Writer Wednesday: Donald Barthelme

DonaldBarthelmeWell, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that…that was part of their education, to see how you know the root systems…and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean. And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant, and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks. It was depressing.

So begins Donald Barthelme’s short story “The School”.

Back at university, a friend of mine scoffed when I said that I had never heard of Barthelme. She immediately went to her bookshelf to retrieve her copy of 60 Stories, opened the book to “The School” and then proceeded to read the story to me. I swear those five minutes changed my life.

While I have a lot of love for the short story in general, very few of them take my breath away, and “The School” was one of the first to do so. It’s hard to pinpoint why the story works so well for me, but a lot of it has to do with the choice of narrator, a teacher, who is fundamentally as lost and confused as his students are. The blurring of the line between student and teacher is a theme Barthelme would return to again and again (such as the wonderful “Me and Miss Mandible”), but he really nails it here in less than 1,200 words.

Barthelme is one of the few American writers who really knew how to make a few words count, and “The School” is a great example of his minimalistic style, packing in enough ideas and emotion to fuel a novella, if not more.

It’s a fantastic compressed narrative, as well as a stunning monologue.

Sadly, since his death in 1989, Barthelme tends to be overlooked more often than not, which is a real shame.

His ability to seamlessly make the transition from drama and comedy and back again – creating an eerie balance that reflects real life – is unparalleled. Without his work, I’d argue that literature today – especially short fiction – would look very different than it does now.

Read “The School” right here.