July 24th, 2012
The first story in Moon Deluxe by Frederick Barthelme is called “Box Step” and it’s narrated by Henry, who seems to be the boss at a small company. I never quite figured out what he did or what the company did. He banters with Ann, who seems to be his assistant, and assorted other employees. At one point Ann says she’s “…planning a giant party tonight at Henry’s.” Though this has not previously been discussed, they go ahead with it, though few people show up and almost exclusively folks from the office. The next evening, Henry and Ann go out to dinner and a movie, without it having been pre-arranged or discussed, without us ever getting a sense of whether their relationship is physical or even romantic. Henry buys some toys from the daughter of an employee, and later at the restaurant they run into all of the employees again.
It’s a very odd story–Henry seems to have no volition except to acquire toys, and Ann steers him along like a child with a toy herself. There is no interior monologue, so we never know the reasons Henry has for doing, or not doing, anything. But the dialogue is quick and sharp, and the details closely observed. I was intrigued by the story, though I wouldn’t have quite said I liked it.
I had been expecting to like everything from the blurbs on the cover–one from Raymond Carver and one from Margaret Atwood (how often do you see that combo?) When the book came out in 1983, 13 of the 17 stories had been previously published in the New Yorker. After reading all that bumpf, I could hardly believe I’d let this book sit on the shelf for so long. I was very excited.
The enthusiasm waned as the stories went forward. Though they vary in quality, all 17 of these stories are about male protagonists with very little will or desire, who are lusted after by beautiful women who don’t get them, or not really. But that’s ok, because the women require little from them other than that they go to many restaurants and hang out by the sides of pools. I became so annoyed by these recurrent premises that I stopped enjoying truly funny dialogue and excellent observations about restaurants (so many restaurants in this book!) There are also many cars, and many apartment buildings set around an interior courtyard with a pool in it–near as I can figure, the setup is halfway between Melrose Place and a seniors’ village. I think most of the characters were meant to be low-income but since (a) after the first story none of the male characters has a job nor seemed worried about acquiring one and (b) everyone has a pool, they seemed rich and dissipated to me.
The stories were set in the American south, where apparently pool access, car ownership, and presence of Shoney’s is taken for granted. Which was actually pretty interesting–this book offers a slice of life in a time and place I’ve never seen (I’ve been to the South a few times, but very briefly–though I do know you should eat Shoney’s if ever you get the chance). Never had I read a book that seemed so dated, though–Danskin leotards, carphones with cords, and going to the spa to lose weight. I don’t exactly know why this book seemed so aggressively alien to me–probably because so much work was put into capturing the moment that was, it doesn’t translate across the years.
Towards the end of the book, when I was coming up with the alternate title, “Chronicles of Impotent Unemployed Males,” I looked up Barthelme at the above Wikipedia link and found out he was a celebrated minimalist. So was Raymond Carver, apparently, but I remember Carver’s characters having, you know, feelings and desires, even if it was only the vague desire to be happy. But maybe I didn’t know what minimalism means, at least not in prose.
So I decided I needed to do better and I looked it up outside of the Wiki circles. This definition seemed pretty good, and actually mentions Barthelme. I see his points, and I particularly like the term “interpretative polyvalency”–I like the idea of readers being able to bring their thoughts to bear in creating a story.
The author of the above article, one Phil Greaney, goes on to make some other good points about the demandingness of minimalism, which I do get and appreciate. But I can’t help but feel it doesn’t excuse the unrelenting sameness of these stories. Any one of them I would’ve enjoyed, but over and over…here are some sample opening lines from this collection:
“Ann is pretty, divorced, a product model who didn’t go far because of her skin, which is very fair and freckled.”
“You watch the pretty salesgirl slide a box of Halston soap onto a low shelf, watch her braid slip off her shoulder, watch like an adolescent as the vent at the neck of her blouse opens slightly–she is twenty, maybe twenty-two, and greatly freckled…”
“Kathleen Sullivan is back on CNN, a guest on the call-in interview show. She’s supposed to be talking about the boom in news, but the callers, who are all men, only want to talk about her bangs, and the new drab-look clothes she wears on ABC.”
“Sally meets me in the driveway. “It’s great you’re back,” she says. She’s tall, willowy, tailored.”
So many women, very precisely and intriguingly described, but described a lot, and lasciviously you’re not going to believe me when I tell you there’s only one sexual encounter in this book, and it’s a fade-to-black. The rest of the women are just going to desperately and weirdly fawn over the narrators and never ever get laid, so all this lascivious description is for naught.
This is a long and fairly negative review, isn’t it? And I feel a bit that it’s unfair, but this was only Barthelme’s third book and he went on to write many more in the past 30 years. Possibly it’s not fair to judge him by this one. I mean, I did it with Mysteries of Pittsburgh but I had read the later, more excellent novels that Chabon wrote, so I was able to contextualize my dislike of the one at hand.
I couldn’t really do that here, having read nothing else of Barthelme’s, and while I wasn’t really tempted to, I was driven to be fair, so I read Driver in the Barcelona Review (it’s what I could find on line. This is from nearly 20 years after the stories in *Moon Deluxe*, and as I’d hoped it was much much better. Still not an ideal piece of fiction–I doubt Barthelme and I agree about what that would be–but an enjoyable developed fictional world with characters that seem to have real, human motivations, even if the reader can’t completely understand them. The female character is also recognizably human and surprising and intriguing. There’s also lots of interesting technical comments about cars–there’s actually stuff in the story other than vague desires and restaurants. And the end is a huge win–it changed my clinical nodding to a startled grin.
So what am I saying? Maybe I’m saying read Frederick Barthelme, just not this particular book.
This is my 8th/August (I’m ahead) book for the Off the Shelf Challenge. More to come!