Thursday, January 21, 2010

That's Not the "Snow White" I Remember

For the last few days I've been working out what I think of Donald Barthelme's very unconventional telling of "Snow White," which I hope you're ready to be surprised but this is almost 100% not the story of Snow White, not that story in any of its previous derivations, although I'm specifically referring to the Disney version, I admit (so has Disney colored my opinion of so many fables and historical characters, like how about those many wonderful cows in 2004's "Home on the Range"? What more am I to think of them?).

So Donald Barthelme went somewhere different, and I won't lie to you who is reading this blog, I was very prepared for that. But I'm not bragging, although it may seem like bragging -- when you know something and maybe, maybe, others do not. I assure you in this case it is not bragging. A month ago I read and reviewed Barthelme's "Not-Knowing" and in it there are a number of articles and references to the avant-garde fictional qualities of "Snow White" and really essentially all of his work. So there you have it. That is how I knew in advance of reading of it, and you might say it is also how I knew of it at all. But that would be wrong because I knew of "Snow White" before I read "Not-Knowing." It was the substance of the story I was missing, and that "Not-Knowing" proffered.

With a story as obviously and intentionally non-linear and profoundly irreverent as "Snow White" it is easy to stamp your own sort of meaning on everything and anything you encounter, this is a symbol of that and so forth, et-cetera. And I suppose if New Criticism still held sway "Snow White" could be appropriately treated as a work of itself by itself with no empiricism required, but happily that critical theory doesn't and there are a few external things worthy of consideration. I'm interested in for one thing that the story was first published in 1967 as a whole and contiguous work, and prior to that in segments by The New Yorker in 1965. No one else can lay claim to the disjointedness and terse but loaded sentences belonging to his "Snow White." They are Barthelme through and through.

Today we see the abrupt humor of a Barthelme story in so many authors' work it would be useless to attempt to name them all, although some examples that come to mind are George Saunders, Etgar Keret, Barry Hannah and even David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers in various stories. Take for example the following line from "Snow White" -- "Then I took off my shirt and called Paul, because we were planning to break into his apartment, and if he was there, we could not do so." And this line brings to mind other Barthelme stories, like "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby," and the dark humor inherent in the casual morbidity of its opening line: "Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he'd gone too far, so we decided to hang him." It's very lyrical as well, almost like a poem. One of those lines that has a way of dancing in your brain, in and out. And that to me is much of what Barthelme is about and is so deftly able to achieve.

Now I'm obviously not saying Barthelme didn't have antecedents per se -- a few would be Hemingway (of course, since he basically influenced everyone who followed him like it or not), Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, the latter two being most frequently cited by critics (Barthelme himself made frequent mention of Heinrich von Kleist, also) -- but Barthelme like all great creative and original minds took what he was given and made it all his own.

That's why "Snow White" -- for all of its difficulties -- works in the end. It uniquely demonstrates Barthelmeian thought -- its austere, detached narrators each philosophizing on a myriad of subjects, all of them conveying a kind of meaning which begs a second look, not because this meaning is inscrutable but because it is to the contrary so lucent. By that I mean his sentences are already pared to their barest limit, so that the inscrutability of his work comes from circumstances and diction, and thus these are the most apparent points of analysis.

His character's circumstances are never consistent and probably aren't meant to be, since "Snow White" is a piece that was originally serialized and, more importantly, Barthelme always seemed inclined to write within certain narrow places, a burst of creativity and then on to the next one, an inclination his terse writing style harmonizes with nicely. So each page and a half seems its own vignette without necessarily needing concerted elaboration but not hurting from contiguous placement with its other serialized, discrete parts. "Snow White's" division is less pronounced than that of a book of short stories, and more akin to a collection like John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse."

As for Barthelme's diction, let me say that he was great at breaking down convention with his usual wry humor and misleadingly basic prose, because behind his employing words spartanly was I suspect plenty of thought and decided satirical intent, delivered in sentences at their most finely honed. Here, in the court house, assumedly, and swearing Shield 333 to answer all questions honestly, the bailiff (again assumedly, because I have no clue who reads the oath in actual court cases) says, "Do you swear to tell the truth, or some of it, or most of it, so long as we both may live?" "Snow White" is built upon his ability to undermine the boilerplate structure of so many of the phrases and idioms that have become ingrained in our cultural discourse and are beginning to feel recognizable a priori of any felt experience.

It's well done, is what I'm saying.

So I think what I'll call the epitaph of "Snow White" (these words appearing on one of its last pages) sums up everything satisfactorily (much better than I am able): Anathemization of the world is not an adequate response to the world

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