Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Overnight to Many Distant CitiesOvernight to Many Distant Cities by Donald Barthelme
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The favorite dance of Captain Blood is the grave and haunting Catalonian sardana, in which the participants join hands facing each other to form a ring which gradually becomes larger, then smaller, then larger again. It is danced without smiling, for the most part. He frequently dances with his men, in the middle of the ocean, after lunch, to the music of a single silver trumpet."

I liked Donald Barthelme's Forty Stories a lot and rated it with four stars. Alas, his Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983) has been a disappointment and, in fact, if not for the last piece in the set, the title story, I would have to rate the book even lower than with two stars.

Overnight is a collection of small literary pieces, of which many but not all are very short stories. They are interspersed with "interludes", for some reason printed in italics, but I am too obtuse to discern connections between the "stories" and the intervening material. It would be nice to be able to say that the longer pieces form a mosaic of literary snapshots of life, but then the verb "form" implies some sort of design, which is missing, or maybe again I am too dull-witted to recognize it. The pieces of the mosaic seem to be randomly thrown onto the pages, lacking any unifying order, sort of like a lazy avant-garde painter randomly squeezing colors out of paint tubes onto the canvas.

But let's not quibble about the lack of unifying theme; after all Heraclitus said "The unlike is joined together, and from differences results the most beautiful harmony." But then the reader would probably want the individual pieces of the mosaic to distinguish themselves in some way - be interesting, amusing, funny, perhaps make some point, carry a message, etc. Alas, only two out of the 24 pieces have made an impression on me: Captain Blood is a wildly funny post-modern take on the activities of the famous buccaneer, who dances sardana with his crew, "after lunch, to the music of a single silver trumpet." Then the title piece, a collection of scenes that the narrator remembers from his visits to many distant places, does convey the deep and intense feeling of nostalgia, beautifully rendered in Barthelme's prose.

Some pieces are quite hard to get through: I particularly dislike the bewildering and opaque interlude about teaching a baby not to tear pages out of books and the piece called Wrack composed solely of unfocused and rambling dialogue. Mr. Barthelme can write great prose, but this is not his best work and the set would be a poor introduction to his writing for a novice reader.

Two stars.

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