Untoward Stories: A City of Churches / Donald Barthelme

Consideration here of the concept ‘post modern’ writing begins under a cloud of suspicion born of ignorance. Isn’t what is written yesterday or tomorrow about today or tomorrow generally pretty modern? I’m just saying, what could be more ‘modern’ than today? So, how can something even be ‘post-modern’ without being about ‘after today’, which is tomorrow, i.e. futuristic or science-fictional stuff? Since the concept of `modern’ presumably includes the specious ‘now’, how can a `post modern’ artistic event (a story or a painting) happen except after now? As the late George Carlin observed: `Here comes ‘now’. Whoops, it’s gone.’ (sic)

Bit too literal, maybe? Maybe a little fundamental? Okay. Attitude is probably more important than strictly when. Well, duh. Turns out, it’s the same with as with graphics, fine arts and many other disciplines.

Sweeping away this cloud of suspicion born of ignorance, my research partner, Collyne, advises me that in art, if the artist is still alive, the work, as a rule, is considered ‘contemporary’; and that if the artist is dead but created the art after some arbitrary cut-off point defining the ‘modern’ era, post WW II, late Twentieth or early Twenty First Century, it’s ‘modern’. Armed with this knowledge, I bust out my trusty if not always fully documented, admittedly not totally scholarly source (Wikipedia), which takes me right into the thick of it. You’ve got your ‘modern’ literature like T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ or Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the author conducts a search for meaning, and you’ve got your ‘post-modern’ reactive literature (post WW II), in which the author deliberately avoids meaning.

Imagine that.

Relying on `fragmentation, paradox and questionable narrators’, the post-modernist playfully rejects the ‘Enlightenment’ wisdom and earnestness of the modernist’s quest for truth and substitutes parody, disorder or absurdity. Welcome to the world of Samuel Beckett (‘No, no, we can’t go. Why not? We’re waiting for Godot.)” and his number one fan, the ‘father of post-modernism’, Donald Barthelme.

That the underground cultural catchphrase (inspiring a song by Game Theory, covered by REM), What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is forever associated with Barthelme is regrettable, at least to the extent that it allows a footnote incident to distract from the writer’s importance to late 20th Century literature.

Still, the association is instructive.

Barthelme, whose writing focused very much on contemporary culture, no doubt appreciated the irony. The `meaningless’ nature of the ‘Kenneth’ phrase echoes the postmodernist’s aversion to seeking `meaning’ in or through literature. It mocks the very idea of `meaning’, in fact, forcing students of the culture to conclude that the only ‘meaning’ to the footnote incident (in 1986, network news anchor, Dan Rather, was mugged on Park Avenue by a man who kept repeating `What’s the frequency, Kenneth’ over and over again) was the physical assault itself and not later inferences of a connection to the writer through references to Barthelme’s background or his work. (A number of ‘links’ of the ‘Kenneth’ phrase to Barthelme stories were noted in a 2001 article in Harper’s by writer Paul Allman, who wrote that Barthelme and Rather had worked together in Houston and apparently knew each other, and that Barthelme had created a fictional character, a `pompous editor’ named Lather, and also a recurring character named ‘Kenneth’). (Wikipedia)

If Barthelme, who died in 1989, ever commented publically on any of this, I’m not aware of it. He worked as a newspaper reporter in Houston, and taught at several universities in the east including CCNY. He is generally regarded as one of our fine 20th Century American short story writers. His collections include `Come Back, Dr. Caligari’ (1964), Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), `City Life’ (1970), and posthumously Flying to America (2001), among others. He is a co-founder of Fiction Magazine and winner of numerous awards and accolades for writing.

In Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby (1973), Barthelme writes within a deliberate and ostensibly rational framework of uncertainty. Colby, we learn, has “gone too far” but we really don’t know what he actually did, although he admits he went too far and cooperates in his punishment by the group (all men) willingly, indeed, almost cheerfully. In his defense, Colby points out that “everybody went too far sometimes” and he wonders: “weren’t we being a little Draconian?” The narrator, meanwhile, speaks of the preparation as if this were a wedding reception or a dinner party they were planning, not a hanging. There would be drinks ‘before the event’, of course, and invitations ‘would be worded in such a way that the person invited would not know for sure what he was being invited to,’ pretty prudent. Then, there was the gibbet. None of them ‘knew too much about gibbet design, but Tomas, who is an architect, said he’d look it up in old books and draw the plans.’ Then, of course, ‘the question of the hangman came up.’ In the end, it’s noted, in what might be a little plug for Texas-style justice, nobody ever went too far again.

In The Balloon, the writer inflates a very large balloon (covering 45 square blocks of Manhattan) and controls its grip on the psyche of the city). One critic saw the balloon as a metaphor for the uncertain nature of the writer’s ‘post-modern’ fiction, standing for the amorphous nature of the work itself, settled over the city with no function (or meaning) other than to confound and induce speculation among the locals.

       A City of Churches (1974): You have to love a story that lures you in with a perfectly straightforward voice and sets you down right into the middle of an absurdity, leaving you on your own to figure a way out. The absurdity is Prester, a city of churches. Cecelia, the deceptively acquiescent young woman who is the focus of the story, is indeed a heroine in the very best sense of the word. It is her presence that takes the story beyond the ordinary. She nods appreciatively when Mr. Phillips, the real estate man, explains, “—ours is a city of churches all right.” Dropped into the middle of this absurdity just like us, it turns out, Cecilia looks around and sees that the street has way too many churches for sure. Not two or three, as you might expect in a small town, not even five or six, as might be worthy of a sign like Muncie’s, but a dozen or more, all in a row, strung out to the point of absurdity? Not hardly.

She will be expected to live in the church of her choice and to work in a car rental business that is adjunct to another church. Everything in Prester, she learns, every business, every club, every establishment, is affiliated in some way with a church. Moreover, most people in Prester already have a car and it’s highly likely that anybody would ever want to rent a car, Mr. Phillips confides to her, adding it’s not important. What is important is the fact that Cecilia completes the city by stepping into the place they’ve made for her behind the counter of the rental car company. Everything in Prester is about conformity and their desperate need for her to conform.

Of the characters encountered in these three stories, Cecilia is unique. While Colby’s friends engage in the absurdity of planning an upper middle class hanging and Colby goes along, while the folks in New York stand paralyzed in awe and wonder at the omnipresent balloon, not really questioning its presence, only Cecilia acts, taking on the post-modernist absurdity straight up. When cajoling and bribery don’t work, Mr. Phillips tries physical force, grabbing her arm, but Cecilia won’t give in. If they try to force her to conform, she’ll dream ‘the secret’, she says. They’ll be sorry. (What could the secret be in a city of churches?) “There is nothing you can do,” Mr. Phillips says, but Cecilia knows better.

“Wait and see,” she says.