Unusual Short Stories by Donald Barthelme



His Magic Didnt Work On Me!

Owing to busy life I had recently taken a liking to reading short stories. I began with reading Alice Munro’s collection of short stories, Dear Life—did I tell you they are like a box of assorted Swiss chocolates?—and still in complete awe of them, I read some of the best works by Russian short story writer, Anton Chekov. So far, so good.

So with much enthusiasm I picked up, American writer, Donald Barthelme’s short stories. However, I was quite disappointed; so disappointed that I don’t know how to give you the extent of my disappointment. His stories do not make any sense to me because they aren’t stories; they are small fragments, which are supposed to be funny but aren’t.

In his story, The School, he tries to touch upon life and death through school children who have seen a lot of death lately; of their plants, tress, pets and parents. These children ask their teacher, “Is death which gives meaning to life?” to this the teacher replied, “No life is what gives meaning to life.” Well, deep thought but for me the narration wasn’t engaging enough. And having read Anton Chekov’s light short stories Oh! The Public and The Transgression, which touches upon life’s big questions in an engaging narrative, The School didn’t do the same.

Moreover, Donald Barthaleme doesn’t develop his characters, as Alice Munro or Anton Chekov do. Even in their short stories you know about the nuances and the underlying complexities of their characters’ nature and so you understand what leads them on to do something. You know their past, you know their present. So you either like them, dislike them or have empathy for them. But in Donald’s stories you just can’t delve into the characters. Like in A City of Churches, I would have loved to know more of Cecilia because she stood in contrast to her guide and to the people of Prestor but the story ended abruptly with a creepy feeling.

Here is a link to the audio book of A City of Churches:

However, I kind of like Game, where the story is  a personal account of  two men who are stuck in a military console for a hundred and thirty three days during the second world war and are waiting for higher orders. They take turns to watch the console, and secretly watch each other for evidence of strange behavior, but after so long in isolation and living off frozen meals, they are beginning to lose sight of what is normal and what is strange.

All in all, maybe Donald Barthelme’s humor didn’t go down very well with me because somehow I have developed a taste for something to the like of O Henry, Munro or Chekov. But if you are looking for some unusual (euphemism intended) stories, with abrupt endings then try reading his short stories.

Ritika Rastogi

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