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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Do you think this is a good life?

Bookforum is one of my favorite publications: there are always four or five essays in it that just blow me away, even (especially) if I'm less familiar with the authors under discussion. This is a great James Wolcott essay on the collected works of Donald Barthelme which gives a thriling account of what it was like to read the New Yorker fiction section in the '60s and '70s:
Such questions arise because part of the original exploding-alarm-clock novelty of Barthelme’s Pop fiction was the pristine context in which it was first presented—-the modest decor with which it clashed. Take, for instance, “The Indian Uprising,” accepted by fiction editor Roger Angell with a telegram to Barthelme that read indian uprising uproarious. palefaces routed, shawn scalped. in short, yes and published in the New Yorker of March 6, 1965. A Vietnam allegory whose incantatory ironies evoke the fine cuticles of T. S. Eliot, its energy and invention burst out of the gate from its famous opening paragraph of Comanche arrows descending in clouds on a tableau of bourgeois malaise—“‘Do you think this is a good life?’ The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. ‘No’”—to the swath of carnage that leaves children laid waste by helicopter fire. The anarchist force of “The Indian Uprising” would have stood out anywhere, but in the porcelain pages of the New Yorker, sharing space with luxury-carpet ads and chuckling nods of constipated whimsy from the Talk of the Town, it was like a reveille ripping through a conservatory. As Ben Yagoda wrote in About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, “The Indian Uprising” and a subsequent story, “A Picture History of the War,” messed with the reader’s mind: “With their imagery of war and torture and guerrilla forces on patrol, they also offered uncanny auguries of the street conflicts and jungle warfare that would soon insinuate themselves into the videotape loop running through the national consciousness.” Likewise, Barthelme’s rogue retelling of Snow White, which took up a huge chunk of real estate in the February 18, 1967, issue (nearly one hundred pages), looks almost insurrectionary in its impudence, brandishing boldfaced maxims and proclamations that anticipated Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer—-“Anathematization of the World Is Not an Adequate Response to the World”—-in the face of ads for Connie Francis and Pat Cooper at the Copacabana and Brendan Gill’s pithy review of Tobruk (“the Jewish commando is played by George Peppard”). Yagoda informs us that “Snow White” prompted an influx of mail that was unparalleled for a piece of fiction—nearly all of the letters either outright unfavorable or irritated-puzzled. But the New Yorker didn’t lose its nerve when its readers lost theirs, a rare, cherishable example of institutional composure and loyalty to talent.

Over the years, Barthelme’s antic break with the traditional tactful manner of the classic New Yorker story, where every stick of furniture and motivation was neatly, firmly in place, would expand into an entire wing of the magazine’s house style. His mastery of incongruity and curveball allusions helped liberate the whiz brains in the office and scramble the genetic code of the magazine’s humor and fiction irregulars: By the ’70s, the set-piece fictions and “casuals” of Ian Frazier, Veronica Geng, Mark Singer, Marshall Brickman, and George W. S. Trow abounded with absurdist dialogues, box scores, chess notations, chicken-scratch scribblings, send-ups of familiar minigenres (liner notes, movie blurbs, capsule reviews, wedding notices), multiple-choice quizzes, and mash-up satires (Geng’s specialty—-assigned to write a new intro to Dwight Macdonald’s anthology Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm—and After, she pretended to have him confused with the mystery novelist John D. MacDonald, the creator of Travis McGee, and cast Robert Benchley in the part of “the Vietnam vet who drifted freely between the glittering cabanas of the Fun Coast and the oil-stained walkways of a derelict marina”). They ran riot while Ann Beattie stood slightly off to the side, strumming her hair.

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