Going to school with “The School” by Donald Barthelme

The man: Donald Barthelme

Korea is a culture that pours more effort, money, and reverence into education than is healthy. So when I heard Donald’s Barthelme’s “The School,” with all of its absurdity and heart my heart leapt. I’ve heard of Donald Barthelme but I had no idea what I was missing until I heard “The School” on the New Yorker’s Fiction podcast.

It’s read by TC Boyle which is cool in itself. Boyle and Deborah Treisman, the New Yorker’s Fiction Editor, have a discussion about the story which is definitely worth listening to and got me thinking about how there are two very distinct ways to look at the story, by Craft and by Theme.

CRAFT

So, what is “The School”? Well, it’s a pattern story. Like the pattern stories little kids tell:

One day, this ant, was going out to eat some leaves. But then, just after it left its hole it got eaten by a bird. The bird was very happy. But then, just as it was going to fly away, a cat drops from a branch and eats the bird. The cat was very happy. But then…

You get the idea.

Now what makes “The School” pattern special is the Barthelme doesn’t just grow the pattern in the typical way of a liner growing magnitude, he does it in familiar and unfamiliar ways.

The classic elements of the pattern, the ever growing absurdity is there, sure, he goes from trees to reptiles, to herb gardens (I love the suspected sabotage), and then into the serious deaths of children and adults. But there’s a point toward the end when everything twists almost unrecognizably, like a streaker at a baseball game who catches a fly ball and is allowed to keep playing on the field:

[The children say] is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of –

During the podcast Deborah Triesman quotes George Saunders’ essay, “Rise Baby Rise,” from The Braindead Megaphone “What’s happening here, I think, is that Barthelme’s mind has gotten tired of being polite.

Polite is a good word for it. Or law biding.

In the essay Saunders makes the point that with pattern stories, (or any story really), endings are really hard to cope with. With an ever growing pattern what happens? Well, maybe lesser writers would just have everyone die and the teacher being nonchalant about it as Boyle points out in the podcast.

In Saunders’ essay, he notes in the section: “Ending is Stopping Without Sucking,” that “What we want our endings to do is to do more than we could have dreamed they would do.”

And Donald Barthelme shows us what an ending can do.

DB realizes that he must continue escalating. However, instead of staying on the same axis or plane of escalation, he leaps to a new plane: first by having the students ask the meaningful question about death and at the same time escalating the diction. Then having the students ask the narrator to have sex with his assistant who appears out of nowhere, and then to end it with the introduction of new life of the gerbil politely knocking and entering the classroom that sends the class into cheers.

It is simply kicks ass craft skills. Subverting the expectations of the reader by leaping planes of escalation is the kind of thing that is so cool, it’s intimidating.

While the craft of the piece is a marvel, Michael Byers of the Fiction Writers Review takes notice of the theme.

THEME

Michael Byers focus his thoughts on the thematic element rather than craft elements that were the focus of Saunders’ essay.

Curiosity, love, personal connection—all sources of solace in the face of death. And once that solace arrives, the dead world returns to life, having gained mysterious and surprising powers during its time away: the gerbil, resurrected, can now knock on doors and propel itself around with human intention. And wild joy is the result. Which brings us finally back around to the title. If value is everywhere, so, too, is the school. Everywhere around us, at every moment, we are learning how to conduct ourselves in the face of our inevitable personal doom.

I didn’t notice how good the ending was until I read Byers. It also reminded me of  how close the ending of “The School” fulfills Jonathan Franklin’s idea that the ending of stories, in general, are more effective if they’re positive. (It’s a better resolution than leaving a complication out there naked on the balcony like so many of our own complications in life) The gerbil entering, being a possible symbol of new life, and the class cheers gives us that sense that everything isn’t so dark and bad since we all have to die.

And maybe that’s why Barthelme wrote the story that way, with his full concentration on the theme, the challenges of form tired him. What good is polite story craft if a jarring twist away from a relentless “march toward death” to the glories of life, can’t be done?

One final note:

If you have a chance check out TC Boyle’s pattern story “Acts of God” in Without a Hero and George Saunders’ “Sticks.” You can also check out some of Donald Barthelme’s stories here.

Extra Credit: Deliberate Practice Exercise.

Do an imitation of of Donald Barthelme’s “The School.” Think of a different topic, maybe about love and loved lost/eating, travel, etc.

Try writing it with different types of endings, ones where you don’t break the “polite rules” and do. What’s the effect?

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