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JULIAN COWLEY 'weeping map intense activity din': Reading Donald Barthelme A tin frying pan; a hollow-core door in birch veneer on black wroughtiron legs; a woven straw wastebasket; a Yugoslavian carved flute, wood, dark brown - items to be found among the components of a barricade in Donald Barthelme's story 'The Indian Uprising." The specificity of his catalogue discloses rich diversity concealed by the stark, utilitarian designation, 'barricade: in accordance with Barthelme's understanding of the role of art as enrichment and complication of our perception of the world and of our relation to it.2 A movement away from generality towards particularity is characteristic of his varied and unpredictable fiction, and direction of our attention to the particular often involves, necessarily, subversion of the reductive artifice of linguistic construction by means of which we order the barrage of experiential data generated in the culture of mass production and mass media. His work counters the radical Simplifications of our age, and this entails disruption of the contours of 'realist' fiction and its assumption that language has transparency and innocence. Through the interstices of his literary architecture (which is purposefully ramshackle), we may glimpse the writer in action, selecting materials, locating that quirky emphasis upon which the humour and trenchant irony of his fiction largely depend. The composition of Barthelme's stories is undisguisedly an assemblage in print of words and, on occasion, of pictorial images, forming an addition to the world of things. It does not constitute a frame through which to view the processes of living, nor does it furnish a tool for the analytic detection of meaning, but the perceptibility of its mode of construction stimulates an illuminating reflexivity and may assist in our experience of the specific. It conforms to Victor Shklovsky's dictum that 'Art converts the particularity of things into perceptible form.') 'Bone Bubbles' stands as an extreme example of his assembling practice: weeping map intense activity din it weuld be better if we just piled all the stones on the floor crumpled paper wheels out of alignment prints rescued from the inferno beggars writing my article streaked with raisins kept putting things into his mouth.4 Chaos to the eye in search of descriptive or explanatory elucidation of UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 60, NUMBER 2, WINTER 1990h READING DONALD BARTHELME 293 some order beyond the appearance of the actual, but from another angle, uninhibited celebration of the availability of words for intense combinatory activity. There is tension in this piece arising from the coupling of a visual impression of stability - blocks of print on the page - and semantic indeterminacy - the disconcerting slippage of sense. Unfavourably received, this concatenation of unrelated verbal events might be considered to validate inclusion in the collection City Life through its approximation of the noise of a contemporary urban environment: fragmentary, meaningless , discordant. But a reader attuned to the writings ofJohn Cage, or to a work such as his Variations IV, would not consequently wish to dismiss or condemn the assemblage. At times, Barthelme seeks appropriate extension of a literary tradition that aspires to the condition of music, investigating the nature of the information, the kind of knowledge that may be gleaned or conveyed in that way.5 'Bone Bubbles' is made from the words and phrases, the printed phenomena, that are the raw materials of the writer's art, and it is salutary that we should meet them aside from their assimilation into the conventional mechanics of plot and characterization, where they enter another order of reality. ·But as Gertrude Stein discovered in her exploration of compOSitional techniques, the result of juxtaposition is never devoid of meaning, although the meaning thus generated is often beyond the bounds of 'common' sense. Placing words together in unexpected ways, Barthelme invites reading without reference to any fixed interpretative framework, and with minimal constraint from authorial intention. His work is distinct, therefore, from the productions of Surrealism, where juxtapositional strategies are adopted in relation to the Freudian base established by Breton. Although Barthelme has indicated that the illustrations found in certain of his stories owe something to the collage of Max Ernst, they lack in fact the oneiric homogeneity of that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 292-304
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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