Monday, October 25, 2010

Donald Barthelme vs. sentimentality

So, as you've probably read, the Paris Review has made all its author interviews available online. This means some of us can stop beating ourselves up about not getting any writing done, and instead tell ourselves that we are not procrastinating but learning useful stuff about the craft. So far I've read Jonathan Lethem's and Donald Barthelme's interviews. Both are great, in that both made me feel that I'm groping toward some worthwhile aesthetic in my own work. But today I'll talk about a few things Barthelme said, back in 1981, my god, so long ago...

I'm especially interested in his points about a certain fuzziness in our perception. Barthelme suggests it's fuzziness, rather than clarity, that gives us the sensation of reality. I don't mean reality in the sense of some objective world we may (or may not) all see around us; rather the sense that a character's emotional response is true to life.


Apparently the Yiddish theater, to which Kafka was very addicted, includes as a typical bit of comedy two clowns, more or less identical, who appear even in sad scenes—the parting of two lovers, for instance—and behave comically as the audience is weeping. This shows up especially in The Castle.


The assistants.


And the audience doesn’t know what to do.


The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude. As when you attend a funeral and notice, against your will, that it’s being poorly done.

We've all been at this funeral, right? We may be saying goodbye to someone we love deeply, yet we sit there thinking: couldn't the minister have at least combed his hair? We're inappropriate creatures; we can't help it. Of course, the way to ensure sympathy for this critical funeral-goer is to have him or her notice her own "wrong" reaction and fret about it. And it's totally fine, as Barthelme almost always is, to be funny.

In the same vein:

If I didn’t have roaches big as ironing boards in the story I couldn’t show Cortes and Montezuma holding hands, it would be merely sentimental. You look around for offsetting material, things that tell the reader that although X is happening, X is to be regarded in the light of Y.

I think this notion of X in light of Y is crucial to fiction. It's a variant of Norman Mailer's "noble shit" theory, which I subscribe to, but never like having to describe (so follow the link, if you must). The idea is that if you're going to aim for lofty abstractions or emotions, you need to tarnish them by putting them right next to ugly, stupid, obscene, or silly stuff. Noble must be close to shit; giant roaches must march by as two enemies hold hands. There must be offsetting material. Otherwise you end up with pomposity, sentimentality, and so on.

The real strength of certain authors is in the choice of that offsetting material. The brilliance of Art Spiegelman's Maus books is his decision to portray the Holocaust--a subject that seemed untouchable, except with pure reverence--as a cartoon involving mice and cats. He brought the topic down to earth, where it could hurt us.

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