How to do Things with Words: Forty Stories

forty storiesDonald Barthelme’s Forty Stories is a treasure trove of short stories. He has an inimitable style: concise narratives, sometimes outlandish plots, and an economy of words. This collection, clocking in at 250 pages, has 40 stories in it meaning that each story gets about 6 ½ pages. In reality, most stories are closer to 4 or 5 pages with a couple of longer ones interspersed. It seems unlikely that a writer could tell a compelling story in 4 or 5 pages, but Barthelme does it time and again in this collection. Take for example the story “Terminus”: only 3 full pages long, it tells about an affair between a married man and a younger woman who is staying in the Hotel Terminus. The paragraphs are short, yet within the short space, Barthelme gives us a full portrait of a flawed man, his inability to resist the woman’s beauty, and her own insecurities.

The content of this collection varies wildly. Barthelme pushes the short story form to its furthest extent. He plays with the genre and produces some wonderful pieces of writing. “Concerning the Bodyguard” is written almost entirely in questions and yet it manages to convey an interesting story. The New Yorker has a podcast of Salman Rushdie reading it and I would highly recommend listening to it. “Sentence,” although somewhat awkward to read, is a 4 page story told in a single sentence. “RIF” is almost entirely conversation between two female middle managers at a corporation, yet the dialogue animates the narrative. These experiments with narration, form, and content demonstrate Barthelme’s ability to craft story from the oddest situations. Of course, not all of them come off. “January,” the closing story, is 8 pages of conversation that seems too loose, too stream of consciousness to really go anywhere. At times, Barthelme also is incredibly opaque and allusive. He references obscure events, knowledges, or cultures that seem to provide meaning for the story’s action but require some Googling on the part of the reader. I would not say he is an elitist writer, but his fiction operates at a high intellectual level.

One of the things about reading collections of short fiction is that they are a little harder to review as whole. This is a selected edition of Barthelme’s body of work, so there is a much higher number of the best stories in his oeuvre whereas a published collection of a writer’s mid-career might not have as many. I am going to talk about two of my favorite pieces from the collection to close this review.

“Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” is an amazing short story about how a group of friends decides to hang their friend, Colby, because he has gone too far. This surreal plot is given little explanation, it just is and Barthelme makes us go along with it. The bulk of story is not about the trial or ethics of hanging friend, but about the group’s attempt to organize the execution. They obviously need drinks, music, a location, invitations, and all the other trappings of a party for the event. The actual event goes off in 4 sentences in final paragraph and happens off-stage, yet I found myself stunned at Barthelme’s ability to make me complicit in this action.

“The Temptation of St. Anthony” tells about St. Anthony’s presence in a small town and the way the community reacts to his presence. The narrator, a neighbour of Anthony’s, details how various people attempted to decipher what his temptations were, seeking some form of juicy gossip. The narrator is not so vicarious or hungry for dirt, but does talk about his disappointment at Anthony’s mundane-ness. Ultimately, the community is unable or unwilling to accept him and Anthony moves back to the desert to the monastic life for which he was known. The story blends Roman Catholic saints with small town politics in a compelling way.

I would highly recommend this collection for lovers of the short story. If you don’t like short short stories though this is probably not for you.

Barthelme, Donald. Forty Stories. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987. Print.

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