11/12 Donald Barthelme & John Barth | Noon Magazine


During my five minutes of quiet time, I found that my mind jumped through each of the stories, settling on moments that I both liked and disliked. I did really enjoy Barthelme’sRobert Kennedy Saved From Drowning. I kept thinking about a particular sentence in the beginning, “[…] a sink into which he can hurl gallons of syrup if it comes to that.” That sentence described the entire piece to me. We see all these different points of view on K that seem to be accumulating to something, but do they? It’s as if they are trying to piece K together, but I’m not so sure they really do. Do we get a clear picture of who we think K is? Then we have him saved from drowning and I could not help but recall that sentence while I finished the last little “episode.”
            I did not enjoy Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. I could see the point about fiction that the author was trying to make, but I don’t think it was very effective. I even lost interest in the actual story taking place. There are some very beautiful descriptions and I kept trying to really get into it, but the narrator took me out again and again until the story wasn’t good anymore either.
            Likable is wonderful. It’s this great little piece of comic tragedy flash fiction. It would not have been good, I don’t think, if it had been a much longer piece. The tragedy is really masked by the comedic timing of the work and how many times and ways the character can think of herself as unlikable. The sadness doesn’t really hit you until the last moment, “that she will have to be shoved into a hole and left there.” It’s awful. I both laughed and felt pained in the end.
            Dylan Nice’s piece is really excellent too, I thought, in the way that it feels timeless. It’s A Short Essay on the War, but we have no idea which war, and there really are no physical markers indicating a time period. The only technology that makes an appearance is a television in a bar. But that could be in the 1960s or now. It seemed less an essay on the war as it was an essay on any war. The young man could be a soldier at any point, facing the same issues, making the tragedies of war all the more timeless too.


I closed my eyes and thought about the stories. Cool prompt. My favorite so far, other than the diagrams.

I thought about "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning" first. I thought about how it tells the story of K while ignoring most of the character's inferiority. I like it because it brought this recurrent nihilist-type character into a political context. I thought about Kafka's "K" from The Trial. I thought about the omnipresence of the law, how it effects the psyche. I thought about the part where it says he only talked to waiters. I thought about how he was saved from drowning. I thought about how metaphors operate, how I always see the image before whatever idea any given metaphor is trying to express, no matter how absurd. If someone said, "I'll date you when pigs fly" for example, I will always imagine pigs with wings before the improbability of the image or idea.

I thought about "Lost in the Funhouse." I liked this one less, but still found it really interesting. I found the essayistic writing about fiction with the fiction kind of refreshing in a weird way. I thought about the different modes of telling, how he has four different ones, maybe more. There is the mode where he is telling the story straight, then there is the essayistic literary talk, then clipped sentences, then italics. I thought the idea of the post-modern story as a funhouse itself was an interesting at first, but then I thought it was kind of restrictive and damning by the end. The author could back out of his ideas and images, could express his anxieties. I like how it brings into light the notion of what it constructed by the author, the idea of manipulation. I liked how history forced its way into the narrative, in the form of environmental degradation and war--even when it didn't belong, and/or the constructed/ real author was worried that it didn't belong. I liked the laughing machine woman. I liked all the sexy stuff, how sex was imbued into even the clinical-type literary jargon stuff, like when he's talking about their knees in the car. I think the story was incredible at times, and somewhat rough to get through at times, much like a funhouse!


I thought about 'Lost in the Funhouse' and why it works for me as a short story, because the entire time I was reading it I kept thinking, "I don't think this premise should hold up, but it does." I thought all the self-conscious commentary would get exhausting, but I don't think it did. I didn't quite come up with a definite solution or answer other than that I just found all his observations insightful and interesting, and so they don't get repetitive or boring. And the actual "story" part of the story was good enough to keep you reading through the quick asides, though the asides are what elevated it to something special.

Writing this now I decided that what I liked about the story was how interactive it felt. It made for a different kind of reading experience. I think though that if anyone tried it again the novelty of it would've worn off and I wouldn't enjoy it.


Reading Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning produced a range of reactions in me.  Admiration for the writing was clearly one; the piece got at a great deal of the complexity of the man, the intelligence, the compassion, the charisma -- by using quick, artfully chosen vignettes, each with an italicized title, and that fascinated me.  The layout of the pages made me think of those “important FAQs” you see so often when companies are trying to explain something complicated. I admit that I was disappointed that  Barthelme omitted in his FAQs any reference to K’s involvement with McCarthyism -- the way he set up the piece, that hit me as a sin of omission -- intellectually dishonest, no matter when he wrote this piece.  As for K’s misuse of the FBI re MLK, I don’t know when that would have been first known, so I can wonder but not opine on whether its omission was because it was unknown or because it did not fit the bias that Barthelme brought to the piece. 

I read the piece twice and found things I didn’t understand in my first reading that I still didn’t get in the second; I also picked up some things I missed originally, like the reference to Rimbaud.  I was upset with myself for not being familiar with Poulet and Marivaux.   But the key thing was how masterfully the piece was written, how brilliantly and ironically complexity was preserved, how the writing was strong enough that it all seemed effortless.  How much effort must have been behind it is quite wonderful. 

Lost in the Funhouse made me hugely sorry for the child Ambrose and equally sorry for John Barth, the man, not John Barth the writer.  (For the latter, this story produces in me sheer admiration.) At times as I was reading it, I was alternately in awe, irritated and wanting it to get on with it.  At other times I was empathetic with and immensely fond of Ambrose.  The writing made me think as well of Virginia Wolff and how I think her writing is more to my taste.  The other thing that Lost in the Funhouse made me think of  is how surpassingly difficult it is to be sensitive and incredibly bright while surrounded by pleasant but more ordinary people.  And how tough growing up is for almost any child.


The stories from this week's reading assignment appear to fit in with the consistent theme of minimalist fiction. I preferred reading the two stories in Noon. As I mentioned, in class last week, this style of writing is precarious. The work could rub readers the wrong way with its spare style. It appears to lack the artful/wordy aspect of fiction and reads more like a simple essay or journalistic piece.  

The story by Deb Olin Unferth reminded me of Lorrie Moore's piece from the beginning of the semester. I am drawing a comparison from a plot/structural standpoint. When I closed my eyes, I thought about the two endings and its relationship to death and suicide. I thought about the oddly high number of creative people who turn to suicide and if Deb Olin Unferth story was a reflection of this behavioral pattern. 


The stories I mostly thought about were Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning and A Short Essay on the War. The first of these stories starts out by describing Kennedy in factual, mostly unemotional terms, referring to him as K and describing all other characters by initials or job titles. The little dissertation on Poulet and the Marivaudian man basically gives the reader an out to stop trying to analyze the character by implying that his identity changes with the moment and he is therefore impossible to analyze. So the story seems to be a character study of an enigmatic character that embraces the enigmatic nature of that character instead of actually trying to resolve it. I have to say, given the ambitiousness of that task, I think he pulled it off fairly well.

A Short Essay on the War seems to be all about a man who desperately does not want to be ordinary and who wants to escape from the emotionally anesthetized  modern world. I though the story was quite well written and made good use of the short-short format by finding small turns of phrase that conveyed big ideas. The dichotomy between "negative stimulus" and "pain," for example, says a lot about the conflict between this man and the world he lives in and does so in very few words.


Of Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth in particular but also about the readings in general 11/12
There was something really eerie about Lost in the Funhouse. Potrays adolescence as dark and perverse, violent and sexual, but the story also openly seems to be despairing - what is the point? I got a lot out of this craft wise (I found the authorial interjections really useful even though they seemed to be making fun of writing/the author in a way?). I also thought the piece was really interesting structurally – the author’s interjections kept the piece alive, Barth continually questioned himself and the reader in that deadpan/teasing way with why am I telling you this and why are you reading this? sort of kept the piece alive.
Again, all the readings felt intensely, almost viscerally lonely. There’s a line in the Dylan Nice story about how the woman doesn't seems ‘permanent enough to have a son’. All of the characters in all the stories seem haunted by the knowledge that that they’re not permanent enough.


I thought about K. in “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning”, and he was a very interesting character and I liked how his existence was broken down into sections of what he thinks and of what others think of him. I feel like I could use similar subtitles to break up my own life, but it would be very different information inside the subdivisions.
            Then I thought about “Lost in the Fun House” and my head started to hurt so I thought about Dylan Nice’s “The Mountain Town”. It reminded me of when a girl I work with came to work smelling of the most putrid vile smell. When she walked past my coworkers and I we exchanged disgusted looks with one another. We all thought it was because of the drugs. We had our manager come take a whiff and he walked right back out and sent another manager in.
            “Get her out of here,” we heard the one manager say to the other. They called her out for a chat. She was gone for at least fifteen minutes. When she came back in to where we were she didn’t look upset. She didn’t even seem embarrassed.
            One of my coworkers whispered to me, “That’s what drugs do to you.”
            Later I was talking to my boss and I asked him why he didn’t send Larissa home. She smelled so bad and her hair was so greasy it looked soaking wet.
            He told me that she said a cat peed in her laundry basket and she didn’t notice the smell because she had a cold.


I thought about the Funhouse story most.  It made the biggest impression on me and I found it to be very interesting.  I enjoyed reading it, I liked the style, the use of language, the little moments of grammar breakage (though eventually the latter bothered me, he seemed to break grammar right at the end of conditional sentences where something really important was about to be expressed, and then he backed off, and threw out a period.  I get it, but at the same time, it seems like he wussed out).  

What I thought about the piece was kind of similar to what I thought about the movie Momento, where the character has no long term memory and is trying to avenge his wife's death.  The story is told backwards in scenes that reflect his inability to remember things past ten minute chunks of experience.  It was brilliant and inventive, and I really enjoyed it.  But also, it seems like that concept could only be made into a single movie.  Whether or not that's true, I don't know.  But I had that feeling, and I got that same feeling from the Barth story.  It was brilliant  and I enjoyed it, but conceptually, the narration describing what's going on behind the artifice of the narration while its going on within the artifice of the narration, was pretty amazing, but limited.  I don't think anyone else could write that type of thing again, and I am not sure what that means, but its a feeling I have.  I mean it is meta-fiction, and its about fiction, and its about uncertainty within fiction, the consent contradictions, the ambiguity about what happened, etc., all point to this struggle with fiction itself being the thematic focus rather than the secondary and tertiary ideas: lust, family, adolescence, etc.  


I thought about "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning" because it was the story I was most puzzled by. I really couldn't make heads or tails of it, so I was basically asking myself a lot of questions and not coming up with many answers. For example: who is the narrator in this story? As I was thinking about this I recalled two instances where there is an "I" that is not part of a quote from someone else (the secretaries, the teacher, K. himself), the second instance being in the last section where the narrator rescues K. from the water. It crossed my mind that maybe the narrator is a reporter or journalist of some kind, who is compiling all of these different angles and sources on K. - but this seems like a too literal interpretation, and does nothing to help explain the last section. Why does K. have a cape and a sword? I kept thinking about "a pastless, futureless man, born anew at every instance," which seems to directly relate to the sort of disjointed structure of the story. But I really couldn't put it all together in my head - why Robert Kennedy?

I really enjoyed its many levels and the intellectual play he engaged in.  


The first time I read Barthelme's "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning" as an undergraduate, the story didn't leave much of an impression on me. But, upon revisiting it, I'm simply blown away by what Barthelme is able to achieve—not only with structure, but the ending, when he so overtly inserts himself in the story. I'm not quite sure how he's able to pull it off, but somehow he does.

While trying to recall all of the stories for this week, I found that what I remember and respond to best are the physical details and full scenes in a story (particularly Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" and "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning"). And while it's true that the Unferth and Nice pieces were considerably shorter, I remember Barthelme and Barth's stories so much better, because, unlike tone and voice, the concrete details of scene and action give you something to hold onto.


From "Robert Kennedy And His Times," by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., paperback edition, pp. 877-8 (footnote)...
"I never met Robert Kennedy nor did I talk to people who had. The story was begun while I was living in Denmark in 1965...the only 'true' thing in it was Kennedy's remark about the painter. I happened to be in the gallery when he came in with a group; I think the artist was Kenneth Noland. Kennedy made the remark quoted about the ruler---not the newest joke in the world. The story was published in New American Review well before the assassination. I cannot account for the concluding impulse of the I-character to 'save' him other than by reference to John Kennedy's death; still, a second assassination was unthinkable at that time. In sum, any precision in the piece was the result of watching television and reading the New York Times." (Barthelme to author, July 16, 1977.)


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