4. – The School
I came upon the writings of Donald Barthelme in an odd, backward way. I stumbled across an article in the New Yorker (Good Losers, March 8, 1999) written by two of his brothers, Stephen and Frederick. It was an eloquent piece about an extremely successful family, the father a famous and influential architect and three sons that were noteworthy writers. The article was about two of them, Frederick and Stephen, who had become terribly addicted to gambling. It was fascinating and horrifying to read how these enormously talented and intelligent men were destroying their lives by driving down to the cheap casinos along the Mississippi coast and blowing all their livelihood on blackjack binges.
During the course of the article the brothers wrote about their older brother, Donald, and his revolutionary genius as an author. That interested me enough to do some research and to start to read his stuff.
Most of what Donald Barthelme writes are very short stories, flash fiction. They are unique and unusual bits of text – not what you are expecting or used to reading. They give up on a regular plot arc and make the reader figure out the meaning from a series of seemingly unrelated, often ridiculous statements, occurrences, or facts.
It’s a bit of an acquired taste. At first it was attractive to me because of its short nature – I figured I could read these little morsels of tales in some spare seconds here or there. But their simplicity turned out to be an illusion. The stories were more complex and deeper than they appeared on the surface. It took longer than I expected and were more work than I was prepared for – the tiny things had to be re-read and thought about.
Eventually, I came around. I haven’t read everything Donald Barthelme (or his brothers) have written – but it’s in the repertoire. I’ll get to it eventually.
Today’s selection, The School, is a good representative. We all have had the experience of being in a class of children keeping animals or plants in the classroom for educational purposes. Most have had the experience of having something die under these conditions – the shared sadness, responsibility, and disappointment. This very short work takes that experience and amplifies it to the point of ridiculous terror and then takes a very unexpected turn.
Read it, see if you like it.
At any rate, it’s the rare piece of serious fiction that reminds me of a Monty Python sketch (a reminder only – the tone and theme are very different) in the way this one does.
Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.
—-The School, from Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme