‘The School’ by Donald Barthelme

Barthelme, Donald 196

The School by Donald Barthelme, 1976

The magic trick:

The class discussion that serves as the storys coda

Just when you think “The School” couldn’t get any funnier or more twisted, Barthelme transitions, near the end of the story, with the sentence: One day, we had a discussion in class.

The discussion plunges the story’s already wacked-out tone even deeper into the realm of the surreal. Barthelme gives the children in the class the naiveté to require explanation about the animals’ deaths, before immediately quoting them as saying absurdly adult and philosophical things. The push-and-pull in this story between the narrator’s realistic, “normal” logic and the increasingly insane situations described is absolutely riveting.

Loyal SSMT readers will recall my impatience with another Barthelme story, “The Indian Uprising.” I have no such complaints for “The School.” The story, though not really adhering to any more narrative sense than “Uprising,” connected with me with its humor and tone. And, oh boy, that ending. Wow. It’s a thoroughly original story. And that’s quite a trick on Barthelme’s part.

The selection:

And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life. They said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of –

I said, yes, maybe.

They said, we don’t like it.

I said, that’s sound.

They said, it’s a bloody shame!

I said, it is.


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