Me And Miss Mandible by Donald Barthelme, 1964
The magic trick:
Using precise and funny detail to build realism
This one of those stories that works because of its combination of the very realistic and the crazy surreal. We have what appears to be a normal man lusting for a woman. We have what appears to be a normal sixth-grade classroom. One problem though. The man is a student in the sixth-grade class and the object of his affections is the teacher.
Very, very uncomfortable.
Very, very, very provoking.
The whole thing holds together because the detail is so keenly observed and realistic. My favorite touch is the student who sits behind our narrator, the boy who likes to read car magazines. He’s especially a fan of Maseratis. I know this boy. I think he sat behind me in sixth grade. That’s what makes it all so uncomfortable. Ninety percent of the story is completely recognizable. It’s just that little detail of the 35-year-old in sixth grade that causes concern. And that’s quite a trick on Barthelme’s part.
What do these hipless eleven-year-olds think when they come across, in the same magazine, the full-page ad for Maurice de Paree, which features “Hip Helpers” or what appear to be padded rumps? (“A real undercover agent that adds appeal to those hips and derriere, both!”) If they cannot decipher the language the illustrations leave nothing to the imagination. “Drive him frantic. . . “ the copy continues. Perhaps this explains Bobby Vanderbilt’s preoccupation with Lancias and Maseratis; it is a defense against being driven frantic.