‘Game’ by Donald Barthelme

Barthelme, Donald 1965

Game by Donald Barthelme, 1965

The magic trick:

The repetition of phrases

Ah, the third Barthelme story we’ve discussed on SSMT and the third Barthelme story that leaves me baffled. “The School” left me baffled and delighted. “The Indian Uprising” left me baffled and annoyed. “Game” leaves me baffled and…. I don’t know. Nodding with appreciation?

It’s difficult to know just what to make of a story like this. I can only imagine the stir it caused in literary circles when it hit the pages of The New Yorker in 1965. If nothing else, it’s terrifying blend of humor, nonsense and horror is a pretty great way to sum up the whole mutually assured destruction thing of the Cold War.

To say George Saunders draws from this in his writing – particularly his story, “Adams” – is like saying KFC and Lee’s Fried Chicken kind of have similar menus.

Anyway, I especially like the repetition of certain phrases and details. The narrator tells us that he or she have been stuck playing this “game” for 133 days because of an oversight on four separate occasions. I could tell you how many times he allows that he is “not well,” but I’m too lazy right now to count. Sufficed to say it’s a lot. The repetition is the key – or at least one of the keys – to creating the deranged tone. And that’s quite a trick on Barthelme’s part.

The selection:

I am not well. I do not know our target. They do not tell us for which city the bird is targeted. I do not know. That is planning. That is not my responsibility. My responsibility is to watch the console and when certain events take place upon the console, turn my key in the lock. Shotwell bounces the rubber ball on the floor in a steady, stolid, rhythmical manner. I am aching to get my hands on the ball, on the jacks. We have been here one hundred thirty-three days owing to an oversight. I write on the walls. Shotwell chants “onesies, twosies, threesies, foursies” in a precise, well-modulated voice. Now he cups the jacks and the rubber ball in his hands and rattles them suggestively. I do not know for which city the bird is targeted. Shotwell is not himself.


What do you think about this story? As always, join the conversation in the comments section below, on SSMT Facebook or on Twitter @ShortStoryMT.


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