Barthelme – Natural Selection

Natural Selection_Mild Angst in the Suburbs

Barthelme, Frederick (1990). Natural Selection. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.

White, employed, middle-class, American, suburban guy is annoyed at popular culture. His wife and kid become exasperated with his constant complaining – about TV, magazines, people at work, politicians, and advertisements.

His grumbling is sometimes funny, but consistently ironic, sarcastic, and articulate, so it doesn’t really ring authentic and the character comes across as manufactured. Also, the setting is pre-internet so what he perceives as media intrusiveness is laughably bucolic compared to today’s immersive hypermedia.

The wife and kid are mirrors and backboards for him, not characters in themselves. They also speak in set-pieces, not like real people. The unexpected, violent ending is so contrived, it’s interesting as a writerly aberration.

Samples:

“I don’t want to be in the middle of stuff anymore, you know? I want to cocoon, to hide from these pathetic drooling dicks, these creeps who believe the butt-juice they prattle about.”

“Sorry I asked,” Lily said, waving her hands in front of her and making a bad-smell face… (p. 57).

“The fact is that our workers sit on their butts, smoke cigarettes, spit, scratch themselves, punch out, and ask for more money. That’s the New American Dream. And it goes for all of us, auto unions to university professors.” (p.70).

For disenchantment with popular culture, DeLillo did it a thousand times better and funnier in White Noise. This is but a pale shadow, mildly amusing, just interesting enough for a skim. I picked it up to become acquainted with Frederick Barthelme, who is, after all, a noted writer. Now I am acquainted.


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