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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Dead Father (1975) by Donald Barthelme

Book Review
The Dead Father (1975)
by Donald Barthelme

   The Dead Father is the only one of the three novels by Donald Barthelme to survive the initial cull and replacement of titles between versions of the book.  Frequently described as "surreal" and "post-modern," I would describe The Dead Father as turgid academic post-modernism, the same words used by a French critic who is quoted on the author's Wikipedia page.  I didn't invent that description, but I subscribe to it.  The front cover says it was one of the five best books of the year according to the New York Times, and the back cover compares Barthelme favorably to other early post-modernists like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth, both of whom are far superior to Barthelme.

  To call The Dead Father a "novel" is more a tribute to it's length, over 200 pages in the pocket paperback edition I read, then any novel-like characteristics.   Critics call his style "digressive" but you could also, just as easily, say that the book makes no damn sense.   The Dead Father is supposedly a parody of high modernist writers like Joyce and T.S. Eliot, and I suppose I get that, but it's not a parody in the sense that is any way, shape, or form comic, let alone funny.  I mean, it might be comic in the sense of the Greek theater sense of the word comedy as being the only type of drama besides drama or history, but it's not funny.

  In fact, if I met someone and they claimed that The Dead Father was funny,  I would pull up a copy of it on line and make them show me what is funny about The Dead Father.   It is undeniable that there were some very "Emperor's New Clothes" in post-modern criticism and literature.   The Dead Father may represent the earliest work where this turn into turgid academic post-modernism is crystallized, and therefore, it is also understandable why someone who happened to fashion a career in the academy during this time period might argue that The Dead Father is a classic work of literature.  That, apparently, is the position of the editors of 1001 Books, but personally, I don't get it.


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