A friend of mine lent me this book (in fact, was rather insistent that I read it), saying it helped define who he is today. Normally, I enjoy reading books that give me insight into what makes the people I know tick, but in this case, I read this collection of short stories, and I’m no closer to any such wisdom.
Goodreads describes this collection as “masterpieces of wit, whimsy, and satire.” I enjoy a good satire, understanding that such writing isn’t intended to be sidesplittingly funny, but these stories struck me more as stream-of-consciousness ramblings. I drifted through them like a tourist visiting a museum in a foreign city where none of the interpretive signs are in her native language. She can appreciate that what she’s looking at might be genius or might be crap; she leaves confused, not hating the experience, but not in any position to recommend.
I blame pandemic brain.
To give a flavor of the types of stories in this collection, “The Sandman,” takes the form of a letter that a man writes to his girlfriend’s therapist. Apparently the girlfriend wants to stop seeing said therapist and buy a piano instead. Of course the therapist believes there are deeper undercurrents at work here: maybe she wants to stop analyzing her problems and is using the piano as an excuse; maybe she is tormented by her failure as a concert pianist and wants to fail again; maybe she wants to provoke her boyfriend, the letter writer. Is this story just anti-therapy diatribe? I don’t know, but there is one rather nice line at the end: “What I am saying is that Susan is wonderful. As is. There are not so many things around to which that word can be accurately applied. Therefore I must view your efforts to improve her with, let us say, a certain amount of ambivalence.” Am I supposed to think that’s sweet, or be horrified that the boyfriend clearly doesn’t understand the purpose of therapy? Again, no signage, so you decide.
One story I liked (possibly the shortest in the collection) is called “Subpoena.” A man is called before the Bureau of Compliance and told he owes a considerable sum of back taxes under the “Paid Companionship Tax.” Apparently the man has built a “monster” named Charles to do some chores around the house and keep him company, for which Charles receives an allowance. This falls under paid companionship, for which taxes must be paid. Not having the money to afford the fees, the narrator tells Charles he’s going to have to disassemble him. Charles meets this news with curiosity and composure, simply asking “Who will take out the garbage?” This is almost a gentler Frankenstein, except that the last line suggests Charles has been holding the narrator back by always being there for him. “Without Charles, without his example, his exemplary quietude, I run the risk of acting, the risk of risk. I must participate, I must leave the house and walk about.”
These are the types of nuggets that shine in this collection; they are also two of the more straight-forward, structured entries. These are the types of stories you’ll find published in The New Yorker (Barthelme was a regular contributor). How you feel about that statement might very well give you a clue as to whether or not you’ll enjoy Sadness.