‘The Nose’ by Nikolai Gogol

Gogol, Nikolai 1836

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol, 1836

The magic trick:

Balancing conceptual symbolism and comedy

Typically, when an artist elects to use bold symbolism and conceptual commentary, they are trading in the chance at comedy (at least unintentional comedy). High pretension simply doesn’t blend well with a down-to-earth sense of humor. Somehow though, Gogol is able to achieve both simultaneously.

Consider that in “The Nose,” Gogol does all this: totally distorts the reader’s sense of realistic expectation, makes very serious critiques of a society based on superficial status symbols, and distances himself from the whole thing by throwing in funny asides in which the narrator basically says, “Wow, this whole story is really silly.”

It’s a wonderful tone – like Twain, Chekhov and Kafka rolled into one. And that’s quite a trick on Gogol’s part.

The selection:

Poor Kovalev felt almost demented. The astounding event left him utterly at a loss. For how could the nose which had been on his face but yesterday, and able then neither to drive nor to walk independently, now be going about in uniform?

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‘The Indian Uprising’ by Donald Barthelme

barthlme, donald 1968

The Indian Uprising by Donald Barthelme, 1968

The magic trick:

Not making any sense at all, yet still getting paid

Apologies to all Barthelme fans out there, and I know there are many. His kind of writing, especially early “classic” Barthelme, just isn’t my cup. Is it symbolism? Is it imagery for imagery’s sake? Is it a brave new language? Is it a step forward? Is it commentary? Is it poetry? Is it meta? Is it IMPORTANT?

I don’t know. I just find his writing just washes over me, a foul-smelling haze of faintly angry condescendence. Perhaps I will revisit this someday and the light will go on in my brain. For now, however, all is dark.

But, hey, Barthelme got published, got paid, got respect, and won a cult of devoted followers, many of whom cite him as a major influence on their own writing. And that’s quite a trick on Barthelme’s part.

The selection:

Then it was learned that they had infiltrated our ghetto and that the people of the ghetto instead of resisting had joined the smooth, well-coordinated attack with zipguns, telegrams, lockets, causing that portion of the line held by IRA to swell and collapse. We sent more heroin into the ghetto, and hyacinths, ordering another hundred thousand of the pale, delicate flowers. On the map we considered the situation with its strung-out inhabitants and merely personal emotions. Our parts were blue and their parts were green.