This week I’ve been entertaining a house guest and haven’t had much time for reading, writing or blogging. But I chose a book somewhat at random from my shelf the other night and tucked into Donald Barthelme’s 1986 novel Paradise. Turns out it was a great book to read during an otherwise busy week: disjointed, pithy, somewhat vulgar, intriguing and moderately experimental. I consider it experimental because it’s written almost completely in dialogue.
I didn’t realize that Barthelme actually wrote novels, but he did. Four in fact. All of which are purported to be extended versions of his fragmentary short story style. I am only a little familiar with Barthelme’s short stories but those I do know tend to focus on one scene and build it up with heaps and heaps of very specific detail instead of constructing a more traditional story arc. Also, I think I would consider him tragic-comic. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say he uses a kind of busy absurdity to highlight emptiness.
True to form, Paradise reads like a long short story. Structurally, the novel is broken up into 60 or 70 3-page chapters. The chapters alternate between existential Q&A sessions between Simon, the main character, and his doctor, and conversations (with a minimum of narrative direction) between Simon and his three female roommates. There are a few one or two-page chapters consisting of narrative summation.
Where this book interested me was in its economy. How it conveyed everything the reader needed to know about Simon through his words alone. But also, how that same dialogue depicted the novel’s other characters. I struggle with creating dialogue that isn’t wholly focused on my main character – I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want my character to reveal about his/herself through dialogue but then I end up so focused I create one-sided dialogue where my lesser characters speak in prompts for the most important character. Paradise is a great example of how effective messy dialogue can be. Not only does Simon reveal himself through his Q&A with the doctor, but the doctor begins to take on a life of his own as well:
Q: Did they ever go to Fizz?
A: I believe they went there quite often.
Q: What went on there?
A: It was a meat rack, a heterosexual meat rack. From what they’ve told me.
Q: So they picked up guys there…
A: They did, I suppose. They may have been just playing, just exercising…
Q: How did that make you feel?
A: I didn’t like it.
Q: Sometimes I think I should be a shrink.
A: Why aren’t you?
Q: It’s not medicine
A: I imagine them thinking, talking to each other…
Q: What did they say to each other?
A: I don’t know, of course. I imagine they were careful, thoughtful. Direct.
Q: My wife was the world’s champion at leaving things lying around. I spent much of my marriage picking up after her…
This last line goes on and on before the doctor picks up their original conversation with a new question. The doctor participates in their exchange, giving his own interpretation of the events Simon is telling him about. It creates a nice layering effect and also forces Simon to re-explain or even defend himself from time to time.
The voices of the three women living with Simon are less differentiated. They act and speak as a unit, mostly as a unit in direct confrontation with Simon. Dore, Veronica and Anne are young, curious, sexy, fragile, reckless, eager, angry…all the extremes. They function as a group of young women still trying to figure out what they want out of life against Simon who is on hold, terrorized really, from what he thinks/realizes/accepts his life has become. He’s resigned, cynical, depressed and numb. The tension between those two perspectives gets explored as they talk circles around each other.
“I don’t want to think we’re fucked. I really don’t want to think that.”
“We could go out and marry some more people.”
“The last thing I have in mind.”
“Yeah it does sound a little retrograde.”
Anne is in a retrospective mood.
“I won the Colorado Miss Breck,” she says. “I didn’t win the National, though.”
“Can’t win them all,” Simon says.
“It was very exciting. This stuff is very exciting when you’re a kid, people making a fuss over you. It becomes less exciting. I wanted to be a doctor.”
“Everybody wants to be a doctor. Veronica’s old man the child-beater wanted to be a doctor.”
“I know,” she says. “Helping people. Your existence is justified.”
Simon looks at his khakis; they’re a bit on the filthy side. Buy another pair. “You could still do that,” he says. “Medical school.”
“Do you want to get married again?”
“Hadn’t thought about it.”
“Probably somebody’d marry you.”
“Some dumb woman. A commodity with which the world is amply supplied. Me, for example.”
“That would be pretty dumb. You need a young soldier.”
“You telling me what I need?”
“I feel affectionate toward you, Simon.”
“I feel the same thing. Not a good idea.”
“Aetna Life and Casualty.”
Dialogue is superficial, in the sense that it lies directly on the surface of a book. It’s the most direct contact the reader has with any one character – it’s even more direct than the first person POV because it doesn’t pass through any filters before delivery. It was interesting then, to read a book that functioned almost entirely at this level. On the one hand I missed the more elaborate narrative interpretation I’ve grown accustomed to in most contemporary novels but at the same time I enjoyed experiencing the characters on their own terms, letting the weight of their words sink in without any distraction.