Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Since it would be presumptuous of me to try to define postmodern literature, I will borrow the famous phrase from Justice Potter Stewart:"I know it when I see it". Donald Barthelme's "Forty Stories" (1987) is certainly a postmodern work. It is a companion volume to his "Sixty Stories" that I haven't yet read, but definitely will.
Some of the 40 pieces in this volume are proper stories, but many are not; some are literary gimmicks (of high quality, to be sure), for instance, the text of "Concerning the Bodyguard" is made of 108 questions and only 11 sentences in the affirmative. The piece entitled "Sentence" is, aptly, just one sentence, albeit 6-pages long. "The Temptation of St. Anthony" seems to be focused on the word "ineffable". Some pieces include illustrations. The average length of a "story" is about six and a half pages.
I do not like many of the 40 "stories"; perhaps I am just plain too obtuse to understand them. However, several pieces make reading the collection worthwhile. The surreal "On the Deck" is a frozen moment in time; it describes, on just two pages, things and people on the deck of a ferry, and is to literature what Renee Magritte's paintings are to visual arts. My favorite story (it is a proper story) is titled "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby", which begins with "And now he'd gone too far, so we decided to hang him" and then proceeds logically and Kafkaesquely to the natural ending.
Most importantly, "Forty Stories" is a very funny book. Even if, in my dilettante view, many pieces fail as literature, they are still hilarious. Moreover, Mr. Barthelme has coined several wonderful aphorisms, such as, for example, "Art, Goethe said, is the four-percent interest on the municipal bond of life". So, even if there are many more one-star stories in this collection than five-star ones, my overall rating is high.
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