Visitors by Donald Barthelme

In review

Visitors, a Donald Barthelme short story from my termite-eaten copy of Forty Stories, is gruff. It is impatient with giving details. Told from the viewpoint of Bishop, a self-absorbed, divorced art enthusiast (not a professor, the story maintained, so more of a dilettante?), the story is also peppered with women – his fifteen year-old daughter from his ex-wife; Michiko from Tokyo years ago; Christie from Seattle whom he just met; and old women that he either needed to pick up as they trip before him for some odd reason or stare at while eating breakfast over candlelight right across his New York apartment. This was the last sentence: “He can never figure out whether they are terminally romantic or whether, rather, they’re trying to save electricity.” The setting was in Manhattan, perhaps in the 1960s.

Barthelme has a peculiar gift of unspooling streams of consciousness and writing the snappiest of dialogues – he has explored both of these in numerous books such as The Dead Father and his brilliant short stories. I can’t help but think that Barthelme’s oeuvre is all about explaining reality as it happens through the consciousness – and to do this with a playful wit and a certain economy with words. For instance, here’s the dialogue when Bishop meets Christie:

Standing behind Malcolm is a beautiful young woman.
"This is Christie," Malcolm says. "We've just given her lunch. We've just eaten all the dim sum in the world."
Bishop is immediately seized by a desire to cook for Christie - either his Eight-Bean Soup or his Crash Cassoulet.
She'll telling him something about her windows.
"I don't care but why under my windows?"
She's wearing a purple shirt and is deeply tanned with black hair -- looks like an Indian, in fact, the one who sells Mazola on TV.
Harry is still talking about the new president. "I mean he did his dissertation on bathing trends."
"Well maybe he knows where the big bucks are."
There's some leftover duck in the refrigerator he can use for the cassoulet.
"Well," he says to Christie, "are you hungry?"
"Yes," she says, "I am."
"We just ate," Harry says. "You can't be hungry. You can't possibly be hungry."
"Hungry hungry hungry," she says, taking Bishop's arm, which is, can you believe it, sticking out. 

See how the dialogue saves the reader from the trouble of reading worthless lines, only to hand over the gems. Barthelme does this repeatedly as a way of tuning out the unimportant bits. (Check this out: ‘”The thing I like about Redford is,” she says, and for ten minutes she tells him about Robert Redford.’) And how it genuinely portrays a distracted person – in this case, a person talking to a terrific woman and at the same time thinking about making a cassoulet for her from that leftover duck – in the middle of a conversation!

While the style is genuinely creative, if not self-congratulatory, it also hints at a bigger issue: the narrative style of the story reflects Bishop’s depiction of women. (This is arguably shared by the narrator, too, because in some stories by Barthelme you couldn’t tell which as both share the same tone of voice.) Throughout the story the atmosphere is sexually charged, from that awkward scene when Bishop’s daughter jumped against him in the middle of a horror film (his daughter’s breasts pressed into his back; to my relief, he moved away), to the deadpan justification of divorce that he gave right in his daughter’s face (that it is her daughter’s fault), to Michiko’s meek and subservient disposition to Bishop in the middle of an earthquake, to that narration when Christie is served vodka in his apartment: “Bishop loves women who drink,” and in a beat: “Maybe she smokes!

Even Christie herself, as Bishop’s center of sexual attention, seems to tolerate this: There was this part where she relates a scene in Union Square market where a man stares at this farmer-girl, waiting for her to pick up vegetables from the spread so he can get a good view of her breasts. Moments after came Bishop unabashedly asking: “Would you like to go to bed now?”

I know: it’s lewd, brash and reckless… Thank goodness it’s a Barthelme story: either you take it seriously as signs of those times, or as a prime example of postmodern American literature, which I have no expertise on.

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