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Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme
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Forty Stories (1987)

by Donald Barthelme

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I hadn’t read Donald Barthelme since my 20s, when my response was mostly a dim-bulb "WTF?" - with an occasional slower, dawning “Oh, I get it…” in a few cases like “City of Churches” or “The Indian Uprising,” when I got the jokes or understood the satire at work. What I did know that there were all those quiet, mannered, boring, he-said-she-said short stories in the New Yorker, and then there was Donald Barthelme, and nobody else was doing what he was doing. I got interested again recently after hearing Salman Rushdie read “Concerning the Bodyguard,” on a New Yorker podcast, in preface to which he remarked: “The thing about Donald Barthelme is he makes you think you can do it too - and you can’t. Sometimes even he can’t do it.” Then another podcast: the actor David Straithairn did a fantastic reading of “The Game,” on a Selected Shorts episode. So I realized that I had had a copy of Forty Stories on my bookshelf for decades and never really read it. And my response to reading it was kind of like the response to watching a tightrope walker or other circus acrobat do a particularly difficult trick – that initial gasp of surprise and pleasure, followed by the growing sense, as you watch all the other tricks that follow, and still appreciate their difficulty and risk: that the whole circus experience is not really going to take you to any place of profound insight and greater awareness - that’s not really what it’s for. If, as Barthelme says, Beckett made his work possible, that doesn’t mean he, like Beckett, is going to set you to ponder on existence and non-existence, meaning and absurdity, belief and despair. He’s a baroque descendant, more like a goofy pasticheur. And of course, silly me, I thought he was a total outlier in American fiction, but now, thanks (no thanks) to David Foster Wallace, McSweeney’s, and grad school, I guess, every other person out there thinks they "can do it too.” I wish they would take Salman Rushdie’s words to heart. ( )
  CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
Some hits and some misses, but always an inventive exploration of the construction of a short story. This collection is very comparable to Barthelme's "Sixty Stories". I had heard one the best stories from this collection ("Concerning the Bodyguard") read by Salaman Rushdie on the New Yorker Fiction podcast and decided to snag this book when it appeared on paperbackswap. ( )
  albertgoldfain | Sep 26, 2012 |
I must admit to being a little underwhelmed by this collection - I got back into Barthelme's work after reading his marvellous short story "Cortes and Montezuma" - see

http://www.coldbacon.com/writing/cortez.html

but prepare for a little audio surprise! - and I expected more of the same from this collection, but few of these stories hit those heights for me. "Cortes and Montezuma" is the perfect combination of absurdism, speculation, humour and emotion, but most of the "Forty Stories" lacked that particular richness of texture. All the same, there is much entertainment to be had here! ( )
  timjones | Jul 5, 2011 |
A great collection of witty stories by the great Barthelme, including "The Baby" and "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby." ( )
  wirkman | Apr 2, 2007 |
I drool over every word I've read that Barthelme has written, even when I have no idea what he's talking about. When I first read "60 Stories" (the superior companion piece to this collection) I felt like someone had taken all the things I wanted to do as a writer, ran them over with a Buick and then turned back me and said "It's been done and done so much better than you could ever do" as they sped off into the sunset. Barthelme's short stories are like a drug for creative writing wonks, and moving away from his influence is something some writers never accomplish. While this collection isn't as consistently profound as "60 Stories," it still contains so much of worth as to be required reading for anyone who wants to write short stories (or just loves short stories).

(This review originally appeared on zombieunderground.net) ( )
1 vote coffeezombie | Nov 18, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0142437816, Paperback)

Like the title says, here are 40 short works culled from across Barthelme's career. Along with the similarly titled 60 Stories, this book provides one of the best samplings currently in print of Barthelme's unrivaled humor, his melancholy, the poetry of his line, and his considerable intellect. It includes pieces such as the famous "Sentence," (a single, several-page-long, unfinished sentence), "The Flight of Pigeons From the Palace," one of the writer's illustrated stories, and "Overnight To Many Distant Cities."

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:03:33 -0400)

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