Donald Barthelme’s writing is often regarded as part of the postmodernism movement in fiction alongside Pynchon, Coover and Gass, but I think it is really hard to nail Barthelme to an era or a movement. Surely, he is doing an important commentary on the way we interact with a literary work. His whole writing style is a commentary on how to read. I don’t think we should relegate or constrain him to postmodernism whatever that is. Rather we ought to notice that his writing echoes Laurence Stern and Cervantes along with Joyce. He is not writing toward a new genre. Barthelme is offering an alternative way of reading. And more than that he is demonstrating the changing nature of reading itself—how it makes the literary object other and absurd. Barthelme tells us: we ought not to allow Heidegger to tell us what nothing is, or allow Kierkegaard’s guilt trips to keep us down. We ought to use these philosophers as we read them, as we use our readers while they read us.
This interview with Paris Review is particularly revealing about the way Barthelme sees fiction and writing. One of my favorite aspects is the conversation he is having with phenomenology and questions of presence as a way of encountering literary objects. In a terrific essay called “After Joyce,” Barthelme proclaims: “The reader reconstitutes the work by his active participation, by approaching the object, tapping it, shaking it, holding it to his ear and roaring into it.”
— Jacob Glover