The Narrator In Barthelme's Me And Miss Mandible

2109 words - 8 pages

Me and Miss Mandible - The Narrator

      Are we frightened of the "fantastic" literary text? Is there something inherently threatening about a work like Barthelme's "Me and Miss Mandible," something obtrusive which, as we read, forces us away from the text? A pronounced feeling of uneasiness seems to mark our reception of Barthelme, a range of anxiety expressed mainly in our responses to the story's narrator. Questions concerning his reliability and authenticity, and why Barthelme chooses to construct him in the manner he does become paramount, serving as pivotal gauges from which we read and critique his character. However, in establishing such gauges we retard our entrance into the "fantastic," reducing the elements of Barthelme's fiction to mere "realist" side effect: by-products of a normative writing model. How "Me and Miss Mandible" differs, in its narrative structure and character development, from works by O'Connor, Chopin, and Gordimer is perhaps the more pertinent issue when we discuss our responses to the story and its narrator. Reading Barthelme requires new strategies and fresh gauges; a New Critical approach, like the one used with O'Connor's Julian, can only lead to more anxiety and a dwarfed understanding of the text's indeterminant nature and its capactiy to destabilize and resituate not only the reader's, but its own functioning cultural context.


Before examining Barthelme's destabilizing/stabilizing dynamic, we must first acquaint ourselves with those stylistic features and textual devices he uses which set him apart from "realist" or "naturalist" writers. Barthelme, as noted by Lance Olson in his article "Slumgullions, or Some Notes toward Trying to Introduce Donald Barthelme," recognizes the "...inability of traditional beliefs and structures to make sense of contemporary experience"(29). The edicts of mimetic or realist writing do not work for Barthelme. From Matei Calinescu's "Modernism and Ideology" we see realist writing defined as exhibiting an "identifiable social perspective," a "critical detachment" from subject matter, and an attention to "convey[ing] concrete typicality"(47). Conventional modes of story telling are subverted in Bathelme's case, abused to reveal the particular experience of a character whose "social perspective" is suddenly altered. "Me and Miss Mandible" lacks a diachronic plot structure, and reads, as so many of Barthelme's works do ("The Glass Mountain," "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowining"), like a "collage fiction[.]," a "text[.] constructed from shards."(Olson 13). It is written in the epistolary mode, suggesting an "[at]tachment" to the fictional subject, a perpetual nearness to what is being said and who in the story is saying it. And the dated entries look as it they're pasted on the page, assembled sections of text containing historical evidence, introspective thoughts, and school room folklore, each pointing to the story's supposed...

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