The stories of Donald Barthelme are wonders of invention, compression, and imaginative brilliance that revolutionized the American short story in the 1960s and ’70s. Unpredictable, slyly subversive, and often hilarious, Barthelme’s work displays a restless artist’s mind engaging contemporary life’s complexities and speculating on the human place in the world through the adventure of writing, “a process,” he once remarked, “of dealing with not-knowing.” In his fusion of psychological distance and emotional impact, his use of collage and ambiguity, and the lasting aftereffects of even his most enigmatic creations, Barthelme invites comparison with Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka and such towering modern visual artists as Paul Klee, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso.
This Library of America edition of Barthelme’s stories is the largest and most comprehensive ever published. It restores to print the original book collections he meticulously selected and arranged, now iconic volumes that, like the era’s classic LP’s, are best experienced whole. From the stunning debut Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964) to the late-career explorations of Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983), these collections unfold with inimitable Barthelmean logic, mischievousness, and bittersweetness.
Also gathered here are stories from Barthelme’s own retrospectives Sixty Stories and Forty Stories as well as pieces left uncollected at the time of his death in 1989. Editor Charles McGrath’s introduction offers a discerning assessment of Barthelme’s career, and the volume’s extensive annotations clarify the freewheeling, wide-ranging allusions, running the gamut from high to pop culture, scattered throughout his work.
Time and again these stories reveal, in the space of just a few pages, how Barthelme’s singular creative alchemy led him to wrest profundities out of the seemingly ephemeral, even trivial. “Barthelme distrusted,” as McGrath observes in his introduction, “the means of traditional fiction but not its end—to help make sense of things. . . . There’s always another day in Barthelme, a redemptive sense of open-endedness, and a belief that small miracles are sometimes possible.”
Charles McGrath, editor, is a writer at large at The New York Times, and was formerly editor of The New York Times Book Review and deputy editor of The New Yorker. He is also the editor of the Library of America edition, John O’Hara: Stories.