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October 23, 1986 - Image 20

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1986-10-23
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Book in 1850. Many later stories have been
simply two-voice conversations, resem-
bling psychoanalytic cross talk or internal
dialogue: as one of these nameless interloc-
utors says, "I am a double-minded man."
"Paradise" is more conventional than
most of Barthelme's previous work, but no
one will mistake it for some earnest novel
in which "real" characters work out "real"
problems in "real" settings. Barthelme's
characters don't quite have "motivations,"
and they don't "develop"; despite Simon's
efforts to distinguish among the women
("Dore is crusty," he tells himself, "Veroni-
ca is volatile, Anne isa worrier") neither he
nor we have much luck telling them apart.
Barthelme keeps us too busy to miss such
everyday fictional amenities. Like Simon,
we can hop from one small pleasure to the
next and make do without the epiphanies
that are more common in literature than in
life. Along the way we're offered adroitly
off-center descriptions ("a sad Saab of a
man about thirty"), epigrams suitable for
etching in stone ("When is anything ever
fair to the others?"), idiomatic dialogue
("That one sucker is going to get the other
sucker," says Dore, watching two birds
fight in midair. "Going to clean his clock for
him.") and enough mots justes to stock a
writer's manual. Whether all this is suffi-
cient depends largely on whether or not we
can sympathize with Simon's Peter Pan
act: his refusal to trade in his diminishing
pleasures for some more lasting paradise.
Most of us should have no trouble at all.

'As soon as you create a fiction, you rearrange, and then understand, the original better
A Playful, Painful Novel
'Anagrams' can make you laugh and sigh

haracters in Lorrie Moore's debut
novel, Anagrams (Knopf $15.95), say
very funny things: "It's not that men
fear intimacy," observes one woman. "It's
that they're hypochondriacs of intimacy:
they always think they have it when they
don't." Yet, for all their clever remarks, the
young adults in "Anagrams"-urgently

his home in New York City and his teach- junk. Every writer writes lots and lots of
ing post in Houston, where he grew up. junk," he explains, and must learn to self-
His parents still live there, as do his sister edit. At least as tough on himself as on his
and brother Pete-an ad exec who writes students, Barthelme says, "If you would
mysteries on the side. Brothers Steve and see my first draft, you'd be horrified. It's
Fredrick both teach fiction writing at the stupid and dull, but over time, it grows.
University of Southern Mississippi. Don, By dent of hammer, it becomes better."
who teaches at UH, is unsure why so Barthelme seems uncomfortable talk-
manyinhisfamilyturnedtowriting. "It's ing about his work. Despite his three
just something pernicious in the blood," . novels and nine story collections, he
he laughs. says, "There is a measure of social em-
'Late bloomers': Though he decided to be- barrassment when you say to people that
come a writer as a child, Barthelme dis- you're a writer. The first thing the other
carded everything he wrote until he was person wants to ask is, 'Have I heard of
well into his 30s. "My early work should you?' If he hasn't, as mostly is the case,
have been thrown away," he insists. "It you're embarrassed for being insuffi-
had no originality. It was lifeless." Fortu- ciently famous." Writing, for Barthelme,
nately for the literary world, Barthelme is "work with elements of play," pursued
eventually managed to create something. on a bedroom computer. Among its goals
that "didn't seem too shabby" to him. "is to enable the readers to think about
"Fiction writers tend to be late bloom- what's going on around them-which a
ers," he says. "I think they have to get a sitcom on television won't do," he
little older before they have anything to says. Writers have no diagnostic talents,
say or know how to say it." h he declares. "Writers don't provide an-
A demanding teacher, Barthelme nev- swers; they ask questions."
er lets his students "get away with any BARaRA BURGOWER

seeking love and meaning in their dislocat-
ed lives-are not happy. Rather, they use
all their wit to stave off despair. Moore's
wry combination of humor and pathos-
also found in the short stories in her first
book, "Self-Help," published last year-
gives her fiction a complex emotional tex-
ture. It also causes readers to react in very
different ways. "Some people read my
work," says Moore, 29, "and they say,
'It's so funny. I laughed and laughed,' and
others say, 'It was so awful. It was so
"Anagrams," appropriately enough, is
anagrammatic-and this structure adds
another resonance to the already rich de-
piction of angst among the nearly-30 set.
The major characters in each of the book's
five sections have the same first names, but
they're different people in different cir-
cumstances each time-they represent
variations, personal anagrams, on a theme.
These separate narratives hold together
because of a common mood of disquiet des-
peration and certain recurrent images.-Dif-
ferent people at different points rush out
into the street in the middle of the night in a
frantic attempt at release. Stains, both lit-
eral and metaphoric, show up in different
places, adding to the impression that these
people do not lead tidy lives. In the end the
book's construction itself becomes a com-
ment on the nature of fiction. Among other
things, Moore says, "'Anagrams' is about
how any fiction is a kind of rearrangement,
and how, as soon as you createa fiction, you
rearrange, and then understand, the origi-
nal arrangement better."


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