Donald Barthelme

Forty Stories

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Forty Stories Summary

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Forty Stories is a short story collection published in 1987 by American author Donald Barthelme. Many of the stories are five pages long or less, leading some observers to characterize the work as “flash fiction.” The stories, many of which were first published in The New Yorker magazine, cover a wide range of topics, from historical anecdotes set during World War I to surreal retellings of fairy tales.

The first story, “Chablis,” concerns a family man’s anxieties over his daughter’s future and his wife’s insistence that they get a dog. These anxieties are relayed via a stream of consciousness narrative as the narrator sips on a glass of Chablis wine at 5:30 in the morning. The second story, “On the Deck,” is an experimental litany detailing various things the narrator observes on the deck of a boat, including a lion, a Christian motorcycle gang, and a Toyota Camry. “The Genius” is about an organization founded in Buffalo, New York to honor an unnamed genius.

“Sindbad” is one of three pirate stories included in the collection. Sindbad the Sailor is a fictional mariner whose mystical adventures appear in the Middle Eastern folk tale collection, One Thousand and One Nights. In “Captain Blood,” the titular fictional pirate wins a naval battle against the American naval commander and suspected pirate, John Paul Jones.

“The Explanation” is framed as a question-and-answer conversation between a questioner, who represents the machine world, and an answerer, who represents human nature and emotions. “Concerning the Bodyguard” details the uncertain loyalties of a bodyguard responsible for protecting a powerful but dubious dictator. In “RIF,” which stands for “reduction in force,” Rhoda fears she will be laid off by her employer.

“The Palace at 4 a.m.” is about a King who, as a prince, gained the throne with the help of a “semispirit” but now regrets losing the love of his life, H. The story is named for Alberto Giacometti’s 1932 surrealist sculpture. In “Jaws,” Rex tries to help a troubled married couple, Natasha and William, reconcile. The couple’s problems reach a climax when Natasha, angry over her husband’s affair, bites William in the leg, severing a tendon. A nineteenth-century writer recalls a series of dialogues with his mentor, the famed German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in “Conversations with Goethe.” The two trade bon mots until Goethe tells the writer to “Shut up.”

In “Affection,” a husband and wife, Claire and Harris, argue over trivial matters while plagued by deeper feelings of anxiety over their marriage. They haven’t had sex for nearly a year, and Harris is involved in an affair with a woman named Sarah. A tenant bemoans the new proprietor of his apartment building who lowers the heat and raises the rent in “The New Owner.” He tries to evict an elderly couple because they are too old to “live.” By that logic, they do not live in the building or anywhere else.

“Paul Klee” recounts the titular painter’s time in the German Army during World War I. While transporting three planes by rail through occupied territory, Klee loses one of the planes. The police are relieved when Klee changes the transport papers to reflect only two planes, because the officers don’t want to investigate the disappearance. In “The Educational Experience,” the narrator dismisses education as little more than random facts, cohering into nothing.

“Bluebeard” is a retelling of the grisly fairy tale of the same name. Instead of finding Bluebeard’s dead ex-wives, his current wife opens the dreaded closet and discovers seven dead zebras dressed in designer gowns. In “Departures,” children from impoverished neighborhoods are bussed to affluent schools, and children from affluent neighborhoods are bussed to impoverished schools.

In “At the Tolstoy Museum,” a narrator reflects on the idiosyncrasies of the famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy, such as that he would bow backward. At the museum, there are buckets of handkerchiefs for crying patrons left despondent by Tolstoy’s resemblance to a disappointed father. “The Film” concerns the kidnapping of a child star.

Celebrating his “100th marriage” in “Overnight to Many Distant Cities,” the narrator recounts his travels around the world to Versailles, Stockholm, Paris, Mexico City, and Barcelona. Barcelona is his favorite city. “Construction” follows a man who takes a business trip to Los Angeles and meets Helen, an attractive and mysterious woman. He is enamored by the strange air of authority he senses in Helen.

In “Letters to the Editore,” the editor of an Italian magazine known as “SHOCK ART” reads accusations of plagiarism leveled at one of the artists featured in his magazine. The artist, who only paints asterisks, is accused of plagiarizing the work of an earlier “asterisk artist.” A mother and father use draconian efforts to discipline their unruly baby in “The Baby.” In the last story, “January,” Thomas Breaker, a fiction writer and philosopher, reflects on his accomplishments, deciding that he would have accomplished more as a soybean farmer than as an academic.

Forty Stories is full of small nuggets of postmodernism that delight and beguile in equal measure.