Chicago Tribune Interview

Frederick Barthelme on ‘There Must Be Some Mistake’

Kevin Nance

There may be twists and turns in most novels, but things usually turn out more or less the way we expected. Even when there’s a big surprise at the end, typically it seems, at least in hindsight, inevitable. Things fall into place, over a few hundred pages, as the author’s grand plan unfolds before us.

Frederick Barthelme has a grand plan, too, but it doesn’t involve things falling into place. Quite the opposite. In Barthelme’s novels — including his latest, “There Must Be Some Mistake” — the reliable coherence of realistic fiction is replaced by a queasy randomness. His characters — including his latest hero, Wallace Webster, a retired commercial artist living in Texas along the Gulf Coast — drift from one unresolved emotional state to another, in and out of homes and landscapes and relationships. Haunted by the premature end of both his professional life and his second marriage, Wallace retreats to a condo development called Forgetful Bay. There he engages, with confusion and sadness and no small amount of humor, with his ex-wife, his daughter and two potential love interests, including a former colleague, Jilly, and a local restaurant owner, Chantal, in whose Airstream trailer he sometimes finds himself contentedly locked.
This is the playfully unsettling world of Barthelme, a major figure in postmodernist fiction since the 1970s along with his brother Donald (who died in 1989), Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason and others. Printers Row Journal recently caught up with Barthelme, 71, for a phone interview from his home in Destin, Fla. Here’s an edited transcript of our chat.

Q: Wallace talks about the Gulf Coast as a place where you feel you’re on the edge of the earth, a place with a strange, haunted, somewhat empty quality. Why have you settled on this part of the country as the setting for most of your novels, including “There Must Be Some Mistake”?
A: Well, I was born in Houston, and my father was from Galveston, where we went a lot when I was a kid, spent time on the beach there. I’ve always been enamored of the feeling of the place, the sort of end-of-the-world aspect of it. There’s something inviting to me about any place that borders an ocean, because the ocean is so huge. It’s like you go there and everything stops — there’s this beach, and that’s it. (Laughs.) It seems like an exciting setting for a novel, and I tend to use it over and over again — the idea of being on the perimeter of the known world.

Q: The towns on the Gulf Coast also have a kind of bland quality that you talk about — chain restaurants, mini-golf, strip malls.

A: It’s sort of half that and half not that. All along the coast, here in Destin or in Galveston or wherever, it’s half the chain restaurants and gas stations and condos, and the other half is the decrepit, falling-apart world of the ’40s and the ’50s, old houses and apartment buildings and nightclubs and so on. And you see that intermingled with the other stuff all the time. There’s also in Gulf towns an attraction to the ridiculous — a building in the shape of a giant crocodile, which we have in Panama City, for example.

Q: People reading this interview might think you disapprove of this landscape you’re describing.

A: They’d be very, very wrong. For one thing, there’s a historical component here — you’re seeing an older world and a contemporary world at the same time. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that we’re overrun with corporate culture, companies building whatever crap they want to build, and people being perfectly fine with seeing that crap all over the place, and in fact all over the country. People used to complain about me writing about the New South. I never wrote about the New South. I wrote about the country as it was, in 1990, or 2000, or 2010. So to find a place along the Gulf where there’s some historical presence — evidence of a world that used to exist — is great. It’s also the world of my childhood, which exists largely in my imagination now, but vestiges of which you can still physically see in coastal towns.

Q: Your fiction is a bit different from the “realistic” novels that most readers today are more familiar with. In a “realistic” novel, generally, the reader has a sense of logic in the story, that things are happening for a reason. In your novels, I think the reader often feels somewhat adrift — which may be what “There Must Be Some Mistake” is about: a sense of being adrift, of feeling the absence of a coherent, linear quality in life that many people expect. Wallace is floating in an ocean of indefiniteness: relationships that are in flux, connections that are incomplete or broken or forming. Could you comment?

A: First of all, it’s a pleasure to hear you characterize the book in exactly the way I think about it. Second of all, what you’re characterizing as “realistic” fiction seems to me to be, by now, almost a fake representation of a usually idealized world in which things make clear sense, in which A leads to B which leads to C and so forth. My own experience of ordinary life is that that isn’t the way it works at all. In fact, A leads to F, and F leads to M, and M leads to B. Life hops around, and doesn’t make perfect sense, and never has. People are adrift, and that is exactly what the book is about. Wallace is cut off from the ordinary patterns he might have expected from life. So too is Chantal, so too is Jilly, in various ways — some by accident, some by choice. They don’t have the white picket fence, a small and lovely family, a small and lovely life. They’re not going to have grandchildren and live happily ever after, like on TV commercials. Instead they live in a kind of ragtag way, which I sense is more the way most of us actually live — with things we didn’t anticipate sideswiping us out the blue.

Q: So the word “realistic,” as applied to fiction, is in your mind a kind of a misnomer?

A: As applied to my work, certainly. There is, of course, a literary-historical term, “realism,” with certain characteristics associated with the term, and those characteristics are well-fulfilled by numerous writers who are writing now, even, and doing very well for themselves. It’s a formula that’s very pleasing to readers. I have nothing against it, but it’s not something I’m interested in, because it doesn’t correspond to my experience of life on this planet.

Q: The way your characters talk seems to share some of the qualities of sitcom dialogue. There’s a jokey aspect of it that your characters use, I’m thinking, to distance themselves from this lack of coherence that we’ve talked about.

A: Well, I know what you mean, but for me it comes from my family. I’m from a fairly large family, five children, all of whom were very verbal. Laughter was a big commodity around the house — everyone shooting gibes at one another. We should have called our house Snappy Patter. (Laughs.) It was something that was prized in the family, being quick with wordplay, and it’s been a part of the way I’ve always interacted with other people — sometimes unsatisfactorily, as you can imagine. (Laughs.) People have sometimes written that my dialogue is unrealistic, but I can only say that they don’t live in my world. There’s a quality of play that’s always gone on between my characters, in part because it almost always reflects the world around them, what’s going on in the culture at a given time. You say “distancing,” but I think they’re actually getting closer to the world they live in, the world they’re saddled with, which is a world in which we’re inundated with information all the time. They’re always talking about the world and their experience of it, even as they’re also talking about getting some Cheetos to snack on in the car.

Q: There’s a self-consciousness there.

A: That’s certainly true, although I don’t think of that as pejorative at all. They’re self-aware in relation to each other, in relation to the physical world, in relation to the culture of our present time. So they might allude at any time to something that’s not present in their immediate world but is a part of the cultural moment — a disease, say, in Africa — that would become part of a discussion of something much more ordinary.

Q: Wallace references Poulenc’s opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” and he knows who Yves Klein is. He’s quite a sophisticated person, really, which makes him stand out among the more “everyday” characters we associate with “minimalist” or postmodern fiction, both traditions you’re associated with.

A: I was never very interested in or connected to the “ordinary” person, if by that is meant someone who is not educated. We live in a world where “ordinary” can involve going to college and graduate school, where everybody is pretty self-aware — as opposed to how we imagine life would have been had we been functioning as adults in the ’50s. Most people are more sophisticated than we know about as we see them going about their lives. And so it is with Wallace & Co. They’re well-educated, quite thoughtful, with a range of experiences, ideas, opinions. They care about the world in a patchwork way, but it’s a sophisticated patchwork.

Q: We should note that a number of your siblings are also writers. How did that happen?

A: It’s an odd result of a combination of things. My father was an interesting modernist architect at a time when modernism in architecture was not quite yet all the rage. He studied architecture at Penn, where he was in the same class with Louis, what’s his name …?

Q: Kahn?

A: Louis Kahn, yes. My dad later designed buildings in Galveston and later Houston. My mother was a teacher of English and was very well versed in theater; she did some acting in college. So the fact that a lot of us became writers grew out of the intensity of my father’s modernism and the fullness of my mother’s literary and theatrical background.

Q: Your brother Donald was …

A: Champion.

Q: How did you deal with having such a famous writer as a brother? Was there any sibling rivalry?

A: Actually, Donald was a dear friend and very much a mentor for me. And you know, when your brother is Derek Jeter, you don’t have much sibling rivalry. (Laughs.) He took all this stuff I’ve been talking about from our family and brought it out into the world to make his art, which is quite splendid in every way. So there was never anything but respect and affection between us. He was very helpful to me in my early years, and I’m desperately sad that he died at such an early age.

Q: You share a DNA with him that goes beyond the biological.

A: Absolutely. I’m very much a descendant of his, in literary terms. Obviously I couldn’t do what Don did, because Don had already done it. Roger Angell at The New Yorker once said he got one of my early stories and while it was interesting enough, it was derivative of Don, and he couldn’t publish it because, as he put it, “I already had one of those.” This made it necessary for me, after a while, to find some other way to write, and yet not give up the aesthetic ideas and opinions I had. What I eventually came to was the work I’ve actually done now for some years, which is a kind of amalgam of literary play taken more in the direction of representation. Someone was talking once about how (Gabriel García) Marquez was so strange because of his magic realism, and I said, “Nothing is stranger than walking down the street and seeing other human beings.”

Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Follow him on Twitter @KevinNance1. Interview first published in the Chicago Tribune of December 24, 2014.

“There Must Be Some Mistake”
By Frederick Barthelme, Little, Brown, 297 pages, $25

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