthelmean forms (the "Q and A" dialogue, the minimally absurdist dream, vignettes of domesticity cast within the fantasy framework of one man living with three beautiful women) that problematizes "form" itself, converting it into one of the novel's primary subjects. Charles Molesworth has commented that the "typical" Barthelme protagonist "values form over substance, but he is also often defeated by his inability to deal properly with form"; this condition, Molesworth argues, arises from a "longing for the fugitive" that signals "an existential ethos, an awareness that all human desire for permanency remains condemned to frustration, and that to institutionalize means to destroy, though not to do so is to face the same result."

In Paradise, Simon's trade, on the one hand, and his current "lifestyle," on the other—which involves both the extrapolation and undermining of male fantasy—places him solidly in the middle of the dilemma Molesworth describes. As an architect, Simon values structure, repetition, symmetry, yet as "a tattered coat upon a stick," he recognizes that the preservation of form which architecture represents is analogous to the mummification of life, to death. Trapped within an entropic body ("Getting old, Simon. Not so limber, dear friend, time for the bone factory? The little blue van. Your hands are covered with pepperoni. Your knees predict your face. Your back stabs you, on the left side, twice a day. The belly's been discussed. The soul's shrinking to a microdot. We're ordering your rocking chair, size 42″), Simon has "settled for being a competent, sometimes inventive architect with a tragic sense of brick." For him, the resistant medium of his art assumes tragic form because of its permanence—a form that will "stand" (unlike the body) the mock the transitoriness of human corporeality, but one that does not "live."

The paradox of his occupation bespeaks the paradox of his life, where the cyclical and formal features of existence—often perceived as the guarantors of continuance and renewal—have become, in their "institutionalization," the signs of paralysis and advancing death. Marriage, Simon says, is an "architectural problem": "If we could live in separate houses, and visit each other when we felt particularly gay," as if gaiety could be "housed" in any manner. Jazz, his favorite kind of music and, here, as throughout Barthelme's fiction, representing the grafting of improvisation and spontaneity to mercurial form, is important to Simon both because of its rich singularity (in individual musicians) and its historicity or genealogy as a national resource:

He's listening to one of his three radios, this one a brutish black Proton with an outboard second speaker. The announcer is talking about drummers. "Cozy Cole comes straight our of Chick Webb," he says. Simon nods in agreement. "Big Sid Catlett. Zutty Singleton, Dave Tough. To go even further back, Baby Dodds. All this before we get to Krupa and Buddy Rich." Simon taxes his memory in an attempt to extract from it the names of ten additional drummers. Louis Bellson. Shelly Manne. Panama Francis. Jo Jones, of course. Kenny Clarke. Elvin Jones. Barrett Deems. Mel Lewis, Charlie Persip. Joe Morello. Next, twenty bass players. Our nation is rich in talent, he thinks.

Simon notes that individual architectural styles, when periodized, can be easily incorporated into larger cycles of fashion and design: "[The glass block] had been popular in the 30s, considered a design cliche in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, and presented itself again in the 80s, fresh as new dung." In each of these instances—marriage, jazz, architecture—Simon maintains an ironic attachment to form or structure—house, genealogy, architectural material. He seems to recognize that the phenomenological "content" of these forms—the gaiety of human relationships; the noise of jazz; the transparency of glass blocks—can only be manifested through some kind of formal arrangement or contextualization, but at the same time, he detests their reduction into mere cliché or formula when they are institutionalized, historicized. In the end, it may be "history" that Simon implicitly fears, or at least that sense of history that reveals itself when one has lived long enough: history as mere repetition where, in the domestic sphere (the realm of Barthelme's fiction), routine patterns of habit, form, and convention are all that survive in the long run. Yet, to reassert the paradox, this is a kind of history that Simon also desires, as his avid pursuit of jazz genealogies and naming would suggest—a history of successions, styles, and orders that can be labeled, variously, as "paternal" or "authorial."

In some sense, Paradise is the portrayal of a projected alternative to this paradoxical condition: it is fantasy given shape and substance, but the "materials" of the male fantasy that Paradise engages suborns its teleology, which includes bringing desire into the realm of domestic order and, thereby, potentially ensuring its continuance and renewal. For Simon and the three women he temporarily lives with (Anne, Dore, and Veronica), there is a kind of rough symmetry to the network of relationships they create as they casually establish the domestic rituals of cooking, conversing, intercourse. In the novel, the trio of women take on a number of stereotyped roles, in a sense, tripling the quantity of the fantasy and "perfecting" it: three mistresses, three graces, three wives. At first, to Simon, it seems (as the women put it to him) like "hog heaven," or the best of both worlds: both guilt-free sexuality and the opportunity to experience the multiplicity of desire, and the calming ordinariness of household order. Indeed, the melding of the libidinous and the symmetrical, desire and domesticity, is so pervasive in Simon's view that his descriptions of his roommates' eroticism often take on, in their variety, the qualities of repetition and banality we usually associate with the quotidian, not the exotic: "White underwear with golden skin. Acres and acres of it. Was it golden? Conventionally described as golden. The color of white birch stained with polyure-thane…. Dressed women, half-dressed women, quarter-dressed women"; or,

Dore is brusque upon awakening, Anne cheerful as a zinnia. Veronica frequently comes to the breakfast table … pale with enthusiasm, for Lohengrin or oyster mushrooms or Pierre Trudeau. They're so lovely that his head whips around when one of them enters the room, exactly in the way one notices a strange woman in the crowd and can't avoid, can't physically avoid, loud and outrageous staring. My senses are being systematically dérégled, he thinks, forgive me, Rimbaud. Dore is relatively tall, Anne not so tall (but they are all tall), Veronica again the middle term. Breasts waver and dip and sway from side to side under t-shirts with messages so much of the moment that Simon doesn't understand a tenth of them …

In this portrayal of breakfast in paradise, the erotic is made symmetrical and sensuality made routine, banal, as contemporary commonplaces—incomprehensible to Simon because of "the generation gap"—mark for him both the women's voluptuousness and his own advancing age.

This conception of a male utopia, in essence, exists as a recapitulation of those orders and anxieties that, implicitly, and however temporarily, should have been transcended and subsumed in the figuration of paradise. When a major component of this male erotic fantasy—the multiple combinations and exchangeability of female sexual partners—is viewed for its repetitions and symmetries, when sensuality reminds Simon of his own anachronicity, then "paradise" must be regarded as a desire for order over desire, even if that architecture has the consequence of "instituting" fantasy. In other terms, the true end of male desire which Paradise reveals is not the entropy of libidinous expression but design, pattern, "author"-ity.

The "Q and A" conversations between Simon and his physician—conversations between men largely focused on the female subjects of "paradise"—and Simon's fairly ordinary dreams, reveal most clearly the lineaments of his provisional Eden. Alan Wilde (reading "Basil From Her Garden") has characterized the conversations, where "Q" is the physician and "A" is Simon, in this manner: "For Q transcendence implies an ordering of the world (as well as a removal from it), a ridding it … of everything that makes life uneven, unpredictable and recalcitrant, whereas for A it is a matter of coming to terms with guilt, anxiety, and thoughts of inadequacy in the world, as it is and as it offers itself to consciousness." However true this may be of the positions taken by Q and A at a certain point in the dialogue, as often happens in Barthelme's Socratic conversations, the interlocutors often exchange positions so that the different views exchanged by Simon and the physician, taken together, articulate the paradox of Simon's dilemma, which, again, is the authorial desire to give form to fantasy or to the world "as it offers itself to consciousness."

In their penultimate conversation, Q spins out a fantasy in which he imagines he is "in Pest Control." He visualizes himself in an immaculate outfit meticulously fumigating the house of "a young wife in jeans and a pink flannel shirt worn outside the jeans." In explicit detail, he imagines the orderly furnishings of the house and his role in maintaining its cleanliness. Finally, "the young wife escorts me to the door, and, in parting, pins a silver medal on my chest and kisses me on both cheeks. Pest Control!" If, as is often the case in Barthelme's stories. Q and A can be seen to make up the self-questioning aspects of a single identity—"a central speaking voice or subject, with a weak sense of identity, constantly seeking refuge in fantasy, word-play or self-pity, endlessly playing games of delusion which barely conceal a terror of failure, loss and disintegration"—thenQ's Pest Control fantasy can stand as an extreme version of Simon's obsession with domestic order, even in the midst of paradise. What constitutes this order? Fastidious attention to detail and the arrangement of physical objects in the world ("I do the study, spraying behing the master's heavy desk on which there is an open copy of the Columbia Encyclopedia, he's been looking up the Seven Years War, 1756–63, yellow highlighting there, and behind the forty five inch RCA television"); ritualistic movement through space ("I point the nozzle of the hose at the baseboards and begin to spray. I spray alongside the refrigerator, alongside the gas range, under the sink, and behind the kitchen table. Next, I move to the bathrooms, pumping and spraying"); logical supposition based upon empirical evidence ("Finally I spray the laundry room with its big white washer and dryer, and behind the folding table stacked with sheets and towels already folded. Who folds? I surmise that she folds. Unless one of the older children, pressed into service. In my experience they are unlikely to fold. Maybe the au pair"). Simon longs for the Newtonian world of the eighteenth-century rationalist, but as this vision and his dreams suggest, this is an order which both "includes" a barely repressed version of a cliched male sexual fantasy ("pumping and spraying"; "a young wife"), along with the implicit forcefulness or violence that seems to inevitably accompany it ("The master bedroom requires just touches, like perfume behind the ears, short bursts in her closet which must avoid the two dozen pair of shoes there and in his closet which contains six to eight long guns in canvas cases").

In his dreams. Simon reiterates the dialectic of control and disorder, cleanliness and pestilence in situations where the "irrationality" of personal assault and the outbreak of violence form continual threats to the installments of dream and dreamer. After the women have left him (the novel is cast in the mode of recollection), Simon begins to dream

with new intensity. He dreamed that he was a slave on a leper island, required to clean the latrines and pile up dirty-white shell for the roads, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrowful, then rake the shell smooth and jump up and down on it until it was packed solid. The lepers did not allow him to wear shoes, only white athletic socks, and he had a difficult time finding a pair that matched. The leper, a man who seemed to be named Al, embraced him repeatedly and tried repeatedly to spit in his mouth.

In this ironic "nightmare," Simon is a comic Sisyphus condemned to sanitize (make sane?) a world of physical decrepitude, and to be continually confronted with the passion and violence of that world's chief embodiment. Simon confesses to Q that he seems to be suffering from an abnormally distended succession of nightmares, most of which seems to involve his inability to put his clothes on correctly or (as in the dream of the leper island) to find his socks. He often has more than one dream a night and recalls them as seemingly unrelated scenes or vignettes: "In the first dream he was grabbed by three or four cops for firing a chrome .45 randomly in the street…. In the second dream he awoke sitting on a lounge in a hotel lobby wearing pants and shoes but bare-chested…. He couldn't find a shirt. His mother came out of a closet and asked him to be a little quieter." In such dreams, where maintaining control is the central issue, Simon negotiates the "logic" of the anxieties that beset him, which is also the logic he uses in projecting "paradise." Living in a world where random or planned violence threatens to burst forth, and where Simon fears his bodily erosion, literally, loss of command over bodily functions (intimated by dreams about his inability to clothe himself), the solution—to project a daytime vision where domestic order and eros commingle, the wild energy and gaiety of the latter harnessed to the comforting rituals and institutions of the former—seems self-evident.

Yet what Simon's seemingly casual, unplanned living arrangements exclude or repress, and what his dreams clearly suggest is that the ends of "paradise"—the forestalling of the dissolution of (male) corporeal identity, the maintenance of rational order and control over one's "space," the fantasy of eternal potency—include the means of violence. Like all of Barthelme's fiction, Paradise is humorous, ironic, parodic; yet there is a strong undertow of violence in the novel that gives it a more "sociological" dimension, especially in its depictions of violence toward or the abuse of women. Dore bears a scar from a knife wound administered by a former husband who cut her in the act of "'explaining himself.'" For unknown reasons, a complete stranger—a Vietnam veteran—walks up to Veronica in a market and slaps her; moreover, Anne reveals to Simon that Veronica "got knocked around a lot as a kind," a series of events Veronica herself typifies: "'He used a rolled up newspaper … what you'd use on a dog. Only he put his back into it, when I was twelve and thirteen and fourteen.'" At one point, Simon witnesses two men beating up a female cop. Simon recounts, or projects, other scenes of violence amidst his recollections of paradise: his wife's Caesarean ("The doctor's name was Zernike and he had a pair of large dull-steel forceps inside the birth canal and was grappling for purchase. The instrument looked to Simon, who knew something of the weight and force of tools, capable of shattering the baby's head in an instant"); his own imagined vulnerability with the women ("Q: These women spread out before you like lotus blossoms…. A: More like anthills. Splendid, stinging anthills…. Q: The ants are plunging toothpicks into your scrotum, as it were. As they withdraw the toothpicks, little pieces of flesh like shreds of ground beef adhere to the toothpicks. A: Very much like that. How did you know?"). In all of these instances except the last (which is the projection, not the realization of an anxiety) the enforcers or victims of what might be termed "male cultural institutions" are behind the violence: fathers, husbands, ex-soldiers, and doctors seem to be responsible for the inflictions of force upon female subjects in Paradise.

Perhaps it might be argued, as Simon implicitly argues to himself, that he offers the three women a safe, if temporary, haven from a violent, hostile "reality": in return, they offer him erotic renewal and good conversation. But as I have suggested, the very installment of "paradise"—its formation—rests upon the sanitizing or repression of those elements of force, violence, or culturally perceived eroticism that are part of its constitution, and which, fended off, return in dream and recollection. What is forestalled in paradise?

Simon was a way-station, a bed-and-breakfast, a youth hostel, a staging area, a C-141 with the jumpers of the 82nd Airborne lined up at the door. There was no place in the world for these women that he loved, no good place. They could join the underemployed half-crazed demi-poor, or they could be wives, those were the choices. The universities offered another path but one they were not likely to take. The universities were something Simon believed in (of course! he was a beneficiary) but there was among the women an animus toward the process that would probably never be overcome, not only inpatience but a real loathing, whose source he did not really understand.

These beautiful, tall, "perfect" women are the products of desire, and their choices are limited to marginalization or institutionalization within the very cultural organizations (marriage, the university) that either articulate them as "permanent," domestic objects of desire or, as Simon realizes in the case of the university, are intimately linked to the militarism that is simply the most highly organized form of violence that has threatened them in other male cultural institutions: "Simon had opposed the Vietnam War in all possible ways short of self-immolation but could not deny that it was a war constructed by people who had labored through Psychology I, II, III, and IV and Main Currents of Western Thought." Simon's paradise is no haven at all from this bleak future for, as we have seen, it reproduces the women as the locus of cultural order, on the one hand, and organized eroticism (i.e., prostitution) on the other. Nor is it a haven for Simon himself, however joyful and gay its separate banalized moments, since the events that take place within paradise serve as a constant reminder of his mortality, the artificial (domesticated, structured) and, thus, impermanent form of his own identity. As in the case with architecture, Simon's paradise is ultimately an agonized quest for permanent form using imperfect, time-bound, culture-bound and culturally constrained materials.

In Paradise, Barthelme reveals most fully his acknowledgment that the modernist aesthetic quest for form matched with the attempt to maintain the identity of the artist is inflected with certain social and political consequences that comply with prevailing orders. Indeed, much of his fiction is an attempt to break down or break up the connection between form and identity that conservative modernism assumed to be innocent of these consequences. In Paradise, we see that he confronts the two dominating impulses of the modern (and, since he is careful to identify it in terms of gender in this novel, male) psyche: rational singularity of form and erotic multiplicity. These impulses can only be "managed" through banalization or force threatening to become violent, specifically in Paradise, violence toward women largely promulgated through social agency. Here, the preservation of male identity or the defense against anxieties about its dissolution seems to demand the continuance of the status quo disguised as erotic festival, vacation from marriage. In Paradise, what might be nostalgically termed man's individual freedom is played out within the confinements of the institutional orders that dictate both the nature of desire and legitimate its often violent deployments. As Vincent Pecora has argued, the autonomous self in modernist narrative, seeking absolute freedom from all social and cultural orders, ends up reduplicating them as part of "the nature of identity": "the discourse of the autonomous individual … is historically made possible by the reifications of consciousness produced in a capitalist market economy; but the unerring tendency of that discourse, even in its self-critical attempts to break through the mystifications circumscribing it, is a reproduction within consciousness of the division and organization of economic life that only increases its susceptibility to manipulation and control by monopolistic or authoritarian administration." Thus Simon, in his recounting, naively reinstitutes domestic order in the household even as he indulges in the fantasy of sexual freedom in a realm dominated, if only numerically, by women. As much as Barthelme's oeuvre resists and critiques this state of affairs, it also—in its fascination with material productions, its concern with the breakdown or continuance of identity, and its paradoxically continuous use and deconstruction of received generic forms—partakes of it.

Paradise, then, stands as Barthelme's most extensive reflection on the state of art and the artist in postmodern culture. It is a book about mortality: not one that, as do the lines from Stevens' "Sunday Morning," celebrate the permanent impermanence of life as our only parousia, but one that limns the conditions of our mortal existence as historical beings. The artist seeks to escape these conditions, but his art remakes them, even, and especially, when it comes to Utopias. Barthelme's distinctly antiutopian sky is not indifferent—for that would be to attribute to it something beyond ourselves—but it is a dividing blue, in that, for him, what occurs "down here" is of our own doing, the extension of our own desire for order and control. With characteristic irony, he asks in Paradise, "but what else could we do, given our models of heaven"?

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