On the surface, the work of Susan Choi doesn’t have much in common with that of Donald Barthelme. Choi is known almost exclusively as a novelist (though she just won the 2021 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award for her story “Flashlight”), while Barthelme, although he wrote several novels, is a legend in writing circles for his short stories. Choi’s work is largely realistic, though her last novel, the 2019 National Book Award-winning Trust Exercise, used fluctuating identities and sudden narrative shifts in a way Barthelme, the ultimate metafictional postmodernist, surely would have admired.
Ultimately, the inspiration Choi found in Barthelme’s work doesn’t have to do with anything specific she was able to use in her own fiction. Rather, it has to do with the freedom she found in Barthelme’s work to do anything; the proof that, when writing fiction, there are no rules that can’t be broken if a writer is creative and original enough to maintain the reader’s interest.
We talked about Barthelme, who died in 1989 at the age of 58, on a beautiful summer afternoon in both New York City (where Choi is working on her follow-up to Trust Exercise) and my home in Seattle, via the miracle of Zoom.
JEFF SCHWAGER: How would you describe Donald Barthelme to somebody who’s never read him, or even heard of him?
SUSAN CHOI: It would depend on whether or not that person is a reader. If the person was a reader, I think that the thing I would say, the laziest and easiest thing, would be, “Do you like George Saunders? If you like George Saunders, and you have a sense of the sorts of voices that he employs and gets really playful with in his work, then you’ll like Barthelme.” Because my guess would be, not that I know, that Saunders was very influenced by Barthelme. So much of the DNA of Barthelme’s writing seems present in Saunders’ writing. And so, because Saunders is so well known, and Barthelme so forgotten, I think that’s where I would start.
JEFF: And if the person wasn’t a big reader?
SUSAN: I would say, “You might like Barthelme because he’s unlike anything that you might have read before. He’s weird. He’s funny. You never really know, when you start one of the stories, what it’s going to be or what it’s going to do. Even just reading the titles is deeply entertaining. Also, the stories are really short. It’s a very brief investment of time to see if you are entertained, amused, or unsettled and disarmed in some way” — because the stories are always subversive and unexpected, in some fashion.
What I loved about Barthelme when I found him as a teenager was just the unpredictability, how much fun he was clearly having, and how little it felt like homework to read him. I was not the most devout teenage reader. I was interested in writing, but hadn’t yet made the connection between reading great literature and trying to create it. So, I was a pretty lazy reader. You know, in high school, I definitely didn’t finish The Sound and the Fury, and just read the CliffsNotes. I just wasn’t a very serious reader as a young person and have been making up for lost time ever since. But I loved Barthelme when I discovered him and never felt like it was a chore to read him.
JEFF: Let’s talk about a few of our favorite stories. We both love “Game,” which is kind of a prototypical Cold War story about two soldiers in an underground bunker with the keys to launch our nuclear weapons.
SUSAN: “Game” is an amazing time capsule of a certain kind of social anxiety. I reread it this morning and was just blown away both by how well it holds up and also how archaic and mid-20th century it feels. It’s almost quaint to read about a world in which the deepest possible terror was contemplating the possibility of nuclear annihilation. It didn’t seem possible that there were worse things that could succeed that, like the generalized anxiety we’re all living through. It’s almost analog to our digital, if that makes sense. Analog annihilation being two actual people, each holding a key, simultaneously turning their keys to unleash nuclear weapons in response to our enemies having done the same thing. It’s so weirdly quaint to think that’s the way the world ended in our imagination back in the middle of the 20th century.
JEFF: As opposed to a pandemic, or the climate catastrophe, or some terrorist threat we can’t even imagine.
SUSAN: It’s so much more disablingly terrifying, because we’ve got the apocalypse all around us, and we’re never gonna get it back under control. So, in a way, “Game” is just this vision of simplicity, and at the same time, it’s a really horrifying story that is so viscerally disturbing. The details Barthelme uses, like the air conditioning that comes on and off, and the sweating walls, and the endless frozen enchiladas they have to eat, all contributing to the madness that’s slowly turning these two people into something inhuman. A lot of his stories seem like conceits or like little entertainments, but “Game” is one that I think is actually really profound.
JEFF: It’s also darkly funny. Shotwell won’t let the narrator play jacks with him. Reading “onesies, twosies, threesies, foursies” in the middle of this ostensibly serious story is hilarious. Another of his stories that’s got that dark humor is “Some Of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby.”
SUSAN: Yeah, it’s a really funny story, although it’s also really disturbing. He’s really, really good at escalation stories, taking a dubious and absurd premise and building on that absurdity.
JEFF: To the point where they’re going to actually lynch their friend just for being annoying.
SUSAN: Right, and the point at which somebody is like, Well, you know, we’re going to be doing the hanging outside by the tree, obviously we’re going to need an event tent, and caterers and a trucking company. The consequences keep escalating. But rereading it, I had the sense of, Wow, Barthelme, actually doesn’t know where to go once he’s escalated it. The story ends with a little bit of a whimper. I mean, they do it, they kill their friend. They actually conduct an extra-judicial murder of their friend because he irritated them. So that one, actually, left me a little unsettled.
JEFF: The one that unsettles me is “The Indian Uprising.”
SUSAN: “The Indian Uprising” is just, like, the product of Barthelme going into some kind of a trance and channeling everything that’s most toxic and destructive and incurable about American culture. A lot of commentators that I’ve read talk about this as a Vietnam War story and I actually think that’s not a bad interpretation. One of the things I love about that story is that it weirdly reminds me of Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” because it’s so lavish in its depiction of the materiality of America at war. Barthelme makes us really uncomfortable with his depiction of our American dependence on racist tropes, in this case the ‘red men,’ to tell our national story. At the same time, it’s such a pleasure to read the story, because you just never know what’s going to come next, from sentence to sentence.
JEFF: It feels very contemporary, as opposed to “Game,” which is such a product of its Cold War time.
SUSAN: Yes, the totally unflinching depiction in it of American racism and commercialism and disordered white supremacist thinking all feel very contemporary. In a disturbing way, it feels like it could have been written yesterday.
JEFF: You mentioned that you don’t teach Barthelme to your students at Yale. Why not?
SUSAN: People who teach writing, including me, often talk about work that’s teachable. What that means is that there’s something of transcendent value when you’re trying to talk about, you know, how to make writing. It’s got great stuff going on structurally, or the characterization is really effective, or the dialogue is wonderful, or its use of symbols is really exemplary. Something like that. Something that calls back to the conventions of fiction writing craft. The thing about Barthelme is that he’s completely unconventional. You can’t take his work and say, “Here’s a great example of the way we conventionally understand writing.” He’s completely original. Not to say that the people I teach, who are among the writers I most admire in the world, like Alice Munro, are unoriginal. But Barthelme is such an original voice that to teach him would just be to invite bad imitations of Barthelme from my students. Which is exactly what I produced when I first started reading him as a teenager. So much of my earliest writing was just really, really bad, unsuccessful imitations of this very strange, original sensibility that you can’t imitate. You just can’t imitate him. Right?