Sunday, 29 March 2009

2. Donald Barthelme - 'Me and Miss Mandible' (1964)

'How carelessly they stack the ammunition
In the magazines'

(Peter Hammill, 'Skinny', Clutch, 2002)

8 November

'Everything is promised my classmates and me, most of all the future. We accept the outrageous assurances without blinking'.

(Donald Barthelme, Sixty Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2003, p.25)

Like the previous ASSAD entry, there is a theme of childhood, but here tackled in direct comparison to adulthood. A first-person diary format lends the narrative, which unfolds from 13 September to 9 December, an 'authentic' immediacy.
The 'card index' system and blinkered convention allows the bizarre spectacle of a thirty-five year old in a class of eleven year-olds at Horace Greeley Elementary to go unmentioned, until the climactic events. The central scenario has an incongruity and absurdity in common with Beckett or Kafka: 'I have finally found the nerve to petition for a larger desk. At recess I can hardly walk; my legs do not wish to uncoil themselves.' (p.25)
This chap is thurst into his 'new role', seemingly - though ambiguously - as a reassignment after a perceived failure in his previous job role; back to school, as a 'Gulliver'. (p.22) Problems in the adult world have their root in the schoolroom, he discovers: 'Napoleon plods through Russia in the droning voice of Harry Broan, reading aloud from our History text. All of the mysteries that perplexed me as an adult have their origins here.' (p.27) Childhood and adulthood are alike - 'the distinction [...] is at bottom a specious one.' (p.25) Although as an adult, or within the adult world one is subject to the 'whimsy of authority' - he appreciates the safety of having a place, even if the place is within a roll-call of numbers, like in The Prisoner.
Barthelme, like Dahl and the writers mentioned above, portrays bleakness in the arbitrary; of life and death, of adulthood switching back into childhood. Homilies do not hold; like in Dahl and so much good writing for children, the image of childhood is one of contingency and disorder - not the bland comfort pervasively etched in the media.
Give me the child and I will give you the man; words which resonated across the channel in Granada's 7 Up documentary, which premiered on May 5th of 1964. The children that the carefully depersonalised narrator (his name is rarely if ever given) encounters are products of a society that values products and the packaging of celebrity - as exemplified by the Movie-TV Secrets magazines that Sue Ann Brownly brandishes, in an effort to win his heart: 'she pulls from her satchel no less than seventeen of these magazines, thrusting them at me as if prove that anything any of her rivals has to offer, she can top.' (p.23)
One gets a sense of Mark Kermode's righteous railing against Heat magazine a month or more ago on BBC2's The Culture Show, in the narrator's disgust at the litany of headlines he transcribes: 'Who are these people, Debbie, Eddie, Liz, and how did they get themselves in such a terrible predicament?' Sue Ann knows, I am sure; it is obvious that she has been studying their history as a guide to what she may expect when she is suddenly freed from this drab, flat classroom.' (p.24) Celebrity Culture 2009 writ large; its miseducation of the public diagnosed.
Barthelme portrays our reliance on signifiers, of patterns of thought that would discern a prospective wife, for example, in signs like 'cooking, perfume'; we talk and relate to one another at cross-purposes, never truly connecting: as in Pinter, The Caretaker being an example.
It may be worth noting that this story was published in the year before Johnson's government passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act 1965 - one of many measures that comprised the Great Society programme, clearly the closest post-WW2 America came to socialism. This was designed to provide greater government funding for average American schools, providing more resources for those in the 'common run', as the diarist of 'Me and Miss Mandible' describes his fellows at Horace Greeley Elementary. The story certainly does not paint a glowing picture of the previous status quo, a haven of routine that the narrator wilfully sinks into. Until the rather droll resolution, which I won't spoil. Suffice to say that it baits the tabloid ideas and ideals of chasteness with a jack-knife.

1 comment:

  1. "Give me the child (until the age of seven) and I will give you the man": funny you should invoke *those* words, as I was only thinking earlier today about how there is a direct line of descent linking both my current political views and my pop-cultural/aesthetic stance to the fact that, in childhood, I much preferred The Moomins to He-Man.

    But what would have happened if *all* I had had offered to me had been essentially American (or Japanese in theory but American in practice), for which I would only have had to be a few years younger? The results are, dispiritingly, pervasive indeed. The people Paul Dacre effectively stopped freestyling live have found a way out, in a way few if any of the particularly disorientated and trapped young people you see in places like Portland ever could, but then the grime axis (and related) have a culture of their own which, for all its faults, is not purely celebified. By a particularly bitter twist, those who were once the most rooted and secure are now the most rootless, and thus the most vulnerable. Yet another example of *nothingness* stares down from number two, thankfully kept out by Lady GaGa.