Donald Barthelme is one of the most inventive, surrealist, post-modernist writers out there, and that’s saying something. Whether you actually enjoy his work or not is another matter entirely. Personally, I found ‘City Life‘ quite touch and go. I wanted to love it, but more often than not I was steered toward the opposite.
First published in 1970, this collection of short stories is very much a product of its time, but I didn’t feel that it stood up to the test of time as a result. The works are an extension of 60s culture, a ‘Beatnik-ish Book’ if you’re looking for a label. His use of language is to be applauded, but it didn’t stop a good deal of it from falling flat on its face. One short story, aptly called ‘Sentence’, which is comprised of a six-page run-on sentence, is a prime example of just how exhausting this stuff can be at times. Nothing says you can’t be super-intelligent and super-annoying (or boring) while you’re at it.
There were stories I liked, and stories I didn’t care for. At no point did I find myself loving or hating any of them in particular. To be honest, much of this material started to blur together after awhile. Surrealism can go too far, and ‘City Life’ is a good demonstration of that. A few tales were quite memorable in a broad sense, yet for the life of me I can’t recount much about them. That’s how erratic and nonsensical the writing was.
By no means is there a lack of talent in this book. To be clear, Barthelme is the complete opposite of a mediocre writer, but this collection was too lukewarm too often for my taste to be singing its praises.