Research Notes · 12/26/2014

Research Notes: Does Not Love

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, James Tadd Adcox writes about Does Not Love from Curbside Splendor.

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Notes on “Views of My Father Weeping”

Barthelme was one of the first writers I fell in love with as an “adult,” whatever that means, and I’ve felt at times as though I’ve spent the past five years working through the influence Barthelme had on my writing. While working on Does Not Love, my first novel, I found myself often going back to Barthelme’s City Life, and particularly the first story in that collection, “Views of My Father Weeping” — also the first Barthelme story I read. Below, I’ve tried to work through, in a series of notes, some of the influence this story has had.

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Barthelme has a wonderful authority to his voice. He says, “An aristocrat was riding down the street,” and just like that, there is an aristocrat, and he, strange being that he is, is riding down the street. We may feel the strangeness of it — an aristocrat, in this day and age! — but never for a moment do we doubt that there is in fact an aristocrat, and he is riding down the street.

This sort of authority is something that I greatly admire, and that at times I have had trouble assuming. I inevitably want to explain, I want to give evidence, I want to convince. When I write “An aristocrat was riding down the street,” all at once a chorus of voices strikes up: Why an aristocrat? What was he doing, riding down this street? Does the aristocrat mean something? (The answer to this question must be no, if the writer knows what’s good for them.) Does he know the father? What is their relationship? And, more insidiously: What do I know about aristocrats? Do I have any right to say what an aristocrat does or does not do? If I write “An aristocrat was riding down the street” surely somewhere out there is an expert on aristocrats, someone much better versed in aristocrat-theory than I am (or perhaps an aristocrat him or herself!) who will say: No, in writing “An aristocrat was riding down the street” you show clearly that you don’t know the first thing about aristocrats, how and where and why they ride, and furthermore (perhaps this voice goes on to say) it is frankly insulting to aristocrats (or those versed in aristocrat-theory) that you, who clearly know so little about aristocrats, would dare…

Meanwhile, Barthelme writes “An aristocrat was riding down the street,” and suddenly, quite clearly, it is the case that an aristocrat was riding down the street. Authority in fiction is never earned, not really. It is assumed. To try to earn authority is a trap, it leads one to write things like, “We lived in a neighborhood where there were aristocrats, who were people who had a lot more money than we did and didn’t much care about us. Well, they weren’t technically aristocrats, but they did have a lot of money, and they rode around in their carriages. You had to be careful for their carriages, because sometimes they didn’t especially look where they were going…” Or else you would lead up to the aristocrat, after having spent a lot of time describing a world in which aristocrats might exist. You might give proof of your knowledge of aristocrats, little details you know about them or think that you know about them (perhaps things that you’ve looked up on Wikipedia) that might persuade your reader that you’re no slouch, where it comes to knowing details about aristocrats. By this point, you’ve most likely given the reader so much proof that an aristocrat is there, riding down the street, that your reader has no choice but to doubt the aristocrat’s very existence.

“There are no camels in the Koran,” Jorges Luis Borges says. I have no idea whether this is actually true of the Koran, but I do know that people who know about aristocrats don’t need to spend all of their time telling you every last little detail about how aristocrats function; and I know, likewise, that authority in fiction is an act of grace, appearing in its fullness only once the writer assumes it is already there.

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The structure of “Views of My Father Weeping” is on the one hand dialectical, and on the other fractal. What I mean by dialectical is that a given sentence is, generally speaking, the negative moment of the sentence before it. There is a kind of whiplash as we travel from sentence to sentence. Or, if you like, a given sentence will act as the set up, and the next will be the punchline. (It is a point widely agreed upon among both Hegelians and Marxists that jokes are extremely dialectical.) “I was trying to think of the reason my father had died. Then I remembered,” pause, wait a beat, then deadpan: “he was run over by a carriage.” Rimshot.

In other words, the sentence is never allowed to stand as-is, but is being constantly changed, often in shocking ways, by the sentence that follows. Gertrude Stein was a fan of this sort of thing (“Once there was one who was certainly working. Once there was one who wasn’t working much, at all”). Henry James, whose writing, at the level of the sentence anyhow, is much more similar to Stein’s than one might expect: him too. One gets the sense that the sentences are never staying still, are constantly changing. The meaning of each thing is changed by its place in history; the past can change in shocking ways based on the present.

What I mean by fractal, on the other hand, is the way that this pattern repeats, on the level of the paragraph, on the level of the section, on the level of the story. Each negative moment — each punchline — encompasses not just the previous sentence, but the previous paragraph, the previous story so far. Every piece of the whole, no matter how far down you look, replicates the whole, and the whole is likewise replicated in each piece. It is a crystalline structure: the story’s seeming complexity emerges from a set of simple, elegant rules. And so the story ends, not with the revelation that “Lars Bang is a bloody liar,” calling into question what we knew of the story so far; but rather with “Etc.” This particular structure can continue to grow, in both complexity and length, ad infinitum.

There is a tension here: the movement of the dialectic within the stasis of the crystalline structure. Neither quite overcomes the other, which is part of why the story works. The aesthetic is always a tension.

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Of course there are also elements of pastiche.

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Barthelme is obsessed by the dead father. The dead father is a central figure in “Views of My Father Weeping,” but also Barthelme wrote an entire book dedicated to him, The Dead Father, about a man dragging his dead father across a landscape and, in the end, burying him. The last chapter of the novel is devoted to bulldozers, bulldozing the ground above the dead father’s grave.

I first read Donald Barthelme sitting outside a coffeeshop in West Lafayette, Indiana, the day before I began a Masters of Fine Art in fiction at Purdue University. Although that is not quite true. I actually first read Donald Barthelme in a book by John Gardner, The Art of Fiction for Young Writers, which I had been assigned during a creative writing class in high school. John Gardner quotes the first two sections of “Views of My Father Weeping”:

An aristocrat was riding down the street in his carriage. He ran over my father.

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After the ceremony I walked back to the city. I was trying to think of the reason my father had died. Then I remembered: he was run over by a carriage.

I had never heard of Donald Barthelme before I read about him in The Art of Fiction. He was one of the most famous writers of the sixties, but by the nineties, it seems, he had disappeared. Not one literature or creative writing teacher in my high school or college uttered his name. For a long time, this reference to him in The Art of Fiction was the only proof that I had he existed. This was before Amazon. The internet was around, but it never would have occurred to me to try to track down this basically unknown (I thought) writer via the internet. The image I had of him and his work, secondhand, seemed unbelievably strange and beautiful.

I found several of Barthelme’s books (including City Life, the collection containing “Views of My Father Weeping”) in the basement of a used bookstore in West Lafayette. At that moment, I imagine, I must have been between two generations of Barthelme fans. I had scoured used bookstores for years and never found a book of his before; for a period of a year or two, after I found that copy of City Life, used Barthelme collections seemed to be everywhere, in thrift stores, in used book stores, in library fundraiser sales. And then, suddenly, nothing. I haven’t seen a used Barthelme collection in the wild for years.

Barthelme is primarily, and justly, regarded as a writer of short-stories. Of his novels, The Dead Father comes closest to holding up as a novel, but still seems like the work of someone who would rather be working in a shorter form. This is, perhaps, because the “Etc.” at the end of “Views of My Father Weeping” is something of a lie. The structure that he has set up — a common structure in his stories — cannot continue forever, not without losing the tension that makes it work as art. His stories are too tightly wound — stretch them too far and they snap. So instead of writing a truly Barthelmean novel, he fudges a little, he patches this part together with that part, he tells himself, okay, I’m known for working in pastiche, so it’s okay if these things don’t quite work together. (Well, he tells himself this sometimes — at others, as in certain interviews, he’s brutally honest about his failures as a novelist.)

What would happen, though, if you took this fractal, dialectical structure and tried to stretch it to the breaking point? How long a novel could you write while maintaining the tension of a short story?

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James Tadd Adcox is the author of a novel, Does Not Love, and a collection of stories, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge. He lives in Chicago.