The Importance of Being EmptynDonald Barthelme: Sixty Stories; G.P.nPutnam’s Sons; New. York.nby Edward J. Wakhn1 know that Donald Barthelme is thenauthor often other books because I readnthe publisher’s press release which camenwith my copy—I was not previously familiarnwith his work. From the pressnrelease I learned also that his books havenbeen translated into many languages,nthat he received a Guggenheim Fellowshipnin 1967 and the National BooknAward in 1972, and that he has taught atnseveral universities. I wondered, afterndiscovering all this, whether I would benable to review his writing just as if I knewnnothing about him. I concluded that 1nwould. After all, publishers’ press releasesnhave only one aim, and that is tonencourage positive reviews. Anyway, Inhad read most oi Sixty Stories before seeingnthe release; my impressions were alreadyningrained in my sensibilities. Barthelme’snwriting has away of making onenforgetBarthelme’s credentials. His worknmight be called Kafkaesque in that it rivetsnthe reader with a sense of the unreal,nor tries to. There is a gamble involved innthis kind of writing: the attempt to leaventhe reader unsettled will either be effective,nas it is with Kafka, or it will result inna shower of gibberish. Barthelme’s “WillnYou Tell Me?” and “Alice,” amongnothers, end up as gibberish because hentakes a tired, threadbare theme such asnadultery and tries, unsuccessfully, tonmake an ironic statement about it. Maybena sense of pain and pathos is supposednto be there. It should be. But if it is, it isnburied in a torrent of emotionless paragraphsnthat leave one, well, uninterested.nPerhaps that’s the point.nIn “Repon” and “Game” Barthelmenpreaches on social issues, Vietnam andnMr. Walsh is with the United StatesnIndustrial Council in Nashville, Tennessee.nnuclear war. In the former he satirizes thenabsolute faith in technology of the WhiznKids who ran the Pentagon in the 60’s,nwho believed that fancy new weaponsnwould certainly win the war. Says thenchief engineer:nWe could, of course, release in thenarena of the upper air our new improvednpufferfish toxin which producesnan identity crisis. No specialntechnical problems there. We couldnof course place up to two million maggotsnin their rice within twenty fournhours. The maggots are ready, massednin secret staging areas in Alabama.nWe have a family of fishes trained tonattack their fishes. We have a greennsubstance that, well, I’d rather notntalk about.nThis stuff is funny. Barthelme is, atntimes, a witty writer. Perhaps I say sonbecause I believe that smug confidencenin technology deserves to be ridiculed; Indo believe that. But “Game” is equallynhilarious, although Barthelme’s point,nthat readiness for nuclear war is absurd, isnone of the more obvious reasons for thenleft-liberal paralysis of our age. Inn”Game,” two U.S. strategic-missilenwatch officers are mistakenly left on dutynfor 133 days. One plays jacks to pass thentime, and the other writes descriptions ofnnatural forms on the walls—a leaf, anstone, animals, a baseball bat. Theynbehave “strangely.” The piece is fiinny,nits bizarreness utterly tongue-in-cheek.nBut, like Barthelme’s tired sentiment, itnis ilsopointlessly absurd, a venture intonthe unreal that actually begins in thenunreal, a fentasy world that contains nonSoviet Union, no missiles aimed at thenUnited States.nObviously, sixty samples of Barthelme’snwork are a lot to digest. As is thencase with most collections of short fiction.nSixty Stories is mainly the accumulationnof pieces published elsewhere.nThe arrangement of stories is notndearly chronological; it may indeed be.nnnbut theie seems to be no conscious order.nThe worst way to approach this kind ofnbook is to read it from cover to cover. Barthelme’snwriting doesn’t lend itself easilynto the expectation that what follows explainsnwhat went before. Often his secondnparagraphs have nothing to do withnhis openings.nIt would be too much to say that Barthelmenis attempting to duplicatejoyce’snstream-of-consciousness meanderings.nBut he certainly aspires to fit into somenliterary tradition, perhaps one whose firstnaim is to innovate with language, as inn”The Falling Dog”:ndirty and dean dogsnultraclean dogs, laboratory animalsnthrown or flung dogsnin series, Indian filen—and so on. There is a tradition of thisnsort of thing in English letters, ever sincenJohn Donne’s disciple, George Herbert,nbuilt his poems into the shapes of thingsnhe wrote about, and e.e. cummings startlednpeople by eschewing capitalization.nBarthelme drifts here and there; “ThenBalloon” is punctuated by hints of hownBarthelme views criticism: “There was ancertain amount of argumentation aboutnthe ‘meaning’ of the balloon; this subsidednbecause we have learned not to insistnon meanings, and they are rarely evennlooked for now, except in cases involvingnthe simplest, safest phenomena.” Andnindeed, criticism of literature can’t benlimited to the weary search for “meaning”nin which we all dissected The Lordnof the Flies in high school: a symbol fornthis, a symbol for that. Rather, one mustnread a work and ask himself: Why did Inenjoy (or dislike) this? Looking at Barthelme’snstories from this perspective, Insense a tinge of fraud. Here is a man whoncan write, but who works terribly hard atnkeeping the reader offguard and does litdenelse. The form overpowers the substance;nthe form is the substance, whichnleaves us with a sneaking suspicion thatn^ V H ^ H 9nMay/Jane 198Sn