by Eric Fershtman
AFTER A WHILE YOU GET A PRETTY GOOD IDEA ON WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE IS TALKING ABOUT: FREDERICK BARTHELME ON BEING A MIDDLE-AGED WHITE DUDE.
It’s fucking unknowable. Why is that not good enough? Let’s say Who the fuck knows? and let it go.
– Frederick Barthelme, There Must Be Some Mistake (2014)
It’s probably all pretty much true, whatever you’ve heard or read about Frederick Barthelme. His prose style is indeed minimalist, a term fraught with so much recent history I’m a little afraid to go any further into it. I guess I mean there’s none of that self-awareness that’s expressed in abstractions. No psychologizing. He skates the surface of things. Anyway, these sentences of Barthelme’s are also polished raw, if that makes sense. High-fallutin’ his narrators are not. His books are firmly ensconced in the zeitgeist, the present, the modern moment. Lots of texting and trying out the slang, lots of DeLillo-ish dialogue where it seems like the characters are just mouthpieces for the author’s observations on the state of affairs in contemporary America. In most chapters of There Must Be Some Mistake, the most recent book, you’ll find stuff like
Can you ‘understand’ the text, decode it? Sure. Surfaces are everything, the only thing, interpretation is required here as anywhere. Note the text is filled with the rhetoric of insurrection, of sensibility setting itself over against an established mode, a special sympathy for so-called third-world peoples, a commitment to spiritual values as well as humanistic ones, a voice constantly aware of the otherworldy, the larger-than-life, the place beyond the pines, so to say, and primary positions afforded to women, perhaps a suggestion of discontent with leaders and a preference for woman leaders…
There’s a nimbus that hangs over the book, that’s purposeful, I think. There Must Be Some Mistake is Barthelme’s take on noir. Our narrator and protagonist, Wallace Webster, a retired graphic designer, lives alone in Kemah, Texas, in a subdivision named, aptly enough, considering his station in life, Forgetful Bay. Various female friends, including his daughter, visit him. They do this so frequently it’s difficult to imagine any of them having outside lives. Everybody’s witty and sarcastic in pretty much the same way. The plot consists of a string of weird events, mostly deaths, which Wallace and gang attempt to investigate, in a friendly half-hearted way.
This noir thing offers the trepid reviewer one possible avenue of interpretation and evaluation. How does Barthelme do noir, and then, how well does he pull it off?
There’s something else. There Must Be Some Mistake works over many of the same elements that populate his previous two books: there’s lots of affable post-divorce interactions occurring, lots of character analogs among the books (and even a recurring character, one Greta Del Mar), younger women dating older men especially, lots of histories of abusive relationships, lots of interest in, and failure at, for Barthelme’s protagonists/narrators, architecture, from which it’s not tough to tease out architecture’s symbolic link to telling stories, to constructing lives. There’s lots of remembering, too. In fact, much of There Must Be Some Mistake (and much of Waveland, and much of Elroy Nights) is given over to a narrator’s recollecting the past, gathering memories like objects blown about by a hurricane, or like clues to a mystery. This, I’d like to suggest, is Barthelme’s project. Nostalgia, memento mori, etc. Bits of memories grasped as indicators of, and charms against, the Passing of Time. It’s Proustian, in this sense. Or let’s say it like this. Barthelme is very interested in, for reasons that seem obvious, the cultural displacement that occurs as one gets older.
Noir is to the potboiler what literary fiction is to what you might call mainstream or commercial fiction: a sort of posh cousin, who snubs you despite the unmistakable family resemblance. The potboiler wants to know if you’re up for some fun; noir wants to settle down inside a quiet bar and talk serious matters, philosophy, politics, etc. The potboiler wants you to solve the mystery at hand, while noir invites you to consider the deeper mystery of life itself, the various ways we interact with each other, (mis)treat each other, the degrees to which the ostensible mystery, the crime at the surface, is manufactured by implicit societal values. The potboiler seeks a clean resolution, sees the world in black-and-white, whereas noir cultivates complexity, has you seeing so much gray you’ll think you’ve got cataracts.
The following are a few of the elements that seem to be, based on this reviewer’s not-so-exhaustive research, indicative of noir:
(A) The protagonist is tortured, torqued up in psychic pain, by
a. past mistakes;
b. domestic turmoil;
c. the sense of a connection—the obsession evinced by the protagonist of a noir is rarely for the case itself, but rather with determining and naming the thing that links this case to that one
(B) Every character, however minor, is worthy of scrutiny, revealed to be complex, capable of both great and awful things;
(C) There’s always digging, police work, an attempt at depth;
(D) The protagonist unlawfully enters at least one home or business in just about every episode;
(E) Somebody is murdered, every time—it seems as though a life must be sacrificed for the narrative.
Based on these criteria, you might get the sense There Must Be Some Mistake is really more a satire of noir, in your standard postmodern way. Gone Girl this isn’t. For starters, there’s this comic surplus of deaths thrown at the narrative. These are all bunched together, occur within months of each other, but are so diffuse in cause that every attempt at connection peters out before it gets serious. There are car accidents and suicides and, memorably, a heart attack during a homeowner’s association discussion of another death. It creates an interesting effect, this proliferation of dead bodies. All the novel’s characters agree it can’t be coincidence. There’s gossip. There are HOA meetings. Police inquiries. It all goes pretty much nowhere. Wallace lives his life in the meantime, not particularly moved to action, instead “catching up on the Scandinavian noir movies and TV shows everyone had been talking about.”
“Must one always pretend to be the hero?” he wonders.
He does lots of clever talking, too, mostly while eating. He meets Chantal White (AKA Greta Del Mar), and tells her the story of his life, “pleased to have a fresh audience.”
Most of the other characters–his longtime buddy and former coworker Jilly, the daughter Morgan, the ex-wife Diane, and the above-mentioned Chantal White–remain basically flat characters. There are two reasons for this: (1) they all sound the same, and (2) our (non)hero, Wallace Webster, is so into himself that there’s really not much space for anybody else. He’s egotistical, introverted, and kind of a dick. He’s a narcissist. At some point or another, all the above-named women either imply or just flat-out tell Webster that he’s a terrible listener. They’re all cool about it, though, like they’re used to it, which is actually pretty sad considering the frequency with which they seek out his company (it’s rarely him seeking them out, inexplicably). The bottom line is that it’s tough to believe anybody would want to spend time with this guy.
There is also the requisite minimalist/postmodern brand-name stuff—i.e., it’s not just cookies Webster’s munching on, it’s Orange Milano cookies, etc.—tethering the narrative to an extremely particular socioeconomic context.
All of this is to assert that there is a real attempt to remain at the surface-level, in terms of narrative. Webster tells us he’s “interested in the surfaces, the reflection of bright light, the appearance of things, the society of strangers.” He tells us that “a parking lot in Bear Claw, Alabama, was exquisite, and I meant it heart and soul.” He explains that “surfaces are kind of final, kind of real in a way nothing else is,” and if you’ve watched The Killing or Wallander, or any of the other noir shows mentioned in the book, you might be tempted toward a contrast: in those shows, the protagonists routinely obsess so much over a case, dig so deep, that they occasionally become unmoored from reality. They lose sight.
“Details and only details,” says the ex-wife Diane, “because that’s relief.”
For Wallace Webster, the flurry of suspect activity occurring in Forgetful Bay functions as diversion from the true project. The actual noir locates itself in a more intimate space. Webster’s out to explore the mystery of himself.
Why do we like shopping malls so much? Why is Xmas so hugely ritualized, sonecessary for even the non-Christians among us? What mysterious force attracts us to Target on the weekends—why do we feel most ourselves in department stores?
These are the sorts of questions Barthelme is interested in exploring. He’s got a real boner for the “small scale stuff…the details that reveal us,” as he terms it in one interview. And what’s revealed, at least according to the narrators of his most recent books, is deep sad nostalgia, bound, innately, in things. Stuff.
“There was so much stuff back there, behind him,” thinks Vaughn Williams, protagonist of Waveland, about the past. It just so happens this small epiphany occurs in a Target parking lot.
And then Exhibit #2: “I kept thinking about the past,” Wallace Webster tells us. “The past was, in many ways, more interesting than the present.” Is it mere coincidence this thought is expressed following a trip to Target, “where [he and Chantal] went to buy some Bounty paper towels”?
Wallace Webster’s deeply embedded nostalgia provides one possible explanation for his seeming obsession with edges, with surfaces. He clings to stuff because stuff doesn’t change, not really: “I was sure,” he tells Chantal White, “that everything was already trash, garbage, artifice and mimicry, remake, rerun, for better or for worse, and that try as we might to change it we only made new layers of waste.”
Though it’s tonally different, this sentiment of Webster’s echoes (“remake, rerun”) a thought expressed by Barthelme way back in 1992, in an interview inFrank Magazine. In it, he’s talking about architecture, about the significance of architecture in his work. “Being forced from an early age to confront process,” he says, “to see things torn apart and rebuilt, gave me a certain kind of confidence that whatever got torn apart could be rebuilt. That, in turn, probably fed the notion that what you’re supposed to do in life is work all the time and never shrink from the effort to do whatever you’re doing better than you’ve already done it.”
Life’s Sisyphean, things repeat, and nostalgia’s this ghost in the machine, a byproduct of all this endless repetition. Occasionally, Barthelme’s narrators are depressed by this. More often, it buoys them. Second chances! But the facts of life—despite the march of time, despite the speed with which culture appears(surfaces) to change—don’t change.
This, despite Barthelme’s long-held resistance to Big Ideas, is a Big Idea.
And such a book, built on a narrator’s musings and repetitions and small interactions, and not much else, might seem a little, well, boring, on first blush. And it is, sometimes. But largely, it’s not. Because there is drama. It stems from Webster’s internal struggle toward acceptance of the above-mentioned facts of life. And, ironically, or hell, maybe brilliantly, it too draws its strength from repetition: Wallace Webster is constantly, constantly, reminding himself of himself, of the reality of his life, of the “cowardly” decisions he’s made.
Let’s say it another way. Webster is battling his long descent into nostalgia using the very same tools—memories—that seem to leave him most nostalgic. “The rain is not shot through with the richest melancholy,” thinks Vaughn Williams, “it is just rain.” Wallace Webster, on the other hand, recalls, nostalgically, the rich melancholy the rain was once shot through with, and what’s nostalgia if not richly melancholic? A surface is both (1) an indicator of superficiality, a kind of blank slate, and (2) an invitation to interpretation, to (and here’s a fancy phrase)recollective superimpositions (i.e., you experience a thing, and your mind immediately grasps for analogs, for things from your past that are like the thing you’re experiencing now). An edge, likewise, is both (1) the end of a thing, and (2) a border space between one thing and another, and thus a natural spot for meaning-making, for trying to figure out how the thing behind you relates to the thing before you.
The richness of metaphor occurring, this way Barthelme has of implying abstractions via objects and memories, is very much an MO of his: he values the sorts of ideas that have “no clear lines, no digest versions, [that] wander around and poke into things, [that] suggest and hint at and gesture toward experience, and generally elude classification, which makes them hard to talk about.”
In a word: complexity.
It’s probably not fair to say that these last three books have been concerned with the mid-life crisis of a white, middle class, maybe balding or totally bald, smartish, southernish dude living in various Gulf towns.
Let’s say it like this. Barthelme’s three most recent works of fiction–Elroy Nights, Waveland, and There Must Be Some Mistake—appear to be, to this reviewer’s thinking, a trilogy of sorts, an extended meditation on being middle-aged, and white, and male, and middle class, in this country. Near the start of this review I flashed a gaudy term: cultural displacement. Here’s where I cash it in.
Read together, there’s a nifty progression at play: Old Dude Learns To Act His Age.
The drama gets smaller with each book, with the passing of time, as our narrator/protagonist (Elroy Nights/Vaughn Williams/Wallace Webster) gets more and more comfortable with the idea of existing inside a culture that’s not his anymore, not really. He’s been marginalized, led by the elbow to the sidelines. In Elroy Nights, there’s lots of angsty passages bemoaning this: “From my view we were sort of dead already,” he complains. And then, more colorfully: “I felt I was in some kind of vacuum-packed container. A package on a shelf in some giant grocery, with giant people occasionally leaning down to check my freshness date, now long past.”
There are two intriguing things about this. First, Elroy’s project seems to be partially about forgetting. It’s a kind of anti-memento mori: “Forgetting was a mainstay of my act,” he tells us. It’s an understandable reaction. If you’re getting old, and you hate the fact that you’re getting old, then one effective if a little unhealthy way to sidestep it is to just ignore it, that old-ass age of yours, rush headlong the other way, behaviorally speaking. And this at first Elroy does, and does with a vengeance: an art teacher who for years had faithfully respected the student-teacher divide essentially erases it, starts YOLOing hard with his students. And then he literally runs away, takes an impromptu road trip with his twenty-something sort-of girlfriend, his twenty-something daughter, and a twenty-something dude named Victor, who’s really into maps.
The second interesting thing is that plot movement is the result of Elroy’s actions. Or well, much more so than the other two books. He does stuff, makes mistakes: it’s the results of his actions that keep the pages turning.
In Waveland, our protagonist is divorced from the wife who, in Elroy Nights, he’d only been separated from. Vaughn Williams has a new girlfriend, and lives a comfortable life, an “evaporated” life as he calls it, content on the sidelines. Everything feels muted to him. The time for great passions has passed: “Suddenly you aren’t the person you were,” he says. “And then, where once you thought not wanting what you used to want was punishment, suddenly you think it may be a blessing.”
It’s a beating his ex-wife receives at the youthful hands of a new boyfriend that sets Waveland’s plot in motion. In the vast middle of the book, Vaughn feels like he’s been sort of pulled back into the game, so to speak, but by the end, he’s again retreated, this time, he’s sure, for “a life for which he was now well-prepared.” He’s found a balance, in other words. Life’s not what it was when he was a kid, that’s true, but it’s certainly not “evaporated,” or without feelings or passions, as he’d thought at story’s open. There are small pleasures.
And finally, as we’ve seen, in There Must Be Some Mistake, Wallace Webster is living this new quiet life that Vaughn Williams has come to terms with. The question presents itself: how to make a story out of this? Well, it takes a lot of accidental deaths, apparently. A lot of stuff happens, stuff that’s not really Wallace Webster’s concern, stuff to which he plays the passive observer, a role for which he’s now well-prepared.
I’d originally thought Elroy Nights and Waveland were the better books. By, like, a lot. I’d been thinking that the stuff that made the previous two books interesting and readable–the teensy scale of events, the witty dialogue, the sort of assholey, narcissistic narrator/protagonist—was played out, and thus a little grating, inThere Must Be Some Mistake. But now it’s clear that the new project is much, much tougher: without an external conflict with which to pair it, it’s really hard to get a reader interested in his protagonist’s internal conflict. It requires more subtlety than the previous books. I predict a lot of readers will struggle with this. But the project here, in this new book, seems, thanks to Webster’s slightly depressing and fully precarious–trivial, to twist the knife—existence, more relevant to the current American experience. Because let’s be honest. Don’t a lot of us spend much of our time watching TV or wandering through the Internet? Don’t lots of us drift into and out of relationships and friendships more easily than we’d like to think? Don’t we spend lots of time recalling past experiences, as if to measure them against what we’ve got going on now? Don’t most of us middle-class folks lead the sorts of quiet lives that often feel a little elegiac, a little bit tender, toward something we can’t quite remember? Doesn’t life seem a lot like a waiting game? Am I generalizing here, projecting?
It’s all more complicated than this, obviously. What the above interpretation provides is just a single angle of vision, one way of looking at things.
“It’s as if we have this madness for things making sense,” muses somebody in one of these books. “But they don’t, do they? We can make them, but by themselves they don’t.”
It’s this madness, I think, this obsession for interpretation, for naming the link, that’s the stuff of life, that keeps us, well, living. Or maybe it’s that balance between mystery and meaning, that lovely scale, lightly oscillating, producing that bittersweet thing: a sense of possibility. Or more colloquially: hope.
And here’s the last thing I’d like to touch on: despite the quiet complexity of their lives, Elroy Nights, Vaughn Williams, and Wallace Webster are just so sweetly, nakedly hopeful, in the end, for themselves. There Must Be Some Mistake has such a pretty ending that, despite the flaws described elsewhere, it resonates. Powerfully. Hope—that vague feeling that life will get better, will begin to make some sense—is contagious.
There are further questions to ponder. Like, what’s the relationship between this hope and the nostalgia that Barthelme’s protagonists seem to be submerged in? Is it wholly antithetical or, in typical Barthelmian fashion, more complicated than a simple binary? And how deeply does this relationship penetrate, culturally?
One sort of gets the sense that Barthelme is not finished, that, as long he’s still breathing and experiencing, there will be more to come.
Windswept Condominiums, Waveland, Forgetful Bay: these are the places our protagonist lives. Here’s a guy keenly aware of boundaries, of shifting boundaries, and of the constant recalibration necessary to, what?
“There was too much of everything,” he laments. Too many possibilities.
There’s this famous quote, by Thoreau, that springs to mind. I’m sure you know it. It goes like this: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.
Wallace Webster is singing that song, peeps. It’ll take a hard listen to discern it from the white noise you’ve grown accustomed to, but once you do, I think you’ll appreciate it.
How to live. That’s what it is. How to live. Better.
 Big disclaimer: it’s relevant if you’re white, middle-aged, and middle class—Barthelme, with his elsewhere expressed distaste for “projecting schematics,” is not concerned with anything like a “general” or “universal” American experience.