The Donald Barthelme Story Nobody Talks About But Everyone Should Read
Emily Temple on the Masterful Use of Authorial Intrusion in “Rebecca”
The simplest kind of narrator is invisible. Here’s what happened, the story says, with no human gloss, no room for questions. Then there’s the narrator who has a place in the story, who tells it from the inside out, a clear player in the world. (They call that the first person.) But more interesting than either of these, at least for me, are the narrators who occupy a middle space. They are extradiegetic, but still able to influence the minds of the characters at hand—or at least when the wind is right. They are floating and unnamed but mouthy and manipulative. These are the narrators who meddle, who interject, who interfere, who intrude. They are, perhaps, garrulous, self-conscious, and snide, whole characters of the telling. They do tell—and retell and hem and haw over the story they’re presenting. If the writer is really good, these narrators can create not only delight, but meaning.
The narrator of Donald Barthelme’s “Rebecca” is one of my favorite examples of this kind. (Yes, I also love “The School.”) Barthelme’s story begins as though it were being presented in a close third: “Rebecca Lizard was trying to change her ugly, reptilian, thoroughly unacceptable last name.” Judgmental, sure. But not ringing any alarm bells yet. Only a little ting of self-hatred: we think it is Rebecca who is doing the judging (and we’re not entirely wrong). The actual judge, who is in the room, repeats the name “Lizard” five times and then decides there’s nothing wrong with it, and besides, what would they tell the telephone company? We’re already in surrealism land, but then, halfway down the page, Rebecca leaves the courthouse, and there is a totally different kind of ting:
‘Shaky lady,’ said a man, ‘are you a schoolteacher?’
Of course she’s a schoolteacher, you idiot. Can’t you see the poor woman’s all upset? Why don’t you leave her alone?
Oh shit. Out jumps the narrator—and it is clearly the narrator, and not the author, because the author would ostensibly have control over whether the man leaves Rebecca Lizard alone or not, or at least no way to claim otherwise—with a bone to pick. The narrator is on the side of Rebecca Lizard, that much is also clear. So, instantly, are we. The scene, such as it is, goes on:
‘Are you a homosexual lesbian? Is that why you never married?’
Christ, yes, she’s a homosexual lesbian, as you put it. Would you please shut your face?
It seems like the same joke twice, but there is at least the suggestion of a subtle shift here—a tentative melding of narrator and character. This kinship is reinforced a few lines later, after Rebecca returns home from the “damned dermatologist,” who has told her that there’s nothing he can do about her “slight greenishness,” again in the most subtle way, via the reuse of italics to indicate Rebecca’s own thoughts: “Must get some more Kleenex. Or a Ph.D. No other way.”
Next, the narrator pulls back a little, to introduce us to Rebecca’s “lover” Hilda and tell us that “they love each other—an incredibly dangerous and delicate business, as we know.” (We do know.)
Then, as Rebecca and Hilda bicker briefly about the drink Hilda had with Stephanie Stasser (“Nice, pink Stephanie”), the narrator pulls back even further, as if to reassert himself/herself/itself, and perhaps get a little distance from all the icky human emotion that’s suddenly flying around. Hilda puts on a record. “It was David Rogers’s ‘Farewell to the Ryman,’ Atlantic SD 7283,” the narrator tells us. “It contains such favorites as ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky,’ ‘Great Speckled Bird,’ ‘I’m Movin’ On,’ and ‘Walking the Floor Over You.’ Many great Nashville personnel appear on this record.”
What? From here, the narrator retreats into didacticism as the two women argue. “Very often one “pushes away” the very thing that one most wants to grab, like a lover,” the narrator notes (a little snootily) as Hilda reasserts that she is not interested in Stephanie Sasser. “This is a common, although distressing, psychological mechanism, having to do (in my opinion) with the fact that what is presented is not presented “purely,” that there is a tiny little canker or grim place in it somewhere. However, worse things can happen.”
This moment, by the way, is the first time the narrator slips into the first person, locating themselves as a character, somewhere, if not actually somewhere in this story—though you’d think Rebecca and Hilda would notice a philosopher in their bedroom.
But then, then—Hilda admits, gently, that she doesn’t really like Rebecca’s greenishness.
“The term ‘lizard’ also includes geckos, iguanas, chameleons, slowworms, and monitors,” the narrator jumps in to inform us, almost hysterically. (I experience this sentence as if it were in all caps.) “Twenty existing families make up the order, according to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life, and four others are known only from fossils. There are about twenty-five hundred species, and they display adaptations for walking, running, climbing, creeping, or burrowing. Many have interesting names, such as the Bearded Lizard, the Collard Lizard, the Flap-Footed Lizard, the Frilled Lizard, the Girdle-Tailed Lizard, and the Wall Lizard.”
Good grief. But now the narrator has exhausted themselves, and cannot keep Hilda from saying: “I have been overlooking it for these several years, because I love you, but I really don’t like it so much.”
Rebecca runs into the bedroom, where a film called Green Hell is playing greenly on the television. The next lines are these:
I’m ill, I’m ill.
I will become a farmer.
Our love, our sexual love, our ordinary love!
Again, I interpret these italics as indicating Rebecca’s thoughts, though I suppose they could also be lines from the movie (this one, I presume—shockingly, I haven’t seen it). If they are Rebecca’s thoughts, by that last one, the narrator is showing a little influence again. Dipping a toe back in, as it were. Too curious by half.
Supper is now ready, and Rebecca tells Hilda that she’s drunk. The narrator takes the opportunity to moralize, or at least to satirize moralization (perhaps the moralization of all those 19th century novelists, who also loved to use intrusive narrators). “Too many of our citizens are drunk at times when they should be sober—suppertime, for example,” we are told, with the faux-clinical air of a public service announcement. “Drunkenness leads to forgetting where you have put your watch, keys, or money clip, and to a decreased sensitivity to the needs and desires and calm good health of others.”
This is the narrator’s last stand. But it’s a doomed one. The story is almost over, because Hilda and Rebecca have gotten to the truth of the matter. Literally, I mean:
‘You told the truth,’ said Rebecca.
‘Yes, it was the truth,’ Hilda admitted.
‘You didn’t tell me the truth in the beginning. In the beginning, you said it was beautiful.’
I was telling you the truth, in the beginning. I did think it was beautiful. Then.’
And now the narrator is caught up, the narrator has lost the battle of maintaining distance from these two characters. They try to maintain their didacticism, but it’s shaky ground. The women have struck a chord.
This ‘then,’ the ultimate word in Hilda’s series of three brief sentences, is one of the most pain-inducing words in the human vocabulary, when used in this sense. Departed time! And the former conditions that went with it! How is human pain to be measured? But remember that Hilda, too… It is correct to feel for Rebecca in this situation, but, reader, neither can Hilda’s position be considered an enviable one, for truth, as Bergson knew, is a hard apple, whether one is throwing it or catching it.
Finally, the reader is acknowledged. (Hi.) If the story’s other forays into different modes of storytelling (narrator as textbook, narrator as moral dictator, narrator as publicist) are underlining the point that there are many different ways of telling this story (and any story), and also reminding us that it is a story, here the reader is being explicitly instructed how to read it—or more accurately, how to feel about it.
It could be that Barthelme is just playing here, that he’s just showing off, that he’s just interrupting the story to make a comment on the fact of, and choices involved in, storytelling itself. He is, of course, as he so often does. (Some might say that Barthelme is just flexing his muscles with all this trying out of modes. I say: swoon.) But I would argue that it is more than that, here—that this story gets its emotional power from its intrusive narrator, who by the end has earned the right (or perhaps succumbed to the temptation) to step into the argument, even interrupting Hilda mid-sentence:
‘What remains?’ Rebecca said stonily.
‘I can love you in spite of—’
Do I want to be loved in spite of? Do you? Does anyone? But aren’t we all, to some degree? But aren’t we all, to some degree? Aren’t there important parts of all of us which must be, so to say, gazed past? I turn a blind eye to that aspect of you, and you turn a blind eye to that aspect of me, and with these blind eyes, eyeball-to-eyeball, to use an expression from the early 1960s, we continue our starched and fragrant lives. Of course it’s also called “making the best of things,’ which I have always considered a rather soggy idea for an American ideal. But my criticisms of this idea must be tested against those of others—the late President McKinley, for example, who maintained that maintaining a good, if not necessarily sunny, disposition was the one valuable and proper course.
The narrator is gripping onto President McKinley as if to a raft, but the raft is heading for a waterfall, because it is Hilda’s turn to absorb the narrator, as Rebecca did so subtly at the story’s start. “Tomorrow you will hurt me, and I will inform you that you have done so, and so on and so on,” she says. “To hell with it. Come, viridian friend, come and sup with me.” The unnaturally elevated language (“viridian friend”!) is the narrator’s, and so is the awareness of their own narrative. The narrator has given up their quest for distance, and has decided to fully assimilate.
So, with that settled, Hilda and Rebecca sit down for dinner, and chat about the McKinley Administration. “The story ends,” we are told in the final paragraph. “It was written for several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm tympanic page.”
Damn. You know?
This is as self-conscious an end to a story as can be, commenting on its own story-ness and, perhaps more importantly to this point, on the job of the storyteller. The author rears his head (maybe); a consciousness behind the variable consciousness of the narrator. But as much as the story is invested in the conventions of and multiple pathways towards the story, the last clause brings up something else entirely: it’s the “warm tympanic page,” that is leading us astray, trying to fool us into thinking that love is something other than “grisly and golden.” The warm tympanic page—that can only be flesh. That can only be the body, the bodies of Hilda and Rebecca, who have lured the narrator down from their snooty overlook and integrated them into their love story. Reader, I can relate.