David Amadio

Conventions of Reading
September 25, 1997

Mutant Anxiety: On Reading Barthelme’s Narrator in "Me and Miss Mandible."

Are we frightened of the "fantastic" literary text? Is there something inherently threatening about a work like Barthelme’s "Me and Miss Mandible," something obtrusive which, as we read, forces us away from the text? A pronounced feeling of uneasiness seems to mark our reception of Barthelme, a range of anxiety expressed mainly in our responses to the story’s narrator. Questions concerning his reliability and authenticity, and why Barthelme chooses to construct him in the manner he does become paramount, serving as pivotal gauges from which we read and critique his character. However, in establishing such gauges we retard our entrance into the "fantastic," reducing the elements of Barthelme’s fiction to mere "realist" side effect: by-products of a normative writing model. How "Me and Miss Mandible" differs, in its narrative structure and character development, from works by O’Connor, Chopin, and Gordimer is perhaps the more pertinent issue when we discuss our responses to the story and its narrator. Reading Barthelme requires new strategies and fresh gauges; a New Critical approach, like the one used with O’Connor’s Julian, can only lead to more anxiety and a dwarfed understanding of the text’s indeterminant nature and its capactiy to destabilize and resituate not only the reader’s, but its own functioning cultural context.

Before examining Barthelme’s destabilizing/stabilizing dynamic, we must first acquaint ourselves with those stylistic features and textual devices he uses which set him apart from "realist" or "naturalist" writers. Barthelme, as noted by Lance Olson in his article "Slumgullions, or Some Notes toward Trying to Introduce Donald Barthelme," recognizes the "...inability of traditional beliefs and structures to make sense of contemporary experience"(29). The edicts of mimetic or realist writing do not work for Barthelme. From Matei Calinescu’s "Modernism and Ideology" we see realist writing defined as exhibiting an "identifiable social perspective," a "critical detachment" from subject matter, and an attention to "convey[ing] concrete typicality"(47). Conventional modes of story telling are subverted in Bathelme’s case, abused to reveal the particular experience of a character whose "social perspective" is suddenly altered. "Me and Miss Mandible" lacks a diachronic plot structure, and reads, as so many of Barthelme’s works do ("The Glass Mountain," "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowining"), like a "collage fiction[.]," a "text[.] constructed from shards."(Olson 13). It is written in the epistolary mode, suggesting an "[at]tachment" to the fictional subject, a perpetual nearness to what is being said and who in the story is saying it. And the dated entries look as it they’re pasted on the page, assembled sections of text containing historical evidence, introspective thoughts, and school room folklore, each pointing to the story’s supposed centre: a thirty-five year old sixth grader.

The moment we encounter the narrator and his "fantastic" condition seems to be when our initial anxiety sets in. With the Chopin and O’Connor texts the process of finding and appropriating a character or characters is automatic, a matter of applying certain schemata (static/dynamic, flat/round, introvert/extrovert) to the figure(s) in question and moving from there to consider other textual materials. Mrs. Mallard and Julian are generally locatable; i.e. they can be couched in a definite time frame, a cultural period both internal and external to the narrative structure. Some readers, speaking loosely, attest to how they can ‘relate’ to or ‘identify’ with the characters of Julian and Mrs. Mallard, can, to borrow from Gerald Graff’s "Disliking Books at an Early Age," "put [themselves] into the text...[and] read with a sense of personal engagement"(39). Rather than engage Barthelme’s narrator, many readers choose instead to neutralize and temper him, dismissing, fighting off the "fantastic" dimension he readily offers up.

This attitude is neatly defined by Terry Eagleton as "fighting the text":

The reader, it would seem, is engaged in fighting the text as much as interpreting it, struggling to pin down its anarchic ‘polysemantic’ potential within some manageable framework(81).

By attempting to naturalize the narrator, we, in a sense, fight with him. We fight with the notion of his doubleness, unable to decide whether his is eleven years old or thirty-five years old. We fight with the fact that we cannot fix him in any preferable time frame or shiftless textual space. We fight, for the most part, with our own inablility to "pin [him] down" and freeze him in a "manageable framework." All the time we are trying out different tactics of recuperation: rendering the narrator and the surrounding text harmless and ineffective. Such a move is in itself ineffectual, and the product of deictic trauma. Lending a conventional "realist" framework to Barthelme mutes the "fantastic," the probing nature of his work. Acceptance and tolerance of the narrator’s undecidability allows us to read the text, for the time being, with out the mediation of any nagging New Critical stratagem, and asks questions on how, before anyone, the narrator perceives and makes sense of himself.

The narrator shares our initial anxiety when confronted with his situation at Horace Greeley Elementary: "There is a misconception here, one that I haven’t quite managed to get cleared up yet...It may be that Miss Mandible also knows this, at some level, but for reasons not fully understood by me she is going along with the game"(24,25). Built into the text is a ready-made uncertainty; it constitutes that vein in Barthelme’s writing technique popularly known as self-reflexive, or meta-fictional. Here the textual object calls attention to itself as language product, as a fictionalized item which purports to be nothing, as far as it can see, but another story among the infininte number of stories revolving in and around it. There is a sense of reassurance early on in discovering the narrator too cannot yet plant himself solidly in the story. As was hinted before, we see him mostly in fragments: journal entries detailing partial accounts of past episodes and former "life-roles," chunks of thoughts about "[his]situation and [his] fellows," about Sue Ann and Miss Mandible, and those sweeping comments on the socio-cultural phenomena of "mislocating" signs(25,33). It is tempting to read the narrative as a type of mental slip, a self-historifying leap into some psychical void or purely fictional elsewhere. But, to keep us from falling to far into abstraction, we must be aware of how the fragmentary narrative and pastiche-like charcter construction add to the destabilizing/stabilizing effect "Me and Miss Mandible" has on the reader, and to what extent this effect speaks to readers particularly conscious of their role as producers and consumers of textual meaning(s).

Destabilization takes place once we accept the indeterminancy of the narrator: something we have already conceded to. Adjustments, to the "fantastic," to the narrator as "mutation," to the absence of narrative flow, are made subsequently. Stabilization occurs when we choose to view the text as what might be called a meaning commodity, or fictive parcel. Such a view highlights the cultural relationship between text and reader, product and consumer, and illustrates the workings of a program of exchange present both inside and outside the story. By program of exhange we mean a ritual wherein characters, namely the narrator, Miss Mandible, Sue Ann, and Bobby Vanderbilt, actively construct their identities, their narrative "roles" from extisting texts, from selected cultural sign-systems, by reading and reproducing in their actions and attitudes a network of values readily pre-packaged for consumption. As texts/signs (Road and Track, Movie-Tv Secrets, the American flag, the Great Northern Insurance Company) give up meaning products, meaning effects, Barthelme’s characters seek them out and use them as paradigms for carrying out and making sense of their own lives. Sue Ann’s ongoing exchange with the gloss magazine Movie-Tv Secrets warrants a brief look: "...[I]t is obvious she has been studying their history as a guide to what she may expect when she is suddenly freed from this drab, flat classroom"(31). Debbie, Ed, and Liz, the stars of Movie-Tv Secrets, become Sue Ann’s life models, "role" models, their televisual concerns become hers, and soon all she sees, in her classmates and in her own mind, is the constant shuffling and reshuffling of these figures to fit her "plans for the future."

Contrary to Sue Ann’s addiction, the narrator repeatedly looks to the story of his past for evidence of himself and where his program of exhange seemingly stopped functioning. He, in his "former role[s]," fails to to read the appropriate sign-systems correctly, "mislocating" himself as Adjuster, husband, and cadet. The"clue[s]" manufactured to guide him through his roles only cloud his self-awareness and problematize his position vis-a-vis the recommended ‘standards’ imposed by the larger signifying structures. "A ruined marriage, a ruined adjusting career, a grim interlude in the Army when I was almost not a person. This is the sum of my existence to date, a dismal total. Small wonder that re-education seemed my only hope"(32). The purpose of his "re-education" is to resituate him, stabilize him again in the world of readable signs and stories, to permit him to create a "promis[ing]" version of himself. However, versions of the narrator are everywhere in the text: in Miss Mandible’s "gradebook," the principal’s "card index," the narrator’s personal journal (our framing text), Sue Ann’s Movie-Tv Secrets ("[she was] certain now which of us was Debbie, which Eddie, which Liz"), in the Army serial codes(24,35). These traces make up the narrator as we see him: shifting, shapeless, unregenerate, unstable: a product which,in many ways, resists being read.

Resistance, at the textual moment when we acknowledge the fraility of trying to "pin" the narrator down, involves the discounting of certain "realist" pre-texts we’ve mentioned, and introduces a program of exchange where meaning products (the narrator; the entire text) play off the reader’s desire for finalized and closed representations, and, in doing so, create a new passion for interpretation, for finding out. Gerald Graff states: "...As readers we are necessarily concerned with both the questions posed by the text and the questions we bring to it from our own differing interests and cultural backgrounds"(42). What many readers bring to Barthelme and his "questions" are literary-cultural pre-texts, ways of understanding and relating to the story drawn from a dysfunctional New Critical "background." The ambiguous construction of the narrator violates conventional reading codes and undoes the fixed binary text/reader. Barthelme’s framing text cannot hold its main character, so it devises internal compartments, intertexts across which we travel to find traces of him. We are treading on new territory here, and, for some, territory which appears less than welcoming.

If we move away from recuperative reading strategies we step into Barthelme’s territory and are acculturated into the "fantastic." Not the "fantastic" as seen in "realist" terms, but the "fantastic" as a model unto itself. We then take "Me and Miss Mandible" like Sue Ann Brownly might, and read it as a guide to interacting with new and strange fictions, threatenting fictions, "future" fictions. Placing "Me and Miss Mandible" in a literary-cultural context demands we identify where we are, right now, as readers, and what we can do to dispel anxiety and confusion in our interpretive communities. As to the state of the narrator in our ongoing critical discussion, he remains lost, comfortably irretreivable. Whereas we may be temporarily stabilized, he somehow stays outside the discussion, drifting. I suggest we leave him there.

Works Cited

Barthelme, Donald, Sixty Stories. New York: Penguin, 1993
Calinescu, Matei, "Modernism and Ideology." Modernism: Challenges and Perspectives. Ed. Monique Chefdor, Chicago: U of Illinois Press,1986
Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1983
Graff, Gerald, "Disliking Books at an Early Age." Falling Into Theory. Ed. David H. Richter, Boston: Bedford, 1994. 36-43
Olson, Lance, "Slumgullions, Or Some Notes toward Trying to Introduce Donald Barthelme." Critical Inquiry, 1989, v14