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In which Netty discovers that she’s hardly over the Moon (Deluxe) about Frederick Barthelme …

August 7, 2013

ImageSometimes I wonder about those blurbs that they put on the front, or back, of books. You know the ones: blurbs written by more famous writers, touting the merits of the work within the pages of the book you’ve picked off the shelf, for whatever reason – maybe you liked the colour of the spine, or thought the title sounded intriguing, or myriad other reasons.

It makes me wonder, was the aforementioned more famous writer approached to opine on the novel in question? Is he/she a friend/acquaintance of its author? Did he/she merely happen upon said book, devour it and then decide that he/she felt so strongly about its contents that he/she wanted to publicly plug it? Is it – ominously – cash for comment? Did he/she actually even read it?

The front cover of my copy of Moon Deluxe – a collection of short stories by American writer Frederick Barthelme – features a plug from the absolute doyen of short story writers, Raymond Carver. “Moon Deluxe is something else entirely – superbly written, and very funny,” Carver says. The back cover features an excerpt from a New York Times Book Review penned by none other than Margaret Atwood, which reads, in part, “Moon Deluxe is engaging, observant and at times downright whack-in-the-solar-plexus mean. Read it and ponder”.

I reckon Moon Deluxe, a slim volume comprising 17 short stories first published in 1983, has been wedged into one of my bookcases for at least 25 years. I have no idea why I bought it – certainly at the time I was unaware of Carver, and unfamiliar with Atwood, so it wouldn’t have been their names on the covers that lured me. Nor would it have been the cover – a lurid combination of brown, green, pink and orange, with a sliver of blue illustratively depicting a swimming pool. Round about the time I would have bought it, my best literary friend was Kenneth McLeish’s excellent The Good Reading Guide, which I was basically using to educate myself on authors and books; perhaps I had learned about Barthelme there? But a recent consultation reveals alas, no. Which sheds no light on the mystery at all and takes me back at square one.

In fact, Moon Deluxe may have remained unread on my shelves for longer, were it not for the fact that my usual tardiness – and our monthly deadline fast bearing down on me – forced me to look for something smallish that could be read quickly. The discovery of Carver and Atwood’s recommendations was simply an added, most welcome, bonus. Suddenly I had very high expectations indeedy.

And that’s the trouble with very high expectations – you’re just as liable to set yourself up for a spectacular tumble. Basically, I went into Moon Deluxe expecting something if not Carver, exactly, then at the very least Carver-esque. Of course, there is only one Raymond Carver – with everyone else who follows in his wake, no matter how good, rendered a mere pale shadow compared to the great master of the form. So in an attempt to be fair to Barthelme’s work, I will try and pretend we live in a world without Carver.

And still …

I always find it a little absurd when people make the blanket statement about Americans having no sense of irony, or subtlety. Because Barthelme – who’s not only American, but Texan to boot – has subtlety in spades. No, make that sledgehammers. For the first half-dozen or so of these stories, once I came to the end I had to go back and reread them – just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Turns out I hadn’t. Because these stories have no real ending. There’s no real story arc, no twists in the tail, certainly no wrapped-up-with-a-ribbon-on-top conclusions.

Now, of course, you don’t always want that. But nor do you necessarily want to invest in a story for it to simply meander around, or peter out, or both. It’s as frustrating as fuck. I pride myself on getting, really getting, the art of the subtle. I certainly am not a reader that wants everything handed to me on a platter. But perhaps I should have heeded more Atwood’s “read it and ponder”, which was enticing and intriguing pre-read, but serves almost as a cursory warning post-read.

That swimming pool on the cover turns out to be a bit of a motif. These stories are largely set in, or against, apartment blocks that inevitably feature swimming pools that sometimes even take centre-stage (Pool Lights; At Heart). The characters are regular people with unexceptional jobs, mostly men and women heading into their forties, some married, a lot divorced. They navigate relationships in which they are mostly clueless to the opposite sex; they half-heartedly fall into trysts from which they then have to awkwardly extricate themselves. Most are told from the male narrator’s point of view; men largely lacking in the emotional-smarts department, with the ick factor (the naive and predatory, respectively, stalkers of Shopgirls and Feeders; the fortysomething who has an affair with his neighbour’s teenage daughter in Grapette; the domestic violence incident in Lumber) too often rearing its sinister head.

Unfortunately, Moon Deluxe proved to be a series of unsatisfying stories without an ending, featuring disengaged characters that were difficult to like, let alone care about, with a repetition of cumbersome themes, circumstances and places. There is no doubt that Barthelme certainly can write, and write well, but this collection ultimately left me cold. And unfortunately the only thing on which I can agree with Carver is that it is indeed “something else entirely”. But not, for mine, in the intended positive sense of the phrase.

And to conclude on a purely superficial note that is somehow fitting – and as I first encountered during my college reading of Christopher Koch’s excruciating The Boys In The Island – never trust a book with a brown cover.

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