A REVIEW OF BARTHELME'S PARADISE (1986)
During my stint as book reviewer here at decomP, I've tried to limit my reviews to contemporary writings such as books published within the last 10 years. However, sometimes I find it necessary to visit a few older entries, and Donald Barthelme's Paradise (Dalkey Archive Press, 1986) is one novel that definitely warrants attention. Ever the prolific writer, Barthelme published several novels and collections during his lifespan, with this specific release arriving about three years before his death in 1989. As an experimental author, he was way ahead of his time, breaching avant-garde territory continuously, while his brothers Frederick and Steven also entered the writing/teaching field. But enough background information, let's get to the piece at hand.
Paradise is pretty straightforward. Simon – an architect – decides to take a vacation after finding a bomb attached to the undercarriage of his car, despite the turmoil he's going through in his personal life. Separated from his wife and daughter, Simon quickly finds himself living alone in his apartment until three young models decide to move in with him; of course, they have nowhere else to go, and would love to live rent-free. Like in just about every Barthelme novel, sex ensues from the get-go as well as a host of entertaining banter. And again, like in just about everything Barthelme has written, there's a bevy of true-life influence behind the story. His father was an architect, in fact, so Barthelme does have firsthand knowledge of what he's writing about, and in The Dead Father, he draws from his interactions with his demanding, oft-disapproving father.
Now, the story flows smoothly. The character interaction is generally worth reading about, though the dialogue can be somewhat clunky. Is Barthelme's dialogue 100% believable? Well, no, but it is oftentimes insightful, witty, and humorous:
"'Is this a male fantasy for you? This situation?'
'It's not a fantasy, is it?'
'It has the structure of a male fantasy.'
'The dumbest possible way to look at it.'
'Well screw you.'
'Our purpose here, I thought.'"
'I love blackeyed peas.'
'We'll need some corn likker.'
'Try the likker store.'"
Another thing – which appears in experimental fiction constantly – is a twist on formatting. For instance, when Simon is conversing with his therapist, it's in Q. and A. format, making it easy to distinguish between different scenarios. Unlike numerous other writers, though, Barthelme gravitates towards minimalism as far as description is concerned; the characters are brought to life through the dialogue, and it works magnificently. Overall, Barthelme may be off-putting for some – he is erratic and very unconventional – but he's one of the best writers I've ever come across. Paradise is a great read, and I'd be lying if I told you his other material wasn't worth searching out. It is. The cover art of this book, however, ain't that appetizing, but don't judge a book…blah, blah…you know the adage.
about the author
Jason Jordan is many things. He is staff reviewer for this magazine. He was the host of the BEAN STREET READING SERIES. He was an editor of The IUS Review. He has been a featured writer at the Tuesday Night Reading Series in Evansville, Indiana. His writing appears in THE EDWARD SOCIETY and THE2NDHAND. He teaches college writing to college students. He will be going on tour this summer to promote his forthcoming novel, Powering the Devil's Circus, tentatively scheduled for release on 06/06/06. He is a writer.