By now, of course, 1988 seems like old times; and while these sorts of aesthetic wars are never actually won, so to speak, it’s safe to say that the bells have indeed tolled for minimalism’s reign over American fiction. Thus, the publication of “The Law of Averages,” a mostly retrospective anthology of Barthelme’s short fiction, presents us with a grand opportunity to peer backward, with the slight cushion of history and without aesthetic rancor, at what Barthelme — and by extension the minimalist ethos — was able to do: that is, whether the prose does the trick, whether it can still, two decades later, break our hearts.
In the spirit of things, the minimalist answer is this: Yes. Barthelme’s stories, it’s true, travel negligible distances — emotionally, geographically and physically — and never so much begin and end as start and stop. At times they suggest Philip Glass’ opera “Einstein on the Beach,” during which the audience was encouraged to wander about; one could step out into the lobby for coffee and a cigarette and return confident that nothing much had happened in the meantime. Because, in Barthelme’s world, nothing much does happen: A middle-aged white man almost, but not quite, makes a connection with one of life’s mysteries — or at least with a woman, who often, for Barthelme, embodies life’s mystery. The “almost” is important here, because Barthelme’s characters aren’t awarded those connections, no matter how often they’re glimpsed, even, in fact, when such connections are more or less forced upon them. In Barthelme’s stories (“Pupil,” “Instructor,” “Violet”) women are always dropping their clothes in front of startled men, or teen runaways or female college students are knocking on the apartment door; the men, in response, shrivel.
That Barthelme’s hapless souls are aware — keenly aware — of their missed or nonexistent opportunities casts a gloomy, half-tragic shadow over these stories. Barthelme’s characters were conditioned to expect more of life. “What am I cooking?” the narrator of “Cooker” asks his wife. The answer is lamb chops. “This makes me feel better,” he says dryly. “Lamb chops, and suddenly the world is new, a place of mystery and possibility.” The only epiphany, then, is that there are no epiphanies. “I stood for a minute there on the blacktop,” says another narrator, “arms crossed, scanning townhouses across the street for a clue, a movement, anything out of the ordinary. There was nothing.”
This sounds, of course, like the grousing of one of Barthelme’s detractors, bemoaning the lack of clues, or movement, or anything extraordinary. But I’d like to return to Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” for a moment, because I think there’s a corollary here. Andrew Porter, reviewing Glass’ opera for the New Yorker, wrote that “Glass’ score may be incantatory, but it is not lulling … a listener to his music usually reaches a point, quite early on, of rebellion at the ‘needle stuck in the groove’ quality, but a minute or two later he realizes that the needle has not stuck; something has happened. Once that point has passed, Glass’ music becomes easy to listen to for hours on end — or so I find. The mind may wander now and again, but it wanders within a new sound world that the composer has created.” Change a few words and Porter could be reviewing Barthelme.
Nothing much happens in Barthelme’s stories, yes; but something happens in the reader’s mind and, more important, keeps happening. In that respect, Barthelme’s stories aren’t so much stories as they are moods. A newspaper or hamburger wrapper skitters across a deserted intersection and your heart starts to crack. At times the effect is inscrutable; as one narrator says, speaking of the Dallas skyline: “I couldn’t tell whether the lights were strange or it was fabulous architecture,” which mirrors the bewilderment these stories can foment. The effect can even be irksome — the weight of these seemingly weightless stories has the power to cloud the sunniest of days, even to wound, in a way reminiscent of Dostoevski or Kafka. Is this really the world I inhabit? you wonder, peering up from the page. And the answer leaves you desperate.