Donald Barthelme, “The School”

 

This is my second entry in the “2019 Deal Me In Short Story Challenge” hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  This week, I drew a 5 of Clubs, which took me to Donald Barthelme’s story “The School,” originally published in 1975.  I found the story in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor.

Donald Barthelme (pictured above), who lived from 1931-1989, was known for writing short stories that are “surreal” or “postmodern” or “experimental.”  These are all fancy ways of saying his stories don’t make a lot of sense.  (This is not a criticism, just an observation.)

“The School” is narrated by a teacher named Edgar.  He starts the story by explaining how his 30 students all planted orange trees as part of their education.  All of the trees died.  Then we learned that the children’s snakes all died as well. So did the herb gardens they worked on, as did the tropical fish.  The puppy, too, died, as did the Korean orphan, two children, and one child’s father.

Eventually, the children asked the teacher what happened to  all of these dead creatures? Where did they go?  The teacher said nobody knew.

And then the children asked “is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life.  Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of—

I said, yes, maybe.

They said, we don’t like it.”  (310)

In recompense, the children wanted the teacher to make love with the teaching assistant, Helen, in front of them.  They want to know how lovemaking is done.

The teacher said he couldn’t do that, but he kissed Helen a few times on the brow.  Then a gerbil knocked on the door and walked into the class, after which “The children cheered wildly.”

That’s how the story ends.

I would say this story is a postmodern experiment in surrealism.   Or maybe a surreal experiment in postmodernism.  In other words, I really don’t know what it means.  I would guess it is a meditation on the inevitable cycle of life, death, lovemaking, and gerbils.  But mostly death.  So you might as well make love with the teaching assistant.

Deal Me In! Amy Silverberg, Suburbia!

I signed up for Jay at bibliophilica’s #DealMeIn2019 challenge.  The goal is to read 52 short stories this year.  The stories are chosen by drawing a random playing card.

This week, I chose the 4 of Diamonds.

The story is “Suburbia!” by Amy Silverberg, found in Best American Short stories 2018, edited by Roxane Gay.

“Suburbia!” is (for lack of a better word) an odd story.  It begins when the narrator is fifteen, and her father says “I bet you’ll leave here at eighteen and you’ll never come back. . . not once” (251).  The narrator agrees to the bet.  A week after her 18th birthday, her father takes the daughter to the train station and says goodbye to her forever.  (It did not seem that the daughter had been consulted about this trip.) The daughter does OK.  She gets a job as a waitress, makes some friends, and takes a few classes.  But eventually, she misses her family and wants to see them again, so she goes home unannounced.

She is surprised to find that the house she grew up in is tiny–smaller than a toaster.  She crouches down on her knees in order to talk to her parents.  They are embarrassed that she is seeing them like this, but otherwise they are doing fine.

The last line of the story is this:  “I thought this was a funny thing, the way the past and the future could both shrink down to a manageable size, like a pill to be swallowed, or the head of a match” (261).

I believe Silverberg is using the miniature house as a symbol.  When we are children, our families and our homes seem huge, all-encompassing.  After we grow up and look back on our homes, our families may seem in some way diminished.  One can understand why the narrator’s father would not want her to see them through the lens of her adult eyes.

I’m not sure what I think of this story.  I haven’t yet fully “digested” it.  In the back of the anthology, Silverberg included some notes on why she wrote the story.  I will quote part of what she wrote:

  “I’d just read the short story ‘The Paperhanger’ by William Gay and admire the mystery of it, how it seemed to go confidently into an unknown world, a world that felt a little surreal and a little absurd. . . .I was also in a workshop taught by Aimee Bender, and while I hadn’t set out to write anything with a magical realism element, I’m sure her stories. . . rubbed off on me–or if not the stories, then at least the courage or freedom to go confidently into that so called unknown world.”

I do like that idea of writers having the freedom to go confidently wherever they want to go.

*****
Have you read this story or anything else by Amy Silverberg?  Let me know what you think!