The narrator of "Flying to America," the short story in Donald Barthelme's new collection of the same name, has two main objectives between March 18th and May 1st -- namely, 1) to make his film, and 2) to "have a drink" with Perpetua, the film's star.
Production is halting, Perpetua unreceptive. Is it really worth all the trouble, we wonder?
But when filming is jeopardized by L. J. Silverman Incorporated, levying a $200,000 bribe, things begin, chaotically, to fall into place: Perpetua, on hearing of the extortion, confides, "I like people who are struggling with dark, malefic forces"; the crew rallies behind its director, and, in spite of losing a blimp, manages to shoot the film's climax; at last, the narrator and Perpetua make vague plans to have children.
In short, "Flying to America " contains some absurdity, a few money problems, some more absurdity, and then (maybe) reproduction; in Barthelme's Flying to America, we can trace faintly the brutal contours of the human condition. Then we can laugh.
The collection, 45 of Barthelme's unpublished and uncollected short stories, is a gift from beyond the grave. Barthelme, who founded the now famous University of Houston creative writing program, saw two short story collections (Sixty Stories and Forty Stories) published before his death in 1989. A hundred stories just aren't enough: Barthelme's laconic prose, his gift for satire, and his devotion to experimentation lend themselves to the form. If you've ever gotten a little impatient with Barthelme's Snow White, or just given up on The King, then, like me, you are ill equipped for his lengthier fiction.
These stories, which Kim Herzinger hails in the book's preface as "maybe the crucial addition" to Barthelme's canon, are for the most part accessible, completely enjoyable, and nice and short. Perfect for the pre- and post-work bus ride.
With that said, this book isn't perfect. The problem with posthumously published work is, of course, that there are often good reasons why it went unpublished or uncollected while the author was still alive. Barthelme's "The Viennese Opera Ball" is probably brilliant. I think it's about fashion models at an Opera ball, or something. But I was lost after "I do not like to see an elegant pair of forceps," which is, incidentally, the story's first line. These untamed stories will probably only interest students of Barthelme or people who think that Donald Barthelme was Jesus Christ.
But, then again, this collection might make a Barthelme fanatic out of you. At its best, Barthelme's work, a "literary collage," somehow manages to balance both schizophrenic narration and narrative drive. Beckettophiles will recognize the Irish dramaturge's Watt in "Hiding Man," and wonder if the "Maryland Motherhouse" is a gringo equivalent to the "Magdalene Mercy Mentalseat." Best of all, though, in Donald Barthelme's prose there is Sam Beckett's sympathy (disdain?) for a species that doesn't know which side of the bed to piss on.
If you find yourself in the existential muck around this time of year, nursing a Christmas vacation hangover, read Barthelme's often brilliant and always hilarious Flying to America.