City Life (short stories)

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City Life (1970) is a collection of short stories by Donald Barthelme.


  • Why!...there’s my father!...sitting in the bed there!...and he’s weeping! though his heart would burst!...Father! is this?...who has wounded you? the man!...why I’ll...I’, Father, take this handkerchief!...and this handkerchief!...and this handkerchief!...I’ll run for a towel...for a doctor...for a priest...for a good there...can you...can I...a cup of hot tea?...bowl of steaming soup?...shot of Calvados?...a joint?...a red jacket?...a blue jacket?...Father, please!...look at me, Father...who has insulted you?...are you, then, compromised?...ruined?...a slander is going around? obloquy?...a traducement?...’sdeath!...I won’t permit it!...I won’t abide it!...I’ll...move every mountain...climb...every river...etc.
    • “Views of My Father Weeping”
  • Rationalization
    The problems of art. New artists have been obtained. These do not object to, and indeed argue enthusiastically for, the rationalization process. Production is up. Quality-control devices have been installed at those points where the interests of artists and audiences intersect. Shipping and distribution have been improved out of all recognition. (It is in this area, they say in Paraguay, that traditional practices were most blameworthy.) The rationalized art is dispatched from central art dumps to regional art dumps, and from there into the lifestreams of cities. Each citizen is given as much art as his system can tolerate. Marketing considerations have not been allowed to dictate product mix; rather, each artist is encouraged to maintain, in his software, highly personal, even idiosyncratic, standards (the so-called “hand of the artist” concept). Rationalization produces simpler circuits and therefore a saving in hardware. Each artist’s product is translated into a statement in symbolic logic. The statement is then “minimized” by various clever methods. The simpler statement is translated back into the design of a simpler circuit. Foamed by a number of techniques, the art is then run through heavy steel rollers. Flip-flop switches control its further development. Sheet art is generally dried in smoke and is dark brown in color. Bulk art is air-dried, and changes color in particular historical epochs.
    • “Paraguay”
  • I think the government is very often in ironic relation to itself. And that’s helpful. For example: we’re spending a great deal of money for this army we have, a very large army, beautifully equipped. We’re spending something on the order of twenty billions a year for it. Now, the whole point of an army is—what’s the word?—deterrence. And the nut of deterrence is credibility. So what does the government do? It goes and sells off its surplus uniforms. And the kids start wearing them, because they’re cheap and have some sort of style. And immediately you get this vast clown army in the streets parodying the real army. And they mix periods, you know, you get parody British grenadiers and parody World War I types and parody Sierra Maestra types. So you have all these kids walking around wearing these filthy uniforms with wound stripes, hash marks, Silver Stars, but also ostrich feathers, Day-Glo vests, amulets containing powdered rhinoceros horn... You have this splendid clown army in the streets standing over against the real one. And of course the clown army constitutes a very serious attack on all the ideas which support the real army including the basic notion of having an army at all. The government has opened itself to all this, this undermining of its own credibility, just because it wants to make a few dollars peddling old uniforms....
    • “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel”
  • But when I call for the Phantom of the Opera on Thursday, at the appointed hour, he is not there.
    What vexation!
    Am I not slightly relieved?
    Can it be that he doesn’t like me?
    I sit down on the kerb, outside the Opera. People passing look at me. I will wait here for a hundred years. Or until the hot meat of romance is cooled by the dull gravy of common sense once more.
    • “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend”, conclusion
  • Or a long sentence moving at a certain pace down the page aiming for the bottom—if not the bottom of this page then of some other page—where it can rest, or stop for a moment to think about the questions raised by its own (temporary) existence, which ends when the page is turned, or the sentence falls out of the mind that holds it (temporarily) in some kind of embrace, not necessarily an ardent one, but more perhaps the kind of embrace enjoyed (or endured) by a wife who has just waked up and is on her way to the bathroom in the morning to wash her hair, and is bumped into by her husband, who has been lounging at the breakfast table reading the newspaper, and didn’t see her coming out of the bedroom, but, when he bumps into her, or is bumped into by her, raises his hands to embrace her lightly, transiently, because he knows that if he gives her a real embrace so early in the morning, before she has properly shaken the dreams out of her head, and [...]
    • “Sentence”, first page of nine
  • ...immediately after the commercial they’re going to play a new rock song by your favorite group, a cut that has never been aired before, and you want to hear it and respond to it in a new way, a way that accords with whatever you’re feeling at the moment, or might feel, if the threat of new experience could be (temporarily) overbalanced by the promise of possible positive benefits, or what the mind construes as such, remembering that these are often, really, disguised defeats (not that such defeats are not, at times, good for your character, teaching you that it is not by success alone that one surmounts life, but that setbacks, too, contribute to that roughening of the personality that, by providing a textured surface to place against that of life, enables you to leave slight traces, or smudges, on the face of human history—your mark) and after all, benefit-seeking always has something of the smell of raw vanity about it, as if you wished to decorate your own brow with laurel, or wear your medals to a cookout, when the invitation had said nothing about them, and although the ego is always hungry (we are told) it is well to remember that ongoing success is nearly as meaningless as ongoing lack of success, which can make you sick, and that it is good to leave a few crumbs on the table for the rest of your brethren, not to sweep it all into the little beaded purse of your soul but to allow others, too, part of the gratification, and if you share in this way you will find the clouds smiling on you, and the postman bringing you letters, and bicycles available when you want to rent them, and many other signs, however guarded and limited, of the community’s (temporary) approval of you, or at least of its willingness to let you believe (temporarily) that it finds you not so lacking in commendible virtues as it had previously allowed you to think, from its scorn of your merits, as it might be put, or anyway its consistent refusal to recognize your basic humanness and its secret blackball of the project of your remaining alive, made in executive session by its ruling bodies, which, as everyone knows, carry out concealed programs of reward and punishment, under the rose, causing faint alterations of the status quo, behind your back, at various points along the periphery of community life, together with other enterprises not dissimilar in tone, such as producing films that have special qualities, or attributes, such as a film where the second half of it is a holy mystery, and girls and women are not permitted to see it, or writing novels in which the final chapter is a plastic bag filled with water, which you can touch, but not drink...
    • “Sentence”
  • bins black and green seventh eighth rehearsal pings a bit fussy at times fair scattering grand and exciting world of his fabrication topple out against surface irregularities fragilization of the gut constitutive misrecognitions of the ego most mature artist then in Regina loops of chain into a box several feet away Hiltons and Ritzes fault-tracing forty whacks active enthusiasm old cell is darker and they use the “Don’t Know” category less often than younger people I am glad to be here and intend to do what I can to remain mangle stools tables bases and pedestals without my tree, which gives me rest hot pipe stacked-up cellos spend the semi-private parts of their lives wailing before 1908 had himself photographed with a number of very attractive young girls breasts like ballrooms and orchestras (as in English factories) social eminence Dutch sailors’ eyes subsequently destroyed many of these works
    • “Bone Bubbles”, first paragraph of fourteen
  • love tap the glass is one and three-sixteenths inches thick laminated with plastic top stop a bullet from almost any sidearm indifferent office cleaners smudge views of the acrobat ordered the girl to get up and dress herself dream of the dandy leaves and their veins modern soft skin a car drives up a policeman jumps out tinkling sackcloth provocative back controlled nausea whimpering forms pardonable in that they trump irresistible to any faithful mind hybrid tissues zut powerful story of a half-naked girl caught between two emotions two wavy sheets of steel food towers in Turin a collection of dirks who is that very sick man? age-old eating habits crowd celebrating the matter with him is that he is crazy Paul and Barnabas preaching a bunch of extras going by sketch and final version automatic pump salad holder taking the French shoe tired lines to be taken literally no sexual relations with them
    • “Bone Bubbles”, ultimate paragraph
  • The death of God left the angels in a strange position. They were overtaken suddenly by a fundamental question. One can attempt to imagine the moment. How did they look at the instant the question invaded them, flooding the angelic consciousness, taking hold with terrifying force? The question was, “What are angels?”
    New to questioning, unaccustomed to terror, unskilled in aloneness, the angels (we assume) fell into despair.
    • "On Angels," opening
  • A great waiter died, and all of the other waiters were saddened. At the restaurant, sadness was expressed. Black napkins were draped over black arms. Black tableclothes were distributed. Several nearby streets were painted black—those leading to the establishment in which Guignol had placed his plates with legendary tact. Guignol’s medals (for like a great beer he had been decorated many times, at international exhibitions in Paris, Brussels, Rio de Janeiro) were turned over to his mistress, La Lupe. The body was poached in white wine, stock, olive oil, vinegar, aromatic vegetables, herbs, garlic, and slices of lemon for twenty-four hours and displayed en Aspic on a bed of lettuce leaves. Hundreds of famous triflers appeared to pay their last respects. Guignol’s colleagues recalled with pleasure the master’s most notable eccentricity. Having coolly persuaded some innocent to select a thirty-dollar bottle of wine, he never failed to lean forward conspiratorially and whisper in his victim’s ear, “Cuts the grease.”
    • “Brain Damage”
  • I worked for newspapers. I worked for newspapers at a time when I was not competent to do so. I reported inaccurately. I failed to get all the facts. I misspelled names. I garbled figures. I wasted copy paper. I pretended to know things I did not know. I pretended to understand things beyond my understanding. I oversimplified. I was superior to things I was inferior to. I misinterpreted things that took place before me. I over- and underinterpreted what took place before me. I suppressed news the management wanted suppressed. I invented news the management wanted invented. I faked stories. I failed to discover the truth. I colored the truth with fancy. I had no respect for the truth. I failed to heed the adage, you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. I put lies in the paper. I put private jokes in the paper. I wrote headlines containing double entendres. I wrote stories while drunk. I abused copy boys. I curried favor with advertisers. I accepted gifts from interested parties. I was servile with superiors. I was harsh with people who called on the telephone seeking information. I gloated over police photographs of sex crimes. I touched type when the makeups weren’t looking. I took copy pencils home. I voted with management in Guild elections.
    • “Brain Damage”
  • The Wapituil are like us to an extraordinary degree. They have a kinship system which is very similar to our kinship system. They address each other as “Mister”, “Mistress”, and “Miss”. They wear clothes which look very much like our clothes. They have a Fifth Avenue which divides their territory into east and west. They have a Chock Full o’ Nuts and a Chevrolet, one of each. They have a Museum of Modern Art and a telephone and a Martini, one of each. The Martini and the telephone are kept in the Museum of Modern Art. In fact they have everything that we have, but only one of each thing.
    We found that they lose interest very quickly. For instance they are fully industrialized, but they don’t seem interested in taking advantage of it. After the steel mill produced the ingot, it was shut down. They can conceptualize but they don’t follow through. For instance, their week has seven days—Monday, Monday, Monday, Monday, Monday, Monday, and Monday. They have one disease, mononucleosis. The sex life of a Wapituil consists of a single experience, which he thinks about for a long time.
    • “Brain Damage”
  • I went out into the garage and told Bill an interesting story which wasn’t true. Some people feel you should tell the truth, but those people are impious and wrong, and if you listen to what they say, you will be tragically unhappy all your life.
    • “Brain Damage”
  • Oh there’s brain damage in the east, and brain damage in the west, and upstairs there’s brain damage, and downstairs there’s brain damage, and in my lady’s parlor—brain damage. Brain damage is widespread. Apollinaire was a victim of brain damage—you remember the photograph, the bandage on his head, and the poems... Bonnie and Clyde suffered from brain damage in the last four minutes of the picture. There’s brain damage oin the horizon, a great big blubbery cloud of it coming this way—
    And you can hide under the bed but brain damage is under the bed, and you can hide in the universities but they are the very seat and soul of brain damage— Brain damage caused by bears who put your bead in their foaming jaws while you are singing “Masters of War”... Brain damage caused by the sleeping revolution which no one can wake up... Brain damage caused by art. I could describe it better if I weren’t afflicted with it...
    This is the country of brain damage, this is the map of brain damage, these are the rivers of brain damage, and see, those lighted-up places are the airports of brain damage, where the damaged pilots land the big, damaged ships.
    The Immaculate Conception triggered a lot of brain damage at one time, but no longer does so. A team of Lippizaners has just published an autobiography. Is that any reason to accuse them of you-know-what? And I saw a girl walking down the street, she was singing “Me and My Winstons”, and I began singing it too, and that protected us, for a moment, from the terrible thing that might have happened...
    And there’s brain damage in Arizona, and brain damage in Maine, and little towns in Idaho are in the grip of it, and my blue heaven is black with it, brain damage covering everything like an unbreakable lease—
    Skiing along on the soft surface of brain damage, never to sink, because we don’t understand the danger—
    • “Brain Damage”, conclusion
  • Elsa and Ramona watched the Motorola television set in their pajamas.
    —What else is on? Elsa asked.
    Ramona looked in the newspaper.
    —On 7 there’s Johnny Allegro with George Raft and Nina Foch. On 9 Johnny Angel with George Raft and Claire Trevor. On 11 there’s Johnny Apollo with Tyrone Power and Dorothy Lamour. On 13 is Johnny Concho with Frank Sinatra and Phyllis Kirk. On 2 is Johnny Dark with Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie. On 4 is Johnny Eager with Robert Taylor and Lana Turner. On 5 is Johnny O’Clock with Dick Powell and Evelyn Keyes. On 31 is Johnny Trouble with Stuart Whitman and Ethel Barrymore.
    —What’s this one we’re watching?
    —What time is it?
    Johnny Guitar with Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden.
    • “City Life”