The Indian Uprising by Donald Barthelme, 1968

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by Donald Barthelme, 1968

"The Indian Uprising," one of the earlier Donald Barthelme stories, marks the innovative writer's surprising emergence in that most aesthetically cautious magazine, The New Yorker. Beginning his fictionist's career in 1961 with a startlingly new stylistic approach in such little magazines as Contact and First Person, Barthelme by 1963 had broken into the pages of America's most highly regarded venue for the short story. "The Indian Uprising" (collected in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts) was the eleventh of over a hundred New Yorker contributions he would make until his death in 1989. His works have educated an entirely new readership to the intricacies of fiction that explores the reality of its own making.

Such self-regarding, writerly work is often known as "metafiction." "The Indian Uprising" employs metafictional techniques, but the story remains accessible because of its satiric perspective. Consider the story's opening line: "We defended the city as best we could." A typical invocation to the familiar siege narrative, it prompts readerly expectations for a story of any of several guises. But then the second sentence contradicts these expectations with the equally familiar but contextually dissonant reference to an entirely different style of warfare, the frontier conflict of cowboys and Indians: "The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds." The clichéd nature of this statement makes the disjunction all the more emphatic, for two stereotypical situations are presented in tandem, as a result producing a third entity so far from being stereotypical that it becomes fascinatingly new.

Barthelme's method in such juxtapositions is that of collage. There are such happenings in the real world as cities besieged by armies, just as a staple of American historical lore is the frontier Indian attack. By placing them together in the manner of pasting the image of a cartoon character on a dollar bill where George Washington should be, Barthelme creates a new entity in which both compositional elements retain their identity; indeed, it is the commentary these elements make about each other that forms the created work of art. The story's metafictional dimension results from the reader being able to see such obvious traces of the creator at work, especially because both types of narrative are already known.

Throughout "The Indian Uprising" Barthelme continues collaging in elements in a predictable but satisfying way. His city is an American one with streets named after military heroes in a European manner: the Boulevard Mark Clark, Rue Chester Nimitz, George C. Marshall Alée, and Skinny Wainwright Square. The reader is expected to play along with the increasingly dissonant nature of these terms until the last general is memorialized by his nickname. When barricades need to be erected in these streets (as they always are in any urban warfare narrative), they are made not of the usual paving stones and commandeered vehicles but "of window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colors), wine in demijohns, and robes." Again, these are collage elements: real things in themselves but improbable in combination. Their nature fits the story's theme, for as the Indian attack proceeds the narrator and his companion maintain a rather studied, mannered lifestyle developed from just such items. As war clubs clatter on the pavements and earthworks are thrown up along the boulevards, people "try to understand." This phrase, itself a psychobabble cliché, prompts the sentences that follow: "I spoke to Sylvia. 'Do you think this is a good life?' The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. 'No."'

The life Sylvia and the narrator live is a contrived one. Their dangling conversations about philosophy and the arts often touch upon absurdities such as the habit of playing Fauré's "Dolly" at different speeds to fit the desired mood. Friends traveling abroad send messages back via "International Distress Coupon," a seemingly ridiculous device that for all the author knows may have been invented by the time his story saw print. (What reports do such coupons bear? Things like being beaten up by a dwarf in a bar on Tenerife.)

Barthelme's satiric approach is evident as his characters support a ghetto army by sending it heroin and hyacinths and caring more for how people dress than what they do. When, as in the typical siege narrative, romantic liaisons are formed among the combatants, their behavior is played out as if they are sharing cocktails at a garden party. Even the warfare is contrived, as during a particularly fierce struggle between "the forces of green and blue" across Skinny Wainwright Square. "The referees ran out on the field trailing chains," which is a reminder that much of what transpires in this story is as much a spectator sport as Sunday afternoon football. "I might point out," a character insists, "that there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool," to which the narrator replies with "solemn silence."

The narrator, for certain, is bored—but not the reader. "The Indian Uprising" offers a collagist's view of fashionable urban American life around 1965, an era in which the dullness of the Eisenhower years had given way to the excitement of Kennedy style and almost feverish economic growth, only to be threatened by the specter of looming racial discontent and political volatility. Because it is presented as a collage, the story invites the reader to take part in the act of assembling, to ask why one item is being juxtaposed with another, and to guess what comes next—not just in terms of narrative action but in anticipating which objects can be drawn from the storehouse of contemporary artifacts and combined in an amusingly new way. In a literary age that had begun to question whether all available themes and techniques had been exhausted, Donald Barthelme here shows how fictive creation manages to come up with something entertainingly and instructively new.

—Jerome Klinkowitz

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The Indian Uprising by Donald Barthelme, 1968

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