s.penkevich's Reviews > Sixty Stories

Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme
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Oct 15, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: short-story, pynchonesque, po-mo
Recommended to s.penkevich by: The blurbs on the back of way too many books
Recommended for: postmodernist playmates
Read in October, 2012

I spent this past summer with Barthelme’s Sixty Stories never far from my side as my most recent ‘dashboard book’. The stories contained in this hilarious and bizarre collection are rarely more than 5-10pgs in length, making them a perfect companion to turn to whenever you find a few spare moments where you want to simple get-in-and-get-out while still walking away with a headful of ideas to chew on. The stories are as varied as the horizon viewed through a travelling car, often as pretty as the sunset or as gloomy as pouring rain. With strong influences of Samuel Beckett (of whom Barthelme was quick to admit in interviews, saying ‘I'm enormously impressed by Beckett. I'm just overwhelmed by Beckett, as Beckett was, I speculate, by Joyce.’ in an interview with Jerome Klinkowitz), Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Pynchon and Franz Kafka, Barthelme creates powerful scenes of absurdist black-comedy that both challenge the intellect and tug the heartstrings as his characters play out their sad fates upon the page.

Each story is a breath of fresh air, even from one another. The styles, themes and lexicon of each story vary, often dramatically, illustrating Barthelme’s wide linguistic and narrative aptitudes. It would be hard for a reader to not find at least a few stories that seem geared to them, making this collection rather accessible to a large audience. While I greatly enjoyed most of these stories, finding a few filler tales along the way, I feel that some of the ones I disliked aren’t necessarily ‘bad’, but just not for me, whereas another reader might particularly enjoy the ones I did not. Much of the enjoyment comes from being able to deduce what Barthelme is trying to get across; these stories read like an elaborate joke and sometimes a reader won’t ‘get it’ on the first attempt (there were a few that I finished, thought ‘what the hell?’ and had to carefully go back through). Some of the language and stylistic choices are bewildering, but often they were just the sort of unique postmodernist obfuscation or structure that I really love.

The stories are often strange, surrealistic, and absurd, yet done with just the right amount of flair and subtlety. Barthelme’s surrealist narratives seem to be a precursor to more modern types of bizarre fiction, however, Barthelme is never ‘weird for the sake of weirdness’ and the absurdist qualities of Barthelme feel more dreamlike, where each aberration of normalcy seems to fit right it and it isn’t until the dreamer awakes that they notice anything was amiss. Everything is grounded in the theme and overall message of the story, and you will find King Kong as a history professor socializing at a party, an adult stuck in middle school to do a clerical error, a reptilian lesbian confronting the infidelities of her human lover, a city wide balloon and an extraterrestrial president with possible mind-control all read with surprising normalcy.

The comparisons to other great authors, especially the postmodernists like Pynchon, is difficult to avoid in a collection with such a wide range of styles as this one. There are straightforward, 3rd person tales, claustrophobic first person rants, 3rd person rants (occasionally in one, long multi-paged sentence) stories done entirely through dialogue which calls to mind William Gaddis, and a few stories that are more an exploration of an idea, such as the essay-like qualities of On Angels that recalls Borges. I’ve wondered how much of Barthelme that David Foster Wallace read, as the story Robert Kennedy, Saved From Drowning read as if it was an early version of DFW’s own Lyndon. Barthelme’s Mr. Sandman, in which a man writes a letter to his girlfriend’s therapist in a highly self-conscious manner arguing that it is her faults and flaws that he is in love with and of which he does not want tampered with (it is a rather touching story), is another story where DFW was immediately brought to mind. For anyone with a burning love for Wallace as I have, this collection has many examples that will satisfy that particular thirst. There are a surprisingly large amount of touching stories, and an equal amount of comically cynical stories of adultery, failures and frustration with the social structure. It is his cynical side that really gets me, such as the story mocking the Phantom of the Opera, having him an old, pathetic man who’s theatrics of appearing and disappearing in an flash annoy his only friend, his constant longings for lost love reduced to mere whines, and the wonderful concluding sentence of ‘until the hot meat of romance is cooled by the dull gravy of common sense’. Compare that to the way he is able to move from an intellectual inquiry of signs and symbols in The Balloon to an extremely moving and romantic final paragraph. Simply put, this guy works pure magic.

For anyone who loves the postmodernists and would like to be moved or posed with an intellectual puzzle in small, bite-sized doses, then this collection is just begging to be added to your bookshelf. The philosophic, emotional and societal investigations are sharp and witty, the humor dark, and the settings surreal. This collection will reinstate your beliefs in the powers of language and literature and you will be pleasantly surprised with what he can do in a short amount of space.
4.5/5 (rounded up)

If you would like to wet your whistle with Barthelme’s wit, here are a few stories to try:
The School (often considered one of his best)
Game (for LOST fans, try not to think of the Hatch)
The Balloon

Also, here is an insightful article on 60 Stories from The New York Times: Working Like A Stand-Up Comic
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Reading Progress

01/29/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 55) (55 new)


message 1: by s.penkevich (last edited Jul 25, 2012 11:43AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

s.penkevich Yeah, I think this is one you would really like. Really surreal stories. Plus, they are all about 5-10pgs long so they're perfect when you want to read something amazing but that also involves zero time investment.


s.penkevich I'd highly recommend it.
This is a good example of his stories: http://www.npr.org/programs/death/rea...


s.penkevich Moonbutterfly wrote: "Thanks for the link. This sounds good."

Hope you like it! They are strange and funny, and so far more hits than misses for the stories.


message 4: by Garima (new)

Garima Great review! This book is on my wishlist for a long time and thanks for the links. The first link though opens to Saturday in Hood by Emma Donoghue, is that the right link?


message 5: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Aww, don't begrudge a fifth star! Excellent review. This might be my favourite collection/mini-anthology of short stories.


message 6: by Garima (last edited Oct 15, 2012 02:55AM) (new)

Garima Garima wrote: "Great review! This book is on my wishlist for a long time and thanks for the links. The first link though opens to Saturday in Hood by Emma Donoghue, is that the right link?"

Nevamind...it was one step away I didn't bother to take


message 7: by Mike (last edited Oct 15, 2012 03:37AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma You're on a roll, spenkerz. Keep 'em coming.


message 8: by Hend (new)

Hend Sounds interesting!
Even Though,I am not a fan of Samuel Beckett:)
I Would check the links,Thanks!


s.penkevich Garima wrote: "Garima wrote: "Great review! This book is on my wishlist for a long time and thanks for the links. The first link though opens to Saturday in Hood by Emma Donoghue, is that the right link?"

Nevami..."


Now it won't let me get to that story, strange, I'll see if I can fix the link because it didn't work for me now either.


s.penkevich Should be fixed.


s.penkevich MJ wrote: "Aww, don't begrudge a fifth star! Excellent review. This might be my favourite collection/mini-anthology of short stories."

I almost rounded up, I've been trying to limit my 5-starring lately, but this one probably does deserve it. I've sampled some of 40 stories though, and haven't enjoyed it nearly as much.


s.penkevich Hend wrote: "Sounds interesting!
Even Though,I am not a fan of Samuel Beckett:)
I Would check the links,Thanks!"


Thanks, those few examples give a decent taste of what he is like. I have yet to read any Beckett so I can't say as to how similar they are, but Barthelme is funny enough to make me think that even those who don't like Beckett could enjoy him.


message 13: by Garima (new)

Garima s.penkevich wrote: "Should be fixed."

Yupp!

And talking about Beckett, I was introduced to him through Barth while reading analysis of lost in the funhouse and a blogger mentioned some possible influence of Beckett in that story so I proceeded to read Waiting For Godot, which was fun!


s.penkevich Nice, I love how reading one author always leads to reading others. It's like a literary chain reaction of learning. I need to read Godot, it's so famous yet I've never read it. I feel like having existed in the world has caused me to know too much about the plot (it's unavoidable to not know the 'point', sort of like how it was impossible to not know the end of Anna Karenina) but perhaps I'll give him a shot after I finish this Ibsen play I recently started.


s.penkevich Mike wrote: "You're on a roll, spenkerz. Keep 'em coming."

Gracias. I'm trying to clear out my reading list (tons of short story collections going) and my 'need to get around to this review' list.


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis "Aww, don't begrudge a fifth star! Excellent review." --M.J. Nicholls


s.penkevich I cave to peer pressure haha. I'm rounding up, Barthelme deserves it.


message 18: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten I haven't thought about Barthelme for years. This sounds like the perfect book to have handy when other books are bogging me down. It doesn't sound like Barthelme quite reaches the man crush arena of Wallace for you, but he performs well as a rebound date. haha Great stuff!


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis s.penkevich wrote: "I cave to peer pressure haha. I'm rounding up, Barthelme deserves it."

Merci.

Should you desire a free literary hypothesis--Barthelme is the most important event in the life of the short story since Poe. Discuss.


message 20: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma Take that, Borges fans!


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Mike wrote: "Take that, Borges fans!"

Whoops!


message 22: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma Nathan "N.R." wrote: "Mike wrote: "Take that, Borges fans!"

Whoops!"


(Sorry, I'm kinduva sucker for the cheap shot)


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Mike wrote: "Nathan "N.R." wrote: "Mike wrote: "Take that, Borges fans!"

Whoops!"

(Sorry, I'm kinduva sucker for the cheap shot)"


Cheap, but well scored. Shall we provide the adjective "USofAian" to my original hypothesis?


message 24: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma Works for me.


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Mike wrote: "Works for me."

I thought, too, we could add the adjectival phrase "named Donald."


message 26: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma And further qualify it by, 'who look like Amish goat cheese makers.'


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Mike wrote: "And further qualify it by, 'who look like Amish goat cheese makers.'"

Alvin Plantinga?
https://www.google.com/search?q=alvin...


message 28: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Mike wrote: "And further qualify it by, 'who look like Amish goat cheese makers.'"

Ha! He does!


message 29: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Mike wrote: "And further qualify it by, 'who look like Amish goat cheese makers.'"

Although a little pot-kettle-black there, Michael. That's an Amish look you're rocking in your profile pic.


message 30: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Nathan "N.R." wrote: ""Aww, don't begrudge a fifth star! Excellent review." --M.J. Nicholls"

Another klassic kwote.


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis MJ wrote: "Mike wrote: "And further qualify it by, 'who look like Amish goat cheese makers.'"

Although a little pot-kettle-black there, Michael. That's an Amish look you're rocking in your profile pic."


I know Amish. Mike is no Amish.


s.penkevich Nathan "N.R." wrote: "Mike wrote: "And further qualify it by, 'who look like Amish goat cheese makers.'"

Alvin Plantinga?
https://www.google.com/search?q=alvin......"


HA! It's his twin. Well played.


s.penkevich Jeffrey wrote: "I haven't thought about Barthelme for years. This sounds like the perfect book to have handy when other books are bogging me down. It doesn't sound like Barthelme quite reaches the man crush arena ..."

Ha, He's more the one I keep on the side for a satisfying quicky. Of quick stories guys!


message 34: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma MJ wrote: "Although a little pot-kettle-black there, Michael. That's an Amish look you're rocking in your profile pic."

Careful, MJ, I have your home address, and my cursor is poised over the For A Good Time Call Chatline.

Et tu, Spenkerz(?) How quickly they turn on you (me).


message 35: by s.penkevich (last edited Oct 15, 2012 09:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

s.penkevich I mean the Amish guy and Barthelme, i always found the fu-manchu more regal. If only you had a top-knot to go with it you could be the literary sensei...


message 36: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma I'm gonna track you down! (if only the topknot was an option)


message 37: by s.penkevich (last edited Oct 15, 2012 09:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

s.penkevich Mike wrote: "I'm gonna track you down! (if only the topknot was an option)"

I'll donate to the cause.


message 38: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark This book is so much fun!


s.penkevich Mark wrote: "This book is so much fun!"

So true, I figured this would be one you liked! Have you read any of his other short story collections? The ones from 40 Stories I sampled didn't strike me the way these did so I might pick up Flying To American next instead.


message 40: by Ali (new) - added it

Ali Your review makes me want to look harder for this collection. I've got several other collections by Barthelme. I have Forty Stories, I have Flying to America: Forty-Five More Stories (which from what I gather is basically "we wanted to release another short story collection in the same vein as the last two big-uns, so we dug through Donnie's drawers and sifted through his records and piled together the ones that didn't make it into previous volumes"), I even have a few of the indevidual collections that make up Sixty Stories, but not Sixty Stories itself. I really want it now, though.


s.penkevich Ali wrote: "Your review makes me want to look harder for this collection. I've got several other collections by Barthelme. I have Forty Stories, I have Flying to America: Forty-Five More Stories (which from wh..."

Definitely find it if you can. I got mine off amazon used for a mere $4 but would definitely pay more for it. Based on your reading tastes I think you would get a lot out of him. It is like a mixed tape of great authors, but all by one man.


message 42: by Brian (new)

Brian Awesome review, Penke - agreed that this guy is magic. I'm interested to see how you like "Snow White".


message 43: by s.penkevich (last edited Oct 15, 2012 11:38AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

s.penkevich Thank you very much! Yeah I have that sitting here waiting, I've seen some really strong opinions on that, positive and negative. After Gravity's Rainbow though the sexuality of it shouldn't bother me too much ha.


message 44: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark s.penkevich wrote: "So true, I figured this would be one you liked! Have you read any of his other short story collections? The ones from 40 Stories I sampled didn't strike me the way these did so I might pick up Flying To American next instead. "

In the anthology Super-Fiction, I have his story Sentence, but I haven't picked up 40 Stories yet. Something about it (the collection) never seemed as mandatory as 60. Reading your comment above, sounds like it was a wise decision, haha. I first read about Barthelme's work in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction.

The neat thing about B.'s best work is how humdrum he can make even the most fabulist scene feel. That postmodern snark: "Yeah, yeah, I've seen it all before. Ho-hum."


message 45: by Rakhi (new) - added it

Rakhi Dalal Great review S.Penkevich! You made your point!!Going to add this right away. And you must read Waiting for Godot, it is not to be missed!


message 46: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Wonderful review, spenke. I've always had a sneaking suspicion that there would be something in Barthelme that I didn't like, but I think I might have been wrong. Sometimes your preconceptions can stop you taking a path that would have been just right for you.


s.penkevich Ian wrote: "Wonderful review, spenke. I've always had a sneaking suspicion that there would be something in Barthelme that I didn't like, but I think I might have been wrong. Sometimes your preconceptions can ..."

That's the thing with Barthelme. There probably will be a thing or two you won't like it some of them, but it is so varied that for everything you dislike you will find something you really enjoy. I have seen complaints that his stories are a big elbow-in-the-ribs asking 'get it yet, get it yet?', and I could see how that would turn some people off. I think you would like these stories though, the samples I gave are a good general overview of what he is like.


message 48: by s.penkevich (last edited Oct 16, 2012 06:41AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

s.penkevich Mark wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "So true, I figured this would be one you liked! Have you read any of his other short story collections? The ones from 40 Stories I sampled didn't strike me the way these did so ..."

Ha, the 'postmodernist snark', that really does describe him well. At times I felt like he was talking down to me, but in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way, like 'is this guy making fun of me or inviting me in for a laugh'. Such snarky writing usually makes me laugh though.


s.penkevich Rakhi wrote: "Great review S.Penkevich! You made your point!!Going to add this right away. And you must read Waiting for Godot, it is not to be missed!"

Thank you very much, I think you will be quite satisfied with adding this one. You'll get a good laugh at the least. I'll be sure to read that soon, all this Beckett talk has made me feel out of the loop hah


message 50: by Steve (new)

Steve I'm not sure how I missed this earlier. Good thing I tracked back because this is great! To hear people talk, Barthelme is kind of a pomo poster boy. You've got me interested, Spenky, as all your reviews of 3.74 or more stars do.


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