Aug 31, 09
Read in July, 2009
well, i didn't finish sixty stories, but i did get about 3/4 of the way through it and it took me a while, so i feel duty-bound to document it.
one of the traits i admire most in writers is the ability to extend themselves out of veiled autobiography and write in and through the eyes of someone else. one of the traits i most disdain in writers is a tendency towards the esoteric, ignoring the critical elements of a good story. Barthelme is both of these writers. the stories with real characters and arcs are the most relatable, but some are too simplistic. others entirely ignore standard structure, but stand out beautifully anyway.
the reason this book was recommended to me though, serves as the most compelling reason to read it. it's rife with perfect little nuggets -- one-line maxims, excellent story endings, and simple word combinations that seem whimsical but are in reality so perfect that they must have required great thought. what at times is an exercise in tedium is rewarded, in fits and starts, with these small gems that shine on the page.
for me, standouts are "Daumier" and "Rebecca," which both speak to nuances of humanity and its interpersonal relationships in way that can only be described as genius. in these stories and others like it, Barthelme's strong suit is revealed. those stories that deal with love and its inherent tragedy are the easiest to understand, and the most satisfying to read. in these stories, the heavy allegory and metaphor that makes most of his stories serves to enhance, rather than to obfuscate.
in the less interesting, there seems to be nothing to glean from the stories, except, in some, for that one rare nugget that makes you glad you spent the time. as an example, one of the most forgettable stories, "Shower of Gold," contains this gem: "'cash in your life insurance, indulge in a mindless optimism. Visit girls at dusk. Play the guitar.'" others contain none of these flashes, and these are tough to finish.
consistency is not a hallmark of this work, instead, intermittent genius and an ability to selectively reveal slices of humanity (often slightly masked) is the defining characteristic. sometimes frustrating, sometimes boring, but sometimes brilliant and always expansive. those with patience and an appreciation for the abstract are strongly encouraged to apply within.