With his new novel Lincoln in the Bardo, and his short stories before it, George Saunders has brought postmodern fiction to the mainstream. This brand of literature, in which skewed realities are presented as a means for social commentary, is often carried out with quirky narratives, stylized syntax, and unconventional points-of-view. It can be difficult for some readers to digest, but seeing as how Lincoln in the Bardo is a New York Times best seller, it could be said that Saunders owes a debt of gratitude to his predecessor, the Houston writer Donald Barthelme, for acquainting readers with the form.
Barthelme was a cult writer, considered a postmodern pioneer along with fellow authors John Barth, Robert Coover, and William Gass. Until his death in 1989, at the age of 58, he published essays and novels but was primarily a short story writer, with collections such as Sixty Stories, winner of the 1982 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His works—full of complex, thought-provoking sentences laced with wit and empathy—often bordered on the absurd, such as in the piece “At the End of the Mechanical Age,” where God is a meter reader. “Grace is electricity, science has found, it is not like electricity, it is electricity and God was down in the basement reading the meters in His blue jump suit with the flashlight stuck in the back pocket,” Barthelme writes.
Many of his short stories—sometimes considered “flash” fiction—were originally published in the New Yorker. Saunders, whose pieces also appear frequently in the pages of the New Yorker, once said that Barthelme’s stories “give the reader a series of pleasure-bursts.” Roger Angell, a contributor to the magazine since 1944, talked to Barthelme’s biographer, Tracy Daugherty, about the writer’s genius. “Nobody in the world had seen writing like this,” he said.
Perhaps one of Barthelme’s most complicated works is the 1967 novel Snow White, a divergent take on the fairy tale. When the New Yorker published the story fifty years ago, almost the entire issue was dedicated to Barthelme. And now what is old is new: Catastrophic Theatre, a Houston drama group whose motto is “We Will Destroy You,” will introduce Snow White to a new generation beginning Friday, April 7, Barthelme’s birthday. Running through May 6, the production—which has the approval of the Barthelme Estate—is a collaboration with Brazos Bookstore and Inprint, who got the project started in November with a reading of Barthelme’s script.
This effort has been a long time coming. In the mid-seventies, at the urging of a New York director, Barthelme attempted to adapt his novel for the theater but ultimately abandoned the project. That aborted manuscript wound up in the 1992 anthology The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme. That’s where Greg Dean, the director of Catastrophic’s production, got hip to it and immediately went and read the novel. “I felt like the ground was falling out from under my feet,” says Dean, a longtime actor, designer, and director for Catastrophic who was named to the Houston Press’s list of 100 Creatives in 2013. “I was constantly having to reorient myself. The shifts in perspective were just really, really dazzling.”
Dean has been working on a stage adaption of Snow White since he read the novel—all the way back in 1997—and in those twenty years, he has become a Barthelme completist, devouring just about his entire oeuvre. He equates this project to his “white whale.” “What kept me obsessed is this beautiful thread running through it about the promises and disappointments of being in love—you know, falling in love, falling out of love.”
In Barthelme’s novel, Snow White is a 22-year-old college graduate living with seven rich real estate developers who also manufacture high-end baby food. She is accustomed to having sex with all of them, frequently in the shower, but the leader of the group, Bill, suffers a breakdown and grows tired of her touch. She likewise has grown listless toward them all and spends her days drinking vodka Gibsons, reading Mao Tse Tung, and pining for her prince, Paul, to make good on his promise to save her. Alas, he is preoccupied with his pursuits of becoming a poet, an abstract expressionist painter, and ultimately, a monk. And then there is the wicked stepmother, Jane, whose boyfriend is a Third Reich enthusiast.
The novel is fragmented into one- to three-page chapters devoted to a single character and anchored throughout by an omniscient yet not wholly identifiable narrator—played by Dean. An imaginative, experimental, laugh-out-loud read, it pops with artistic flourishes like topographical marks representing beauty spots on Snow White’s body. There are also jarring blocks of texts that seem incongruous with the narrative: out of nowhere the reader is suddenly confronted with Freud’s views on man’s attempt to construct barriers to eroticism, or a questionnaire from Barthelme polling the reader on her or his reading experience thus far, and then the story of Snow White resumes. Barthelme’s book and his play certainly have their differences.
“The play adaptation was very, very sort of linear, and a lot of stuff was connected that had been broken up over many, many pages in the book,” Dean says. “I wanted to get it closer to the book again, where the scenes were very choppy. Maybe the longest scene is five minutes. There are fifty scenes and fifty-eight pages. It’s pretty rapid fire, with lots of scene ends on the far left side of the stage, and immediately it lights up on the far right side of the stage, where something else is already happening.”
Barthelme was born in Philadelphia, in 1931, and raised in Houston. In 1953, while studying at the University of Houston, the U.S. Army drafted him. He arrived in Korea on the day of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which ended the war. For a brief period, he was editor of an Army newspaper. When he returned to the states, he wrote for the HoustonPost and resumed his studies at U of H, but he never completed a degree. That didn’t seem to matter. From 1961 to 1962, he was the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. And in 1979, he became one of the founders of the nationally known creative writing program at U of H, a full decade before UT’s Michener Center for Writers, another highly celebrated Texas collegiate writing program, was founded.
Naturally, the Donald Barthelme Papers reside at U of H. They consist of various iterations of his short stories, collected works, novels, and plays. There are also photographs, teaching materials, and other artifacts, like his correspondence with fellow writers Ann Beattie, Beverly Lowry, Grace Paley, Walker Percy, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon. Some of the most popular pieces in the collection are Barthelme’s collage stories, including “The Educational Experience,” “The Inauguration,” and “The Show.” He created these by juxtaposing engravings, woodcuts, and pieces of clip art, interspersing those juxtapositions with text, and gluing the images and text to large pieces of poster board or similar media. The papers also include Barthelme’s typescript for Snow White, currently on view as part of the exhibit “Barthelme’s Snow White Between the Covers,” at the school’s M.D. Anderson Library.
“I’ve read the novel Snow White, but not the play,” says Julie Grob, a special collections librarian and curator who oversees the Donald Barthelme Papers. “It’s really hard for me to imagine Snow White as a play. The book is dense, wordy, playful, funny, sad, erudite, experimental, and provocative. It’s much harder to figure out where you are in the novel than it is in one of the short stories. There is only a wisp of a plot, many of the characters seem interchangeable, and it shifts moods recklessly throughout. But I did enjoy reading it and I’m looking forward to the play.”