cover image Not-Knowing:: The Essays and Interviews

Not-Knowing:: The Essays and Interviews

Donald Barthelme. Villard Books, $27.5 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-679-40983-0

""Barthelmismo"" was Thomas Pynchon's term for the disparate writings of Barthelme (1931-89), whose self-reflexive, fragmentary style in such books as The Dead Father and Snow White defined literary postmodernism for a generation of writers born after WWII. This second posthumous anthology of previously uncollected work edited by Herzinger, yields slimmer pickings than The Teachings of Don B., its predecessor. Herzinger opens with two dazzling essays on aesthetics: 1964's ""After Joyce,"" a defense of the artwork as an ""object in the world rather than a text or commentary on the world,"" and 1982's ""Not Knowing,"" which holds that art is a meditation upon the world propelled by questions and riddles. The rest of the book is an uneven hodgepodge, featuring brief, lambent portraits of Barthelme's Greenwich Village that originally appeared in The New Yorker; reviews of books, art exhibits and films; a spirited symposium on fiction with Grace Paley, Walker Percy and William Gass; short essays, speeches and seven lengthy interviews. These sometimes ponderous Q&As, conducted by Barthelme exegetes like Jerome Klinkowitz and Larry McCaffery, Charles Ruas and Judith Sherman, are dead weight compared to Barthelme's essays and fiction. What holds this collection together is Barthelme's rapturous fascination with the visual arts and with language and its adepts (Joyce, Stein, Beckett, Gass, Pynchon, Barth); his cheeky, exuberant voice and ""[t]he combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they're allowed to go to bed together,"" he says in his title essay, that ""makes art possible."" (Aug.)