Me And Miss Mandible - What Does it Mean?
What does it mean? Since early childhood this simple query has been posed to us constantly in a myriad of guises. A lover's fiery glance across the room at a party. The preacher's glowing sermon at Sunday service about the kingdom of God. The supermarket tabloid's screaming headline, " I Had Elvis's Alien Love Child." By the very nature of our being human we immediately need to process this information internally to make sense out of what we see, hear, or read. Is she angry with me or does she want to throw me down on the bed where all the guests have heaped their coats? Have I been good enough to make it through the Pearly Gates and do they have ice cream in heaven? Is Elvis still alive? This fundamental need of finding personal meaning in our world is crucial to our existence. It touches on all aspects of our lives, particularly in what we read.
Donald Barthelme's "Me and Miss Mandible" is a wicked little tale. His use of humor and the fantastic initially led me astray, making me walk away from my first reading with a few good laughs and a vague feeling of unease. On re-reading the story, this slight anxiety slowly built to a crescendo of remembered anger and pain. No longer did I just feel pity for the protagonist Joseph. I was Joseph. And this was no longer just a sad little story of Joseph's inability to fit in. Barthleme had somehow underhandedly slipped in a scathing indictment of the entire American culture.
My doorway into "Miss Mandible's" world was provided unknowingly by the author. I too, like Joseph, had been in the military, been divorced, and had spent ten years in the business world. But of more significance than this outward similarity was my empathy with Joseph's feelings of confusion and betrayal in each of his life-roles. Neither of us had apparently mastered the "fractions" of Miss Mandible's "Making the Processes Meaningful." We took at face value the "truths" society had given us. "Everything is promised my classmates and me, most of all the future. We accept the outrageous assurances without blinking." (Barthleme 399) Filled with this promise, each of us set out into adulthood, ill-equipped and misinformed.
Joseph's initial foray into the real world was in the military. This is where he first begins to feel the nagging suspicion that something is wrong. "In the Army, too, I was ever so slightly awry. It took me a fantastically long time to realize what the others grasped almost at once: that much of what we were doing was absolutely pointless, to no purpose" (Barthleme 395). I remember all too well my own disillusionment. Where was the adventure promised in all the posters, the esprit de corps? My fellow comrades and I seemed to spend most of our days in mindless, pointless drudgery. To break up the monotony, our glorious armed forces could always be counted on to issue some inane order to keep us busy...