By any rational calculus, I’d be a big fan of 1960s-era postmodernist Donald Barthelme, subject of a biography called Hiding Man written by Tracy Dougherty and touted by Colm Toibin on the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review. Toibin describes Barthelme’s stories thus:
They take immense risks with tone and content; they bathe the known world in the waters of irony, rhythmic energy and exuberant formal trickiness.
It’s because I’ve heard praise like this before that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to appreciate the works of Donald Barthelme. Toibin is right that Barthelme takes risks with tone and content; the problem is that this is all he does, and I prefer writers who take risks with emotion or meaning. The very prototype of a “cool” postmodernist, Barthelme seems to have inspired many similarly dapper postmodernists to follow, from Don Delillo to Richard Ford to Lydia Davis. I like self-conscious fiction, I like barrier-breaking experiments — but I believe readers of the future who look back at this era will be more interested in the likes of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore, postmodernists who can make us feel.
This weekend’s Book Review contains more fiction coverage than I honestly have patience for, and I say this not because I’m proud of it but because I wish I had more enthusiasm to share. I’m probably suffering from aesthetic information over-exposure lately (Twitter may be to blame), and I didn’t wake up this morning thinking “Wow! I can’t wait to read six or seven fiction reviews” like I do on my better weekend days. So, please pardon the apathy that follows. I’ll do my best.
I had a very bad experience with the last Susann Cokal review I read; this week she does much better with Bridge of Sand, Janet Burroway’s novel about a drifting woman who seeks meaning in an interracial relationship, but I still don’t care, and I don’t know if this is Susann Cokal’s fault, Janet Burroway’s or my own. Probably my own.
The tragic-minded Kathryn Harrison was born to review books by Mary Gaitskill, and she pulls out all the stops for Gaitskill’s new book of stories, Don’t Cry. It’s a well-written piece but, again, I don’t care.
Daniel “Snicket” Handler loves Mary Robison’s One D.O.A., One On the Way, which places East of Eden-esque biblical characters into a modern transgressive crime-novel framework. I really should care about this, and maybe I will later, though I don’t today.
Peter Dizikes’s endpaper, updating C. P. Snow’s famous observation about the modern bifurcation between arts and sciences, is pretty good. Steven Johnson is very good on Jonah Lerner’s How We Decide, while Gary Hart’s double review of Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism and Jedediah Purdy’s A Tolerable Anarchy is tedious and self-serving.
Then we have James Glanz on Donovan Campbell’s Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership and Brotherhoood, which begins like this:
In a way that has always been awkward to discuss with friends, I feel pity for anyone who has never traveled a war zone in the company of Marines. That feeling has nothing to do with the experience of combat. Instead, it relates to something much more impersonal, something that comes with being around the toughest and most lethal fighters in the world.
Unlike James Glanz, I am not impressed by “the toughest and most lethal fighters in the world”. Show me somebody who struggles to cure our world’s obscene addiction to war, instead of a pack of proud and heavily-armed pawns in the game, and maybe I’ll be impressed.