When you think of Marilyn Monroe most people invoke the same image into their mind. Marilyn with the pouty lips making a kissy face, slightly crouched, wearing her signature white dress. A selective few in the pantheon of celebrity to be considered an “icon”. Read as a sign she can symbolize sensuality, Hollywood, movie making, and hundreds of other images and virtues that just her presence brings to mind. Yet for all the biographies, images, and tales of Marilyn, we each shape our own identity for her. Much like Marilyn, in the political realm the Kennedy family has risen in prominence and many of their members are considered to be “iconic”. In Donald Barthelme’s “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” the author makes use of an unreliable narrator, a main character rife with contradiction, endlessly opening stories and pastiche to question not only the identity of celebrity and icons, but also the reliability of history, story telling, and meaning from one moment to the next.
The reliability of celebrity identity is already a shoddy one at best. What can be gleaned from smatterings of celebrity magazines, news articles, and promotional materials put a sort of piecemail identity together for most celebrities. One can discover that their favorite celebrity likes “puppies” and their charity efforts are focused towards cystic fibrosis because they had an aunt with the condition, or maybe that “they are just like us” in pictures of them doing mundane tasks like grocery shopping. One may get a sense of some sort of stable historicism from some sort of biopic, or “True Hollywood Story”, in which there is a sense of it being the “official” story that taps into the root of celebrity identity. The problem with constructing identity this way is that it becomes just a system of binaries in regards to what someone’s identity is and what it isn’t. It is as if identity just becomes a series of yes and no questions. Do they like puppies? Yes. Do they like ice cream? Yes. It disregards the complexities of human identity, and that people are not a stable system of yes and no’s. It becomes even more problematic in regards to political celebrities such as Robert Kennedy. One expects a more stable identity in historicisim, as if historians by default take more care in their due diligence than casual observers, or any other form of storyteller. In the end, however, history is just a series of symbols and stories and Barthelme’s telling of the story of Robert Kennedy seeks to debunk the stability of this sort of storytelling. One ends up having to question if there is “a stable subject, an authorial identity that anchors meaning and intention, or is writing a transpersonal process so involved with models and transgression of models as to be completely without stable reference, let alone verisimilitude? (Molesworth 1).
Immediately in Barthelme’s tale our title character is stripped of his name, and he is simply referred to as “K” throughout the rest of the piece. Already we begin to see that there is no stability in identity, and that this newly formed identity of “K” is not just the man himself, but an identity filtered through the lens of our narrator, who he himself claims in one of his two appearances that “I am a notoriously poor observer” (Barthelme 73). In this way the narrator seems to be reconciling the fact that even his own observations on which he reports are not infallible, and are subject to his own determinations and that “characters, setting, action, and viewpoint, are, after all, the creations of language” (Roe 46). “K” therefore is just a creation of language, and not really the person itself, but the idea of a person, the construct of the author.
Being the construct of the author, one might believe that identity would be assembled in the more modernist way of archetypal virtues, or a series of positive and negative attributes, like many of the heroes or characters in the meta or grand narrative style, but Barthelme’s style borrows heavily from the avante-garde and postmodern techniques in order to criticize just this type of structuralist approach. Because of the often bizarre avante garde style of his writing “one is tempted to call his a slightly irregular postmodern, but it would be more accurate to say that his eclecticism is symptomatic of the loping, amorphous beast that gets blithely labeled postmodern” (Nel 92). And amorphous is exactly how he portrays this problem of identity, as a constantly shifting, transient thing. “K” has no stable identity which becomes apparent in the first lines of the first vignette entitled “K. at His Desk,” in which “he is neither abrupt with nor excessively kind to associates. Or he is both abrupt and kind” (Barthelme 68). This is an immediate rupture from the prescriptive logic of structural and formalist pieces. Instead of the algebraic and rigid, Barthelme is offering the conditional.
One of the ruptures from traditional pieces is the fact that the story is broken into small vignettes. Each seems to be a fragment of a story, or the beginning of a story, with no real resolution, ending, or narrative arc. Often K. is recounting his own experiences, but we also get vignettes that involve the observation of others. In “A Friend Comments: K.’s Aloneness” even those around him find him hard to pinpoint as “he’s very hard to get to know, and a lot of people who think they know him rather well don’t really know him at all” (Barthelme 72). What is called into question I believe is that how well can anyone know someone, even oneself, given that identity is not only personal but a shared entity. It is apparent in the story that “though K. is a public figure, dogged by aides, political colleagues, family, waiters, and reporters, no one – not even K. himself – really knows this enigmatic personage” (Roe 44).
Not only is the question of truly knowing someone addressed, but Barthelme calls into question the reliability of language itself and how shifting understanding and meanings color what we observe. In “Sleeping on the Stones of Unknown Towns (Rimbaud)” we find K. slipping between countries in which “shop signs are in a language which alters when inspected closely, MÖBEL becoming MEUBLES for example” (Barthelme 70). When we move through public and private spaces language is always in a state of change, whether we are navigating in between lexicons of different professions, dialects or language by neighborhood, or country. While “K.” may feel some alienation while citizens “mutter to themselves with dark virtuosity a mixture of languages,” there is a universality behind basic human needs and interaction, as “K.” wonders to himself as he navigates in foreign places “what are their water needs?” (70). Like their water needs, “K.” addresses public transportation in what appears to be an allegory for language, in that it is “at once complex and inadequate” (70). Perhaps any system in which interpretation is subjective is inadequate.
In interpreting Barthelme’s work one might come to consider what is the purpose of such a fragmented piece that seems to have no resolution, no narrative arc, and applies so many experimental techniques, in which it seems to criticize the art of storytelling itself. It has self referential material, and elements of pastiche in it, especially in regards to the sections about Karsh of Ottowa and Georges Poulet (which I will return to later), and sections seem to be bad replications of historical elements. Is it appropriate to seemingly criticize historicism when “to claim juxtapositions and pastiche as ahistorical assumes that the viewer or reader has no sense of history and forgets the real itself is always historically contingent” (Nel 93). And if the historicism is meant, then is the purpose of the story itself self contradictory and canceling itself out? It certainly is a piece that takes careful consideration about what its ultimate goal is, if any. It has been thought that “Barthelme’s constant innovation can be both bane and benefit. His enthusiasm for different forms can be effective or confusing depending on the form that he adopts” (Nel 92). While the forms may be confusing, the ultimate goal may be to stimulate thought and to encourage discourse, which is accomplished rather well with the particular methods that Barthelme employs.
Through his use of pastiche Barthelme is able to convey a deeper subtext of what these moments may be trying to express. In “Karsh of Ottawa” which references the famous portrait photographer we find that there is “one shot in each sitting that was, you know, the key shot, the right one” (Barthelme 71). Portraits are static images, that portray that just one moment. Is that what identity might be? Snapshots, frozen in time, a particular set of statics that put something into definition. Perhaps all the flux and constant change of language, space, time, personality, and preference are not what defines oneself, but the frozen moment, the remembered or written act?
Of course with Barthelme’s story one cannot just take a single concept like the frozen moment as identity, since there always seems to be some sort of irony, or contradiction to show another facet of the possibilities of interpretation. In “He Discusses the French Writer, Poulet” Barthelme uses pastiche in a discussion by “K.” of the ideas of Georges Poulet. Poulet famously rejected many of the tenets of formalism and was influential in the move away from the structure that formalism entails, and instead focuses more on the universality between author and reader. This section of the story entails what I believe to be one of the substantial elements to call into doubt any static qualities about identity, history, and story. “The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant,” is one of the strongest statements made about how from moment to moment everything is recycled and refreshed, constantly shifting and in question of its meaning (Barthelme 77). It calls out historicism in that these “instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant and not the line” (77).
Should everything be considered moment to moment, without considering the past moments, as may be posited from the frozen moment earlier of Karsh of Ottawa? Is language and identity something that has to be negotiated constantly? Even if something is recorded and static, it is still in flux with regards to its meaning, so is the current moment the only thing that we can regard any sort of historicism with? These questions are being posed, and don’t seem to get resolved, which is perhaps what is intended by Barthelme. By creating the means of bringing up these questions, these considerations of contradicting edicts and imagery bring into the dialectic the outsider, the reader, who perhaps is the one whom needs to be considering this, instead of the authoritative figures that often dictate meaning. After all “Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable” (Lyotard 356)
In the end of the story, the narrator steps in and breaks the invisible fourth wall between reader and author. The narrator saves a black hatted, black masked K. Who seems to have been transformed into that hero, that archetype that we are looking for, only he is in trouble, he is drowning, and the narrator goes on to say “I pull him out of the water. He stands now on the bank, gasping. ‘Thank You’” (Barthelme 77). What is the narrator saving? Who is this person, this “K.” that we have studied and considered, who is still as much of an enigma as he was from the very beginning. Is “K.” an individual? Or is “K.” an allegory, a device, divorced from his real life persona, “for what the author is saving is less an individual than the center of his own story, the excuse of his fiction making” (Molesworth 72). We are left with ambiguity, contradiction, and a sense of no real resolution. Is this what the story may be, what history might entail, and what identity really is? These may be irresolvable constructs, whose meaning is subjective, unstable, and subject to deferment of significance depending on the moment, the context, the reader, the world. Barthelme’s use of experimental techniques and postmodern ideologies construct a story in which the purpose of the story is not to resolve these questions, but to urge us to consider them.
Barthelme, Donald. Sixty Stories. A penguin book. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Molesworth, Charles. Donald Barthelme’s Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning. A Literary frontiers edition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
Nel, Philip. The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
Roe, Barbara L. Donald Barthelme: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne’s studies in short fiction, no. 32. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.