1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Short Story Club (5): The School by Donald Barthelme

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, Mar 12, 2013.

    For this discussion we'll be reading "The School" by Donald Barthelme. You can find a copy of the story here.

    I've never read anything by him before, though I have heard of him. According to Wikipedia, he is known for his postmodernist style, and his influences include James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I read this story last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked the casual, conversational way the story was written. My first interpretation was that this is a story about the endless cycle of life and death. One thing dies, and another thing takes its place. But it's also funny at times (especially the part about the Korean orphan, which is weird because one would expect that to be the least funniest part), which leads to believe that this may be a story of how desensitized we have become to death. The last portion is especially important because Barthelme seems to be talking about how we deal with death. We seek mindless distractions (making love, the gerbil) as a coping mechanism instead of actually dealing with death.

    I plan on rereading the story, and my interpretation may change the next time I post.

    This story also reminded me of all the viral videos we have today. Basically, a video goes viral and people go crazy over it. Then people begin to lose interest as the video loses its relevance, and pretty soon another video comes along to take its place.
     
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Wow, I guess.

    This story reads like just a big joke. I kept expecting a punch line. Despite the grim subject matter, I kept smiling (at least, I think I was smiling) because the narrator had general air of cluelessness. This cluelessness was magnified when the children asked the question about death "considered as a fundamental datum" (humorous language, coming from kids) and the narrator interrupts with "Yes, maybe." He offers nothing to the kids at all, even though they're looking to him for guidance and comfort in the face of absurdly-recurring tragedy.

    Then the new gerbil walked in. Not somebody carrying the gerbil, just the gerbil by itself. I don't know what that means, other than "Poor, doomed gerbil."

    This kind of writing isn't for me. It's an interesting exercise, but a little of it goes a very, very long way. It doesn't provide me with what I'm looking for in a story. I doubt I'll be reading much more Barthelme.
     
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I just checked Wikipedia, and apparently Barthleme studied philosophy in university. I wonder if the narrator's blank, vacant, unhelpful reactions to the kids' questions about death were just a parody of the professors Barthelme must have known. Maybe he's saying that for all its prestige, grand history, and highfalutin airs, philosophy is utterly useless.
     
  5. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Having read up on his life, I don't think he's saying this at all. He admired a wide range of philosophers and was a huge proponent of teaching philosophy to writers. There's a great interview of him in The Paris Review that I think you might like.
     
  6. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    What I found strange was how intelligent and curious the students were, opposed to the teacher who seemed utterly clueless and without any curiosity at all. It kind of reminds me of the W.B. Yeats poem 'On hearing that the Students of our new University have joined the Agitation against Immoral Literature'. Which is one of those weird poems where the title is almost as long as the poem itself:

    And yet the students seem to be easily distracted, where as, just because he is writing the story down, the teacher seems to be the type to not let go of something.

    There is an interesting dynamic here anyway, thought I'd add it since I couldn't before.
     
  7. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Now that I think about it, the fact that the teacher is telling the story (and how he is telling it) makes me wonder if perhaps he is exaggerating here and there. The last part with Helen makes me think that he's embellishing the details for the benefit of the reader. After all, the story does get more and more ridiculous as it goes along. And perhaps the gerbil at the end is not a gerbil at all but something else entirely (maybe another teacher to replace him?).

    Another thing I noticed is that the teacher "likes" Helen, though I suspect it's unreciprocated love (when the students were talking about making love, "Helen looked out the window."). This love may have come to an end after being caught ("I said I would be fired..."). So the gerbil (one of the several creatures that died earlier) may in fact be a new teacher to replace this one. The death of this unreciprocated love certainly fits the theme of the story.

    Just something I thought I'd add before I forget. It really is a strange story.
     

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