Back to School
Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 19.
A couple of months ago, I highly recommended Donald Barthelme’s story “The School.” Back then, I left at it that, with brief and eager praise, and no discussion of what the story was about. Today seemed like a good time to come back to it and post a closer look. Barthelme’s story is available here. It’s really short, and it’ll be worth your time. I’ll ruin it for someone who hasn’t read it, so go for it you haven’t already. Barthelme died in 1989, but he left good stories behind, “The School” among them. (Sixty Stories would make a good present for people with a sweet literary tooth; and the introduction by David Gates is quite interesting.) Barthelme also cofounded Fiction magazine, which first published John Barth’s “Toga Party,” a story I discussed last week.
Let’s start with general impressions about “The School.” The story is very well handled, and it’s creepy, too. I ran around sharing it with people when I first read it. It has a sort of hymnal or choral quality that puts a fascinating strain on the narrative and on the narrator. Someone told me it had the feel of a fertility rite, and it does. There is something being sacrificed here, but it’s not very clear what that is. My hunch is that the idea of categories itself is at stake, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The story is about a school in which everything keeps dying: orange trees, herb gardens, snakes, gerbils, salamanders, tropical fish, a puppy, a Korean orphan the kids from class adopted through a program, students’ parents and grandparents, and some of the students themselves. (The sheer length of this list is rather funny, even with the tragedies involved.) The person telling the story is a teacher at the school, a man called Edgar. He keeps looking for explanations for the tragedy, and failing to find them. He also tries to make the best of it by pointing to lessons the kids are or may be learning: individual responsibility, not to overwater plants, not to carry a salamander in a plastic bag. It’s all shaky, of course, and we know it, and Edgar knows it.
At the end, the bossy group of students almost manages to get Edgar to have sex in class with his teaching assistant, as sex ed, they say. There is something wicked and powerful about this whole situation. And the voice of the children (they chant in unison) becomes ornate and hard to believe. When demanding a public display of sex, they say they “require an assertion of value.” When asking about the meaning of death, they throw this out there, all of them synchronized: “isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of—.” It’s certainly not real-world children we’re talking about by this point. The story doesn’t explain what they’ve become. And that’s part of its charm. And that’s Donald Barthelme.
I said my guess is that categories are at stake. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the story, plenty of individuals becoming groups and groups shedding individuals. There’s also the sense that people have grown comfortable in categories they can quickly “transcend,” as the kids say in the monologue about death. For instance, the class, en masse, named a puppy Edgar, like their teacher. “They enjoyed the ambiguity,” the narrator says. “I enjoyed it myself. I don’t mind being kidded.” Edgar is saying he doesn’t mind being “kidded” as in “made fun of,” but there’s a strong undercurrent of Edgar being made into a kid by the kids he’s supposed to rein in, and, well, all of this disrupts society’s seemingly staunch divisions. Furthermore, the puppy dies of “distemper,” which means a kind of sickness, yes, but it comes from a combination of words meaning “badly mixed, improperly mingled.” The dog, as everything else in the story, is being improperly mixed, perhaps because the divisions themselves are flawed. This is all speculative, of course, but there you have something else that’s good about the story, that it stays simple and readable and funny, while provoking wild thoughts. (“Wildly” is the last word of the story, by the way—something else to think about.)
In a word (or three): a great story.
Finally, this comes from the introduction to Sixty Stories: “For Barthelme, plots and characters aren’t fiction’s raison d’etre, but good old tropes it might be fun to trot out again.” Good thing to bear in mind as people keep coming up with definitions of what a story is, or with checklists of what a good story must have.