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October 24, 2017

Donald Barthelme and Miss Mandible

On this day in 1931 Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia. Although Barthelme's eminence in postmodern fiction is beyond dispute, few are brave enough to attempt explaining why. John Barth has talked about "the wit, the bite, the exactitude and flair, inspired whimsy, aw-shucks urbanity, irreal realism and real irreality, wired tersitude, and such Barthelmanic pleasures." William Styron tries this way: "Barthelme, however, happens to be one of a handful of American authors, there to make the rest of us look bad, who know instinctively how to stash the merchandise, bamboozle the inspectors, and smuggle their nocturnal contraband right on past the checkpoints of daylight 'reality.'" Perhaps best to stick to Barthelme's own wild understatement that he was attracted to stories which "at once invite and resist interpretation."

"Me and Miss Mandible," one of Barthelme's earliest stories (anthologized in Sixty Stories, winner of a PEN/Faulkner award in 1982) is the diary chronicle of an insurance claims adjuster who, for reasons not entirely clear to him, has been sent back to sixth-grade for "reworking." Beneath a thin veneer of common fractions, Horace Greeley Elementary School "is a furnace of love, love, love." There is an enjoyable dislocation to begin -- "I am in fact thirty-five, I've been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in all the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind" -- but darker thoughts by mid-term:
    20 November

    We read signs as promises. Miss Mandible understands by my great height, by my resonant vowels, that I will one day carry her off to bed. Sue Ann interprets these same signs to mean that I am unique among her male acquaintances, therefore most desirable, therefore her special property as is everything else that is Most Desirable. If neither of these propositions works out then life has broken faith with them.

    I myself, in my former existence, read the company motto ("Here to Help in Time of Need") as a description of the duty of the adjuster, drastically mislocating the company's deepest concerns. I believed that because I had obtained a wife who was made up of wife-signs (beauty, charm, softness, perfume, cookery) I had found love. Brenda, reading the same signs that have now misled Miss Mandible and Sue Ann Brownly, felt she had been promised that she would never be bored again. All of us, Miss Mandible, Sue Ann, myself, Brenda, Mr. Goodykind, still believe that the American flag betokens a kind of general righteousness.

    But I say, looking about me in this incubator of future citizens, that signs are signs, and some of them are lies. . . .
In an interview in the early 70s, Barthelme gave some indication of how adult- and writer-shaping his own childhood was:
    In the late thirties my father built a house for us, something not too dissimilar to Mies's Tugendhat house. It was wonderful to live in but strange to see on the Texas prairie. On Sundays people used to park their cars out on the street and stare. We had a routine, the family, on Sundays. We used to get up from Sunday dinner, if enough cars had parked, and run out in front of the house in a sort of chorus line, doing high kicks.

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