Miles and Miles of Files Part III: Literary Pastiche or Parody?

Here’s a real oddity I found. Again, it’s something that I had forgotten about. It’s either a literary pastiche or a parody of the works of writer Donald Barthelme. I don’t remember what my intent was at the time since I actually think that Barthelme is an interesting writer.

All I know for sure is that it was written when I worked at the Sheriff’s Office because I wrote it on the teletype machine, using the Print Screen function when I had a page complete. It had to have been done on a quiet, nay, dead overnight shift because that same machine was used to run license plate numbers and checks of state and national (NCIC) wanted lists.

What gave this away was the manuscript. Pulpy yellow paper from a roll. Plus the type element on the machine had a quirk. It would invert the lowercase “t” 95% of the time. The “t” looked like a lower case “j” without the dot and with the slash, so it made for a unique look that amused us dispatchers and occasionally baffled the deputies.

If you don’t know who Barthelme is, there’s some info on him at the end of this post. I think he might have been amused at this, and I’d be interested in comments from any Barthelme fans – excuse me… scholars – out there.

Donald Bartheme Kept From Doing Something Unpleasant

There is a writer. He wakes up on this particular morning. He decides that it is time he wants breakfast. After all, it is morning.

(this writer of course does not realize that nature itself has conspired against him and has arranged these circumstances to fall upon him so that he might meet his end on this day and that this awakening, albeit normal for him at this usual time of day, falls into the grand scheme of things)

This writer dresses. He goes down the stairs. His wife is downstairs, he goes down to join her.

(it is clear that this is the plot of nature because of the fact that there is gravity – had there been no gravity in nature, he would not have had to descend the stairs and in fact set into motion the events which would bring about his demise)

“Morning, dear.”
“Morning, Donnie. See you’re up.”
“Barely. Didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“I’ll fix you a good breakfast. What do you want?”
“How about a poached egg on toast?”

(of course these things all fit together provided by the scheme of nature – the barking dog that kept him awake the hen that laid the fatal egg and even his wife behaving like a wife for a change because she also knew the truth of the day which of course was)

The wife curses and says that the toaster is burning the bread that she had put inside. The writer asks what is wrong. The wife says that the toaster does not work. The writer says he knows that, why doesn’t it work. The wife says it is burning the toast. The writer says he knows, he can smell it burning.

(even the bread knew as it gave up its life that morning and the electricity also knew the part it had to play, performing to perfection, gushing through the toaster’s wires much too fast, to bring an end to the bread to put an end to the man)

The writer tells his wife to take the toaster out to get fixed. The wife tells the writer that he is silly. The wife tells the writer that the toaster has been fixed twice already and is seven years old.

(even the toaster repairman knew, for it was a labyrinthian conspiracy)

“Tell you what, dear. Why don’t you go buy a new toaster today?”
“I can’t.”
“Why not?”
“We can’t afford it.”
“Can’t afford it? Good Lord, we’ve got to have a new toaster.”
“Listen, if you’re so hot to get a new toaster, why don’t you go and write one of your stupid stories for The New Yorker? Maybe they’ll give you enough to buy a new toaster AND pay the gas bill.”

(the gas company knew, The New Yorker knew, the Good Lord knew. the writer didn’t)

Disgruntled, the writer climbs the stairs and goes to his den, his typewriter. He rolls in a sheet of paper. He has no idea as to what his story is going to be about. He does not worry, as this has never stopped him in the past.

(yes, the paper knew and the typewriter, although not directly involved with nature except for the electricity it uses, knew, so in a way it could be said that it knew as the toaster did when it burned the bread. while I’m on the subject, when does bread officially stop being bread and start being toast? are there some government criteria of something like that? if you know the answer, please write to me in care of this magazine. thanks)

The writer writes one of his stories. As usual, it is a mixed media type of thing. There are short sentences. Choppy sentences. There are sentences that are very long and tedious because, for reasons not even totally known to the author, they make use of outsized words to increase total volume, and they are patched (but loving patched) with every trick – every nuance – that punctuation can provide. There seem to be interruptions for subjects that are totally unrelated. The capital of Wyoming is Cheyenne. Worst of all, there seem to be two plots running parallel to each other. It appears that they are supposed to converge, but it is not certain if they will.

(be assured that this is all part of the plot. it will come)

At last the writer’s story is complete. He dashes off a polite note to the editor at The New Yorker. He stuffs it and the story into an envelope and adorns it with stamps. He looks at his watch. he has just enough time to catch the postman. He could have a new toaster by late next week.

(the postman knew, he knew, he knew more than all of the others. the postman is the key, the cornerstone, the weak link in the chain. he, too, has been waiting for this time to come)

“Hello, Edward.”
“Hullo, Mister B. Any mail today?”
He hands him the manila envelope. “Just another story.”

(just another story, but it wasn’t just another story. the postman knew. he knew the destination of that story. not just the new yorker, either. it would be read by highbrows and english teachers. they would think the man wonderful. they would see him put in a hundred english college texts. they would make their students buy these wickedly overpriced texts and they would instruct them to read his stories inside and have them write papers on the deep-rooted existential meaning within them. occasionally, a student would come along who would write that the story was merely just so much nonsense, something that was made up as it was written. and the english teacher, because he liked the story so much, would flunk the kid in freshman college english, even though the kid was really right. and the kid, who had never flunked a class in his life, would go into a deep depression, steal his roommate’s bottle of quaaludes and overdose himself to death. the postman knew this because it had happened to his son. and he had quit his $50K a year job to become a mailman in the hopes that he might someday deliver mail to the person who wrote that story

The postman senses his destiny near him now. With the writer still holding his manuscript in his outstretched hand, he pulls a handgun from his mailbag and empties it into him. The first shot goes through the collarbone and punctured the writer’s aorta. The other shots hit the writer, too, with less spectacular effect. The writer is dead as he hits the ground.

(the aorta had been waiting, [dare we say?] dying for this moment. it guided the bullet to it, actually glad to meet something inorganic. the ground he falls on heaves a sign of relief. it has been dreading this moment for years, but now that it has happened, it really didn’t seem as bad as it had expected)

The police inspector shakes his head and looks at the police lieutenant. He says, “The same thing happened to John Barth last week.”

(as all over the nation, english professors react with tearfully to the news and the very next day they tell their students that the world has lost a major, unique talent, and then they tell their students to read every one of the author’s stories in their wickedly overpriced textbooks and write reports on them all along with an analysis of what the writer’s loss means to literature. in spite of the postman’s efforts it is not over, not at all, not ever, not by a long shot.)

I’m glad I found this now. First, it shows off my ability to pick up on a writing style and imitate it, even though there are elements of lampoon here.

Second, Barthelme died in 1989, so it’s safe to release this now, considering the line of the “plot.” This was written between 1981 and 1985, so Mark David Chapman was still fresh on our minds, so I wouldn’t have tried to publish it anyway. Of course, now we’re coming out of an era of Post Office violence, so all bets are off.

Third, it’s an example of a part of me that is not there anymore. I did a lot of this kind of writing back then, weird one-off stuff, written just to be writing, that just went into my files to take up space. I’m pretty sure I didn’t write it for publication. As I said, I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote it. It was probably 3 a.m. and a slow night at work.

As promised, some Donald Barthelme resources:

Wikipedia on Donald Barthelme
Jessamyn West’s Donald Barthelme Page

Some of my favorite Barthelme stories, readable on the ‘web:

Glass Mountain (annotated)
The first thing the baby did wrong…
Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby
Shower of Gold

Tomorrow: Little Folks

Given that true intellectual and emotional compatability
Are at the very least difficult if not impossible to come by
We could always opt for the more temporal gratification
Of sheer physical attraction
That wouldn’t make you a shallow person, would it?

(via iPod Shuffle)


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