Thursday, September 15, 2011

(Review) Donald Barthelme's "The Dead Father"

Donald Barthleme is one of those rare authors who can seem to get away with a great deal and still be considered a great. This is the first novel of his that I've read and, while enormously confusing at first, seemed to expand and reveal itself a bit towards the end. He's a tough read, no doubt, and I will probably dig into some of his short stories later this year after I've played catch-up with some Millhauser (whose writing I've been told I will enjoy immensely). For the moment, however, I'm done reading Barthelme (almost done with "Snow White," so not entirely true). He requires a serious concentration for what is a very whimsical and often lackadaisical-feeling style.

"The Dead Father" - 177 pgs

The premise from the back of the book:

"Nineteen people are dragging, by means of a cable, an immense carcass through the countryside. The carcass is that of the Dead Father, a half-dead, half-alive, part-mechanical, wise, vain, powerful being who still has hopes to himself, although he is, effectively, dead. Thomas, Julie, Edmund, Emma, and the others variously insult, placate, cater to, and defend the Dead Father as the procession moves through the country of the Wends, the territory of the Great Father Serpent, and a variety of encounters and explorations toward its mysterious goal."

I finally started enjoying this book once I got to page 110, where the people find a book called "A Manual for Sons" because I think it was then that I understood what the book was about (maybe). Up to this point, I had read passage after passage of often nonsensical or plotless conversations between many of the characters. The book, now that I have a handle on it, may require a rereading at a later date, but it appears to be less a story about crazy nonsense happening in a fictional place so much as it is the story of how family breaks apart and deals with the (slow) death of the patriarch, who is rendered as a huge stone giant being dragged by the other characters (the rest of the family). I could be completely off-base with this as I haven't done any outside research on the book, but had I understood this at the beginning of the book, I don't believe it would have felt like such a plodding bit of text for the first 100+ pages. A small, very representative, sample of what the dialogue looked like:

"Have you tried any of the others?
I just see whether they're friendly or unfriendly.
A week later she applied for a post in Warsaw.
As a wet nurse.
Yes, as a wet nurse. She was accepted.
They like to suck.
They do like to suck.
Worn out your welcome.
Getting very fond of you and your hands.
That's my business.
He's not bad-looking.
It's no mystery.
Why hasn't anyone had the simple decency?
It's perfectly obvious.
Probably we should have spoken up before this.That's one way of looking at it.
Unable to take him seriously at any level.
Where can a body get a spritz around here?
That's my business.
If I pull this little white string, will you explode?"

Seriously. There's 150 pages of this kind of dialogue going on. No character markers, no real idea who is speaking to whom - it's frustrating, but Barthelme somehow, with his inclusion of the "Manual for Sons" right in the middle of the book, showed me what he was shooting for. It took a lot of time to get there (and there's an argument to made for placing it sooner within the text), but when I approached the last third of the novel from a true familial aspect, I was greatly rewarded. What I then pictured was not a group of random people pulling a statue through a landscape (a fantastic metaphorical image), but rather a family carrying this huge burden of how to deal with an aging father, one who is so close to death that the conversations about his death become conversations past each other rather than with each other.

By small increments, the characters relieve the Dead Father of all his belongings; his sword, his passport, everything. They lighten his load so that he can focus instead on the act of dying while they continue to carry his things long after his death. When he is finally lowered down into the gargantuan hole in the ground, Julie holds his hand as the bulldozers come in to cover him up with dirt. An inevitable ending for a truly bizarre novel that got stronger the longer I read it.


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