My definition of “beach” was a sad and confused one as a child because, like Donald Barthelme, I am from Houston, Texas, and our closest beach town is Galveston Island. As one of the first beaches west of the Mississippi River, we get a LOT of muddy runoff. And red tides. And trash.
There’s not a small bit of pride in my heart about Galveston, though. I know the water is dirty and full of hidden trash and jellyfish. I know playing in it as a child is probably why I have eczema today. I know it smells like what happens when your trash pickup is on Monday and you have to leave Thursday night’s leaking kitchen trash bag in the can for three days. But I’ll be one of the first to point out that there is a dedicated cleanup effort, that the smell is actually evidence of a thriving Gulf environment, that the pleasure pier and restaurants are top notch, and that Moody Gardens is one of the best indoor rainforest experiences you can find (Really. They have a fiddle leaf fig that’s like, 100 feet tall or something. My new goal in life is to get the one in my living room to that size. Also, macaws and frighteningly large Brian-Jacques-in-Redwall-that-could-kill-you-while-attacking-Salamandastrom river otters. Galveston is an amazing place). It has architecture.
I remember walking the Galveston beaches as a kid, collecting shells, the prize always being a mostly-whole sand dollar. Of course most of my siblings were able to find one, but I never did. Always half a sand dollar, as if the flat urchins purposefully split themselves down the middle when they died, laughing into oblivion at the thought of ten-year-old Will bending down to pull a seemingly-pristine shell out of the sand, only to find that it was as broken as his own heart.
My parents owned an apartment complex on the island as well, which brought me down during the summers. I would chase the ducks and find their ping-pong-ball eggs (they may have been turtle eggs? either way, I definitely was not encouraging responsible animal husbandry and environmental regeneration with my treatment of them), and I would look longingly through the palm trees to the gleaming pyramids of Moody Gardens. I finally visited the Moody for the first time last year, when I was twenty-nine, and it was worth all the wait.
All to say, just COOL IT with the anti-Galveston stuff.
But to bring this back to the matter at hand.... Imagine the joy that struck me when I started Donald Barthelme’s “I Bought a Little City,” and read the first sentences:
So I bought a little city (it was Galveston, Texas) and told everybody that nobody had to move, we were going to do it just gradually, very relaxed, no big changes overnight. They were pleased and suspicious. I walked down to the harbor where there were cotton warehouses and fish markets and all sorts of installations having to do with the spread of petroleum throughout the Free World, and I thought, A few apple trees here might be nice . . . . It suited me fine so I started to change it.
If you haven’t already, read it now. It’s quick and it’s wonderful and it’s free at Dallas News here. Or if you have a little more time, you can listen to Barthelme read the story himself:
“I Bought a Little City” is a story about a man who (go figure) buys a city and becomes a bit of a tyrant, all while believing himself to be doing the right thing. He displaces people from their homes, arguing that it’s alright because he creates a park and puts the people in hotels. He shoots six thousand dogs, concluding “This gave me great satisfaction and you have no idea how wonderfully it improved the city for the better.” He may not totally believe that, though, because he immediately forces the newspaper to publish a self-written editorial criticizing him for shooting the dogs.
He’s in love with another man’s wife, but doesn’t make an effort to steal her away. He restrains himself from ridding the town of a man “playing those goddamn bongo drums” because “You got to let him play his goddamn bongo drums if he feels like it, it’s part of the misery of democracy, to which I subscribe.”
The narrator has the sense of a god with total control and the ability to set his own rules, but who is confused by his own ability to hurt other people. So he tries, inconsistently, to restrain himself. His argument in defense, all along, is that he never did anything too imaginative. “I did very little, I was fairly restrained.”
By contrast, and here we get to the meat of the piece:
God does a lot worse things, every day, in one little family, any family, than I did in that whole little city. But He’s got a better imagination than I do. For instance, I still covet Sam Hong’s wife. That’s torment. Still covet Sam Hong’s wife, and probably always will. It’s like having a tooth pulled. For a year. The same tooth. That’s a sample of His imagination. It’s powerful.
This piece is full of powerful and humorous little images and vignettes. There are the dogs and Sam Hong’s wife and the goddamn bongo drums and the spread of petroleum throughout the Free World, but there is also a city plan based on a jigsaw puzzle of the Mona Lisa, a panacea in the form of an underground parking facility, and "one and one-third lovely children".
This piece is funny. It’s dark and rough, but you read the whole thing with a smile, because something about this narrator’s voice is endearing and tender and laughable. This is something common to so many of Barthelme’s narrators, so I think now is a great time to take a look at how Barthelme accomplishes this, while recognizing that there is a huge part of “I know it when I see it” to humor and wit.
When I read Barthelme, two techniques stand out to me:
1. Poetic Wordplay and Rhythm
Barthelme has spoken about his affection for words and the cadence of sentences. I can’t say I am entirely on board with his sense of rhythm (he has been praised for the poetry of a sentence in his story Paraguay, which goes "Electrolytic jelly exhibiting a capture ratio far in excess of standard is used to fix the animals in place." Unusual and vivid and not sure what it means? Yes. But poetic and rhythmic? Dunno.), but there was one moment in “I Bought a Little City” that stopped me in my tracks as at once strange and hilarious and shameful.
While drawing property lines in his new city plan, the narrator calls a certain walkway “A lurkway for potential muggists and rapers.” I immediately stopped and wondered, “Is this correct?”
I wonder this because I know exactly what he means, despite my confidence that “lurkway”, “muggists” and “rapers” are either not words, or don’t traditionally mean what they mean here. Especially when we typically would say “muggers” and “rapists”. Simply by switching the words’ endings, Barthelme has confused and shocked me in a pleasant way, but in the context of talking about rape, which just further confuses me and makes me wonder if I’m allowed to laugh at this sentence. It’s classic Barthelme: a dark and heavy topic approached with a lightness and playfulness that keeps his readers focused on the story as a whole, rather than more tense particulars. His specific word choice guides us to the feelings he wants us to have.
This isn’t the only time Barthelme gets playful with words and grammar; he has a loose approach to grammatical officialism. In an interview with George Plimpton, he speaks about his disagreements with his editor, a man of whom “something in him insists that commas be where they ought to be, where I like a much freer punctuation.”
Practicing this kind of free punctuation and wordplay in the service of humor and wit is a difficult thing to do, I think. Humor breaks down when you try to analyze it, and so much of what is funny is particular to a person. I don’t have a specific exercise to hand to you on this one technique, but I would guess that a good way to practice playing with words like this would be to write poetry. Poetry is a great testing area for word play because it bears “following one’s heart” and free associations and happy accidents better than prose. It is sometimes easier to banish the internal editor when writing poetry.
2. Irony. Again.
Almost every time I’ve laughed during this story, it’s been because of Barthelme’s sense of irony. Whether it’s understatement or a sudden horrific remark, Barthelme never quite lets his readers have their expectations met.
Just after the narrator expresses his concern that some alleys may be lurkways for muggists and rapers (my goodness, spell check does NOT enjoy those words), his companion points out: “There won’t be any such, . . . because you’ve bought our whole city and won’t allow that class of person to hang out here no more.” As if it’s that easy to forget such power, or even to implement it, our narrator notes “[t]hat was right. I had bought the whole city and could probably do that. I had forgotten.”
When threatened with a lead pipe, the narrator retaliates by telling his would-be attacker that “I could hit you with a writ of mandamus.” “You’re a black-hearted man . . . . You’ll roast in Hell in the eternal flames and there will be no mercy or cooling drafts from any quarter” is the response, as if writs of mandamus are things one is concerned with when wanting to attack someone with a pipe.
The narrator even puts together a little poem, which turns suddenly dark:
I own a little city
Can’t help people
Can hurt them though
Shoot their dogs
Mess ‘em up
In each of these instances we can note two things: 1) Barthelme never gives you what you expect, and 2) he usually does this by crafting a mood that contrasts levity with horror. Who forgets their power over muggists and rapers? Who, in the face of a man with a raised weapon, threatens a writ of mandamus? Who buys a little city and takes away the lesson that he can hurt people?
And yet we don’t dislike our narrator. We understand him, and we even feel that he is restrained. He gives up his power in the end (“I took a bath on that deal, there’s no denying it . . . .”), but asks us to wonder whether God so much restraint. Or rather, he tells us that God doesn’t. God has too much imagination.
So how can we use this in our own writing? Barthelme is a master of irony. Every time I try to point out a new technique to you, it turns out that it’s really just another form of irony. The entire mood of Barthelme’s writings so far is one of distance and and contrast, a mood in which people don’t quite respond the way people are supposed to, but are still somehow believable.
At the risk of this post being a repetition of my “I Think This Is Irony” and “Take Me To School” posts, I suggest an imitation exercise that makes use of absurdity and irony to make palatable a typically difficult situation.
Start by using Barthelme’s narrator. The narrator is paradoxically restrained and imaginative, tending towards abuses of power, but apologetic and likable. He doesn’t seem easily impressed, and his attitude is marked by the use of understatement. Place the narrator in another situation that allows him or her to exercise power tyrannically. Throughout, use understatement to undermine the expectations of the reader, and treat difficult and horrific situations with levity and playfulness.
Postmodern writing is known for its fascination with irony, and I think heavily ironic writing naturally tends towards the absurd. Don’t be afraid to let your exercises be absurd by making reactions and outcomes sometimes far more tame than they would be in reality, and at other times far more extreme than they would be in reality.
Practice this kind of difference and contrast, and then scale it back in the rest of your non-absurd writing. A writer who does this well, in a way that is at one time both absurd and believable, is John Irving. Somehow, a young boy killing his best friend’s hot mom by accidentally hitting her in the head with a baseball is both shocking and understandable in his worlds (check out “A Prayer for Owen Meany”).
Absurdity practice is also a great way to escape writer’s block. If I’m blocked, it’s usually because I don’t have a sense of where the story is logically supposed to go. So I may fight this by letting the story go as far off the tracks as possible. It frees me from feeling stuck in my expectations, and sometimes I end up liking that path and changing directions accordingly. Sometimes it reveals the logical path by contrast.
It can be tempting to use these techniques with a heavy hand, but with the right balance, irony and absurdity enliven writing and are fantastic tools to make darker and more horrific passages more bearable.
Books mentioned in this post: