Lisa Zeidner's Reviews > There Must Be Some Mistake

There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme
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it was amazing

I love this novel.

People often discuss Frederick Barthelme’s work in terms of the setting—the tawdry shopping malls, amusement parks and theme restaurants of the South and Southwest. It’s true that he is the maestro of the tacky milieu. But it’s a mistake to take this only as realistic fiction about not-quite-urban, middle class people going about their (empty, meaningless, yes we get it) lives. Here he is more overt about his project: the question of how we make art out of culture’s flotsam and jetsam (hey, his characters live near water).

It’s an old modernist project, in a way, since Duchamp put a toilet as an objet d’art in the Louvre. How do you make sense of so much dreck? We have so much of it. How can we even think, with so many crappy shows to watch on TV, so many iPad pages to flip? In THERE MUST BE SOME MISTAKE, the protagonist, Wallace, is an old conceptual artist turned ad man, now laid off and free to watch the pollution-tinged sunsets. His lover’s daughter makes found art from gruesome newspaper articles. And their condo association, Forgetful Bay, is basically in the process of writing its own story—tabloid fodder or literary novel depending on your point-of-view: A surprising number of people are suddenly dropping dead. Heart attack, sure, but also the stray suicide and suspected murder. A lady policeman wanders around, taking statements, which as far as our hero is concerned is also a kind of performance art. At least he thinks he’s seen the whole routine on CSI. Wallace also has a virtual harem of women: a still-friendly ex-wife, a live-in chum, and an outside lady with a mysterious past. Except Wallace is barely having sex with any of ‘em. Sex is not the point. As with everything else, real life is never as clear as art would have you believe.

Flaubert once said that he couldn’t look at a beautiful woman without imagining her skeleton. Early Barthelme stories like “Shopgirls” contrasted the images of beauty and happiness fed to us by the media to real life’s stubborn and glaring imperfections. With this novel, though, there’s a softening, a warmth: Real life turns out to be more tender, forgiving, and layered than what our ideals lead us to expect. Wallace even feels generosity towards, sympathy with, his ex-wife’s current lover, in prison for sex with a minor. I guess you’d have to call it Mature Barthelme.

A profound novel that is also a great deal of fun. P.s., no one writes snappy dialogue like this dude. “Philadelphia Story” worthy banter.


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October 14, 2014 – Shelved

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