Sunday, 21 July 2019

"The Indian Uprising" by Donald Barthelme

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The Indian Uprising is probably the key Barthelme work, and can illuminate his style and use of narrative structure to best effect. It appears, on first reading, almost meaningless. There are dizzying shifts in subject matter, sometimes within a single sentence. It begins: ‘We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds,’ and yet it is apparent that this is a modern-day city. The opening paragraph concludes with a question to a character called Sylvia: ‘Do you think this is a good life?’ to which she replies: ‘no.’

A Comanche Indian is being tortured but the narrator ‘sits there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love,’ and asks Sylvia: ‘Do you know Fauré’s Dolly?’ So it continues. The story of the uprising is interplayed with the personal life of the narrator. It is impossible to get any grip on the narrative. Time frames are meaningless. Characters glide in and out of the story with no apparent context. Because he ‘knows nothing’ the narrator is put in touch with Miss R, a teacher who juxtaposes insults and tenderness, seems to give him sage advice, seems to be on his side but in the end betrays him and is seen to be one of the Comanches. We discover that ‘Jane’, whom we do not know but assume to be a former lover, has been beaten up by a dwarf. The story continues to shift between the Comanches and the narrator, and at one point adopts the second person: ‘But it is you I want now,’ drawing the readers into a story which so far has resolutely excluded them. If anything, things gets stranger:

‘What is the situation?’ I asked.
‘The situation is liquid,’ he said. ‘We hold the south quarter and they hold the north quarter. The rest is silence.’
‘And Kenneth?’
‘That girl is not in love with Kenneth,’ Block said frankly. ‘She is in love with his coat.’

… Once I caught Kenneth’s coat going down the stairs by itself but the coat was a trap and inside a Comanche who made a thrust with his short, ugly knife at my leg which buckled and tossed me over the balustrade through a window and into another situation.

At this stage, neither Kenneth nor Block have been introduced and we don’t know who ‘that girl’ is. It is my opinion (but only that, there is no definitive answer) that both Kenneth and Block are alter egos of the narrator, and that the girl is Sylvia. He is telling himself that Sylvia doesn’t love him, but is simply using him (his wealth, presumably, in the guise of the coat.)

But this is all conjecture. Does the story actually mean anything or is it a ‘dull and intellectually disingenuous tale,’ as Schneider says? He complains that Barthelme’s apologists are ‘repeatedly stressing it must be understood within contexts that have nothing to do with the work itself.’ This is a narrow argument, one which would deny, for example, the power of 1984 or Gulliver’s Travels or even the parodies of Henry Fielding. The Indian Uprising is classic Barthelme, a collage of moments and episodes cascading on top of one another in a seemingly random fashion. Karl likens its quick cuts to a Godard film, a description with which Barthelme himself concurred, with the additional complication of ‘the introduction of wildly dissimilar material, like commercials.’

However, the story can be deciphered. It’s important to remember when it was written – 1968, the middle of the Vietnam War, with America split and with increasingly vocal anti-war factions asserting themselves. Therefore, it can perhaps be seen as an ironic comment on the way the war, and war in general, was portrayed in the media. Barthelme says: ‘It was in part, obviously, a response to the Vietnam War.’ But he continues: ‘It was in response to certain things that were going on in my personal life at the time, and a whole lot of other things came together in that story.’

In other words – and this is the story’s strength as well as its weakness – it is operating at a global/political level and also at a highly personal one. He is using the same metaphor of the uprising to vent his feelings on Vietnam and to chart the break-up of an affair. In the story, the narrator is an older man having an affair with a young, free spirit, Sylvia. Therefore, Barthelme is conflating love and war.

It goes further than that. Barthelme is also using the Comanche raid as a way of examining the ways in which the left were latching onto ‘primitive’ styles (think of ‘Hanoi Jane’ Fonda, although she wasn’t called that until 1972.) The ghetto is ‘on heroin’ but the authorities ignore it, even complicitly assists. Why? Because the ghetto is where the revolution starts, always, and if they can keep them quiet – through drugs – the status quo can be maintained. Barthelme says of this section:

the heroin is… a political comment on the fact that we allow the heroin traffic in our country to exist… In a way, the heroin traffic is paralleled by the Vietnamese war, so it’s a kind of political comment in the story.

Meanwhile, in the personal strand of the story, the narrator and the much younger Sylvia are having an affair. Right at the start he asks her if she’s enjoying it and she says ‘no.’ Later – it may be the same day, or after a reconciliation – he says: ‘we have many years left to live.’ Her reply, cruel and cutting, is: ‘with luck you may survive until matins.’ Despite this, he still craves her.

He asks Miss R for assistance. She is a schoolmarmish character, alternately abusing him and whispering tender entreaties. She is a complex character, suggesting the agony of uncertainty in the narrator’s mind. Therefore, she may not be real, or Reality, but simply his perception of reality, a shifting, uncertain thing. Miss R likes litany, lists, certainty, the ‘hard, brown, nutlike word.’ The narrator, on the other hand, talks of ‘strings of language extend[ing] in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.’ They are yin and yang.

The story accelerates to its climax. The Indians overrun the city. They ‘tread into the mouth of the mayor.’ In the same paragraph, the narrator and Sylvia are lying in bed but ‘the sickness of the quarrel lies thick.’ He knows it is over between them. The war has seen terrible things, children have been casualties, mistakes have been made. Miss R orders the narrator to remove his belt and shoelaces. What happens next isn’t clear. Tanner talks of defeat spreading through the city, ‘the enemy is real… threat and coercion come in many forms, from many quarters.’ Most reviewers suggest the narrator is about to be tortured. Perhaps he is, or perhaps, because he is going before the ‘Clemency Committee,’ they are saving him from himself. It is for the reader to decide. Whichever, the narrator looks into their ‘savage black eyes, paint, feathers, beads,’ and the story ends.

In this story we see the principal facets of Barthelme’s writing: firstly, the choppy collage effect, a literary equivalent of a Picasso cubist painting, allowing the viewer to see the reality of the portrait from every angle simultaneously. It is what Karl described as:

that ordered and coherent expression of anarchic materials which, when verbalized, will express a visual, aural, imaged reality. That melange of materials reordered for synesthesiac (sic) purposes is Barthelme’s way of presenting America: a design of our life, in arrangements that recall layouts.

Secondly, we have the fractured, fragmented nature of the text and, in consequence, the human relationships and the world he conjures. We saw that Tanner likened his work to pop art, but that is too shallow a comparison. ‘Can the life of the time be caught in an advertisment?’ Barthelme wrote. Where Warhol put soup cans into art galleries, Barthelme went further and put the detritus of a society into the barricades at the very edge of civilisation. The question – one that Warhol could never imagine asking – is which side of the barricade should he (and we) be on?

Thirdly, and this is greatly overlooked in most analyses of Barthelme, is that, through the undoubted melancholy there is humanist hope in his words. Pynchon suggests:

Barthelme’s was a specifically urban melancholy, related to that look of immunity to joy or even surprise seen in the faces of cab drivers, bartenders, street dealers, city editors, a wearily taken vow to persist beneath the burdens of the day and the terrors of the night.

This was not meant unkindly, (indeed in the same article Pynchon describes Barthelme as having a ‘hopeful and unbitter heart’) but the impression persists that Barthelme’s writing is cold and emotionless. Of course, Barthelme himself often referred to this, for example in an interview with O’Hara when, having been asked what his greatest writing weakness is, he replies: ‘I don’t offer enough emotion.’ That may be the case: certainly, because of mostly non-existent characterisation, it is difficult to get to know or feel involved with many of his creations. And yet, rising above that, there is often a feeling of ambivalent hope in his works. The ending of The Indian Uprising certainly suggests it. So, too, does the resonant ending of another of his stories, Rebecca: ‘One should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm, tympanic page.’

That is classic Barthelme. It feels like a truism, but at the last moment he manages to subvert it into something more strange and more lovely. There is an aura of hopeful melancholy about the best of his writing which, even when he is at his opaque best (or worst) is beautifully human.

Ultimately, however, The Indian Uprising must be considered a flawed work. The conflation of contrasting ideas – a typically Barthelmian trait – is interesting. Love and war being described through the same central metaphor, for example, is fascinating, and yet it means that the story becomes cluttered. It has no single, central theme. It is trying to say too much. This is where his structural anarchy fails him: points can be made, but not with a force which resonates. The work remains memorable for some magnificent lines, for its inspired invention, and one can perhaps forgive the ‘disconcerting slippage of sense,’ but, as Gass points out Barthelme’s ‘blessed method is everything.’ Gass meant this in praise, but it can only truly be a weakness if it means the story fails to convey its point to the maximum.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

"A Silver Dish" by Saul Bellow

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“A Silver Dish” comes from the 1984 collection Him with his foot in his mouth and other stories, but first appeared in The New Yorker in 1978. It is a character study of two men, Woody Selbst, sixty, a self-made man, and his father, Morris – or Pop – a man of truly outrageous behaviour. The story begins with a breathtaking first paragraph:

“What do you do about death – in this case the death of an old father? If you’re a modern person, sixty years of age, and a man who’s been around, like Woody Selbst, what do you do? Take this matter of mourning, and take it against a contemporary background. How, against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father, nearly blind, his heart enlarged, his lungs filling with fluid, who creeps, stumbles, gives off the odors, the moldiness or gassiness, of old men. I mean! As Woody put it, be realistic. Think what times these are. The papers daily give it to you – the Lufthansa pilot in Aden is described by the hostages on his knees, begging the Palestinian terrorists not to execute him, but they shoot him through the head. Later they themselves are killed. And still others shoot others, or shoot themselves. That’s what you read in the press, see on the tube, mention at dinner. We know now what goes daily through the whole of the human community, like a global death-peristalsis.

This is classic Saul Bellow. The shocking directness of the first sentence immediately draws the reader into the story. As it continues, it seems to ask uncomfortable questions: after all, no-one cares to admit to ambivalence about the death of a parent. Then, before the story has a chance to become too introverted, it sweeps out to an extraordinary degree by encompassing global terrorism and the violence of death. In the second paragraph it sweeps even further, with a remarkable description from Woody’s youth of a buffalo calf being dragged from a riverbank into the churning river while the parent buffaloes look around as though “asking each other dumbly what had happened.” It is clear what territory we are in here: this story is about bloodlines, about family, about connectedness.

Friedrich suggests that “the beauty of this short story lies in its fortunate balance between an amazing vitality and freshness of life, and a complex artistic representation.” She then points to her own research at the University of Chicago which suggests the genesis of “A Silver Dish” is a series of character sketches from real life with no semblance of plot or narrative technique. She explains how Bellow grafted and re-grafted characters into different plot ideas, discarding material and gradually distilling it until the characters and their actions felt drawn from real life. Thus, Friedrich concludes, it is “the inquiry into character, not ideas or general concepts of plot, that give the creative process the decisive first impulse.” Given that an enduring criticism of Bellow, particularly in his later novels, is that his characters  have, in Pinsker’s words, “too much of the non-fictional essay pressing on their chests”, and that “the balance between texture and talkiness was tilting, unhappily towards the latter,” this conscious re- and re-working by Bellow of the text of “A Silver Dish” can be seen as significant. And what is undeniable is that it is successful.

The story takes the form of a tryptich covering three time frames – the past, when the silver dish of the title is stolen by Pop, “last Tuesday”, when Pop dies in Woody’s arms and “now”, the Sunday morning when Woody is reviewing his past. It is a complicated structure but perfectly comprehensible. Partly, this is due to what Schultz identifies as:

shifts in narrative technique. While the central section dramatizes the theft of the dish by means of scenic narration, sections one and three alternate between showing and telling, with emphasis on reflection and summary.

The first section gives us an introduction to Woody and to the fact that Pop is dying. As Schultz points out:

“it establishes a narrative voice, a local and temporal setting, and a set of moral coordinates that guide the reader through the barrage of memory bits flooding the protagonist’s mind. Even when the reader may feel whirled around by a multitude of data and impressions, such a strategy prepares the “quiet zone” from which moral authority emerges.”

In this section Woody is reflecting, after Pop’s death, on how his life has turned out. We learn a great deal of Woody’s character – an individualist, someone who fights the system for no reason other than he feels he ought to. He is clearly mourning his father and turns to memories as a way of managing the grief.

The long centrepiece of the story relates one particular memory, the theft of the silver dish by his father which results in Woody being suspended from the seminary and which, therefore, transforms his life. The final section returns us to Pop’s deathbed and the harrowing scene where Woody gets into bed with his father to try to stop him from pulling out the intravenous needles. That the reader should care as much as Woody about this ogre of a man is testament to Bellow’s skill as a writer.

In Woody and Pop, Bellow has created two timeless characters. Pop is, in many ways, a ghastly man, a “metaphysical gargoyle”, as Taylor describes him, someone who walked out on his family when Woody was fourteen, saying airily: “It’s okay. I put you all on welfare.” In the next breath he asks his son to give him money to buy gasoline:

Understanding that Pop couldn’t get away without his help, Woody turned over to him all he had earned at the Sunset Ridge Country Club in Winnetka. Pop felt that the valuable life lesson he was transmitting was worth far more than these dollars, and whenever he was conning his boy a sort of high-priest expression came down over his bent nose, his ruddy face.

Years later, the now worldly-wise Woody smiles as he remembers Pop’s attitude of “that’ll teach you to trust your father.” He recalls that: “Pop was physical; Pop was digestive, circulatory, sexual.” Pop loves to be outrageous: for example, referring to Aunt Rebecca’s removed breast, he tells his son: “if titties were not fondled and kissed, they got cancer in protest.”  Pop is a self-made man who arrived in Chicago from Liverpool as a boy:

He became an American, and America never knew it. He voted without papers, he drove without a license, he paid no taxes, he cut every corner.”

Apparently without scruple, Pop forces his son to take him to the home of his sponsor at the seminary, Mrs Skoglund. There, he intends to ask for $50. While the religious Mrs Skoglund goes to another room to pray for guidance as to whether or not to lend the money, Pop steals a silver dish from a locked cabinet which he unpicks with a penknife. Woody reacts in horror and the two have a wrestling match in which Pop punches Woody in the face three or four times and knees him in the mouth. Later, he promises to put the dish back but “of course,” he keeps it and pawns it. When the theft is discovered, Woody is suspended from the seminary and Aunt Rebecca turns him out of his home. Even now, Pop acts badly. “So what, kid?” he says. He even justifies stealing the dish:

“I didn’t hurt myself, and at the same time did you a favor.”
“It was for me?”
“It was too strange of a life. That life wasn’t you, Woody. All those women…”

Why did Pop do it? After all, he was not a foolish man and must have known he had little chance of success. Partly, it was simply a challenge:

Morris knew that Mother and Aunt Rebecca had told Mrs Skoglund how wicked he was. They had painted him for her in poster colours – purple for vice, black for his soul, red for Hell flames: a gambler, smoker, drinker, deserter, screwer of women, and atheist. So Pop was determined to reach her. It was risky for everybody.

Reprehensible that may be, but it is only part of the story. “That theft was part of Pop’s war with Mother… Mother represented the forces of religion and hypochondria.” Pop hates the way his ex-wife – a convert to Christianity – and her brother-in-law, Doctor Kovner, preach fundamentalism. “Unless I take a hand,” he tells his son, “you won’t even understand what life is. Because they don’t know – those silly Christers.” Pop himself isn’t religious, not even especially moral, and yet, as Glaysher notes:

Contrary to what might be expected, [Woody] and his coarse, scheming father remain more loyal to the old values than the pious Christians who merely want the boy Woody as a convert so that he might proselytize among the Jews.

Pop genuinely believes he is helping his son. He sees himself, in Schulz’s words, as a “reality instructor.” Through the theft, Pop believes he has won the war with Mother:

Pop had carried him back to his side of the line, blood of his blood, the same thick body walls, the same coarse grain. Not cut out for a spiritual life. Simply not up to it.

Pop was no worse than Woody, and Woody was no better than Pop.”

Unsurprisingly, his upbringing has an impact on Woody’s character. Early in the story, we are shown that he is unconventional. He smuggles hashish out of Kampala because “he liked taking chances. Risk was a wonderful stimulus.” Woody is a highly complex character, an amalgam of the incorrigibility of his father and the piety that his mother represents, if not attains. He is “leading a double life, sacred and profane.” He is far from perfect: as a child he steals food from the mission house for no reason other than he likes to be reckless. When, speaking in church, he finds that his heart is not in what he is preaching, he turns to techniques his father would have appreciated:

sincere behavior got him through. He had to rely for delivery on his face, his voice – on behavior.

And yet, despite this, Woody is a decent man. Where Pop abandoned his family, Woody goes to elaborate lengths to help his:

Since his wife, after fifteen years of separation, had not learned to take care of herself, Woody did her shopping on Fridays, filled her freezer. He had to take her this week to buy shoes. Also, Friday night he always spent with Helen – Helen was his wife de facto. Saturday he did his big weekly shopping. Saturday night he devoted to Mom and his sisters.

Hyland describes “A Silver Dish” as “the story of a man whose life is blighted by his need to be loved by a father who is incapable of giving love.” This is poor interpretation and slack reading of the text, which specifically says:

Did he [Pop] love anyone (he was so busy?) Yes, he loved Halina. He loved his son.

Second-billing, perhaps, but Woody knew his father loved him, in his own way. Hyland goes on to describe Pop as “cynically selfish,” which again is too literal to capture the depth of the man. Certainly, Pop was cynical but, even so, traces of decency can be found:

If Woody had a weakness, it was to be unselfish. This worked to Pop’s advantage, but he criticized Woody for it, nevertheless.

Hyland then suggests of Woody that “for his own emotional and spiritual equilibrium he needs to redeem a man who cannot be redeemed.” Yet again, this is too narrow a view of Pop. Indeed, it could be argued that the whole story is an elaborate redemption of this complex, infuriating man. There is an infectiousness about his elaborate refusal to be ordinary which makes him quite appealing. The reader can only admire Woody for the way he has assimilated his father’s devilry and spirit. Ozick gets the tone right when she describes “A Silver Dish” as the “companionable trials of Woody Selbst and his rogue father.” Schulz goes even further:

Almost from the outset, parallels and affinities with Pop [and Woody] abound to the point where one can argue that “A Silver Dish,” far from dramatizing a conflict between father and son, actually presents a story of male bonding.”

As with much of Bellow’s work, “A Silver Dish” draws its strength from the way Bellow uses character to make a point about society in general. By focusing on the individual, he can bring the general more clearly into focus. So it is with “A Silver Dish”. Schulz describes Woody as combining “elements of American modernity with a larger, more spiritual realm.” Clayton explains that “the story moves towards an integration of the two conflicting worlds of the physical and metaphysical,” This is made possible by the creation of two vibrant, living, colourful personalities, by establishing what Schulz describes as “the opposition of idealist son and realist father,” and by leaving them to find their own ways to their respective states of grace.

That moment is surely reached in the beautiful conclusion to the story, when – in a counterpoint to the earlier wrestling scene – Woody has climbed into bed beside his father and holds him as he dies:

After a time, Pop’s resistance ended. He subsided and subsided. He rested against his son, his small body curled there…Pop, whom Woody thought he had stilled, only had found a better way to get around him. Loss of heat was the way he did it. His heat was leaving him. As can happen with small animals while you hold them in your hand, Woody presently felt him cooling. Then, as Woody did his best to restrain him, and thought he was succeeding, Pop divided himself. And when he was separated from his warmth, he slipped into death. And there was his elderly, large, muscular son, still holding and pressing him when there was nothing anymore to press. You could never pin down that self-willed man. When he was ready to make his move, he made it – always on his own terms. And always, always, something up his sleeve. That was how he was.

This ending, elegaic, spiritual, above all human, could, one imagines, even have brought a tear to the eye of that old rogue, Pop.  Well, almost, and that is the genius of “A Silver Dish”.

"The Indian Uprising" by Donald Barthelme

  The Indian Uprising is probably the key Barthelme work, and can illuminate his style and use of narrative structure to best effe...