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Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (original 1968; edition 1969)

by Donald Barthelme

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185463,896 (4.12)3
Member:almigwin
Title:Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts
Authors:Donald Barthelme
Info:Bantam (1969), Paperback
Collections:Your library
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Tags:stories

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Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts by Donald Barthelme (1968)

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A string of memorable postmodern, metafictional quick reads straight from the outrageous imagination of Donald Barthelme. Many of these tales I love, but none more than The Balloon, a story with such special beauty it clearly deserves its own write-up. Here goes:

Postmodern: Lyrical and light, as light as a very large feather this Barthelme’s short-short begins with a narrator telling us he engineered a balloon expanding twenty city blocks north to south over buildings, from Fourteenth Street all the way up to Central Park. With such a whimsical happening, we are a world away from Hemingway’s old man sitting in the shadow of a café. In an interview, Donald Barthelme recounts when he first began writing, he wrote Hemingway-like stories but could see his efforts were awful and how his writer's voice needed to develop in a radically different direction.

Well-Constructed Fragments: This giant balloon is mostly muted grays and browns contrasted with walnut and soft yellows giving the surface a rough, forgotten quality and anchored by sliding weights on the inside. In his own creative writing, Barthelme was not so much influenced by other writers as by Abstract Expressionist painters like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning and Dadaist Collage Artists like Marcel Duchamp and Jean Arp.

Mark Rothko - Work in Gray and Brown
If I squint, I can even see one of the Rothko colors turning into Barthelme's balloon!

Metafictional Meaning: “There was a certain amount of initial argumentation about the “meaning” of the balloon; this subsided because we have learned not to insist on meaning, and they are rarely even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomenon.” In many ways, this letting go of the search for hidden meaning is the shared fate of those Abstract Expressionist paintings. However, perhaps ironically, the search for the meaning in works of fiction, both modern and postmodern, continues apace, including meaning in Donald Barthelme’s short fiction.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what is the purpose?: Such is the prime question forever posed in America, land of the pragmatist, the land where the only things really worth anybody’s time are those which have a useful function and, even better, make money. Thus, initially, the apparent purposelessness of the balloon proved vexing for all the hardheaded city officers and municipal officials. Sure, kids can run, jump, slide and bounce on the thing but why the hell is it there in the first place?! But since the balloon could be neither removed nor destroyed (the officials tried secretly at night) and a public warmth arose for the balloon from the ordinary citizen, the balloon became a city landmark.

Balloon Takes Center Stage: Of course, occupying such a prominent position in the city, people began using various aspects of the balloon in many different ways: civic pride, sheer visual pleasure, enrich their metaphors, metaphysical speculation and, most frequently, as a point of reference to locate themselves, for example: “I’ll be at that place where it dips down into Forty-seventh Street almost to the sidewalk, near the Alamo Chile House.”

Quote from Jacques Derrida’s “The Truth of Painting”: “Aesthetic judgment must properly bear upon intrinsic beauty, not on finery and surrounds. Hence one must know – this is a fundamental presupposition, presupposing what is fundamental – how to determine the intrinsic – what is framed – and know what one is excluding as frame and outside-the-frame.” And since the balloon is certainly a work of art, what would Jacques have to say about this public artwork stretching over half of mid-town Manhattan, a balloon with no hard edges, where what is inside or outside-the-frame is not clearly limited or defined?


French Deconstructionist Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy chimes in: “Construction and deconstruction are closely interconnected with one another. What is constructed according to a logic of ends and means is deconstructed when it comes into contact with the outermost edge.” Well, turns out, the outermost edge for the balloon happened after twenty-two days: the flexible, undefined, mostly unlimited balloon became depleted fabric, trucked away to be stored in West Virginia, awaiting some other time when it can make its return to be reconstructed to deconstruct all the hard edges of city life.

Again, this little short-short is but one of an entire list of imaginative snappers in this collection. Please treat yourself to some metafictional fun and postmodern brain teasing by picking up this collection of Donald Barthelme. I mean, have you ever encountered better story titles than See the Moon?, The Dolt, Game, The Indian Uprising, The Police Band, The Picture History of War or Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning? ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
"Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole." ( )
  lawrenh | May 14, 2014 |
What a great book this is! Wonderfully bent approach to prose and plot. Impish, slightly perverse, brightly erudite. This is experimental without all the brou ha ha and posing. Reading Donald Barthelme is sheer pleasure. ( )
  abirdman | Jul 3, 2007 |
This is a great book, filled with great stories by one of America's great masters of short fiction. Hilarious, peculiar, twisted, weird, shocking, droll . . . Barthelme's confections linger in memory, whole paragraphs stand out as examples of literary genius. One isn't supposed to say it, since the Classics are always better than Moderns, but these sometimes-Kafkaesque stories strike me as far, far better than Kafka. ( )
  wirkman | Mar 24, 2007 |
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