Gass and Barthelme (tiny dissertation excerpt)

As most of you know, I’ve been neglecting to post on Ghost Island because the vast majority of my critical writerly energies are going to work on my increasingly sprawling and unruly dissertation.

In the hope that there is some crossover interest between readers of this blog and my intended dissertation audience, I’m going to sometimes post some excerpts of my draft if and when they feel like they make sense cut out of context.

Here’s a short one from the chapter on Donald Barthelme’s book, The Dead Father:

William Gass, in a review of Barthelme’s collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, observed that,

Dreck, trash and stuffing: these are [Barthelme’s] primary materials. But not altogether. There is war and suffering, love and hope and cruelty. He hopes, as he says in the new volume, “these souvenirs will merge into something meaningful.” But first her renders everything as meaningless as it appears to be in ordinary modern life by abolishing distinctions and putting everything in the present. He constructs a single plane of truth, of relevance, of style, of value – a flatland junkyard – since anything dropped in the dreck is dreck, at once, as an uneaten porkchop mislaid in the garbage.

This analysis is as true for The Dead Father as it is for Barthelme’s stories. Of course, this does not mean simply that the beautiful, meaningful, and affecting aspects of his fiction are simply devalued and stripped of their power to impact the reader. That he works with trash does not make of Barthelme’s books undifferentiated garbage fields. Barthelme, Gass argues, “has the art to make a treasure out of trash to see out from inside it, the world as it’s faceted by colored jewelglass[.] A seriousness about his subject is sometimes wanting. When this obtains, the result is grim, and grimly overwhelming.” Here and elsewhere in his essay, Gass draws his readers’ attention to various “treasures” and “grimly overwhelming” passages Barthelme has assembled. These are often short outcroppings of text – a sentence, a paragraph – in which Barthelme’s freewheeling play in his piles of language-dreck crystalizes into a stunning moment, some heavy, arresting instance of art not so much shining through as arriving, unexpected and inevitable.

Note: The Gass quotes are drawn from the essay The Leading Edge of the Trash Phenomenon, which is found in his book Fiction and the Figures of Life.


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