On Lists 03Posted: April 9, 2016
Piepenbring offers this list made by Donald Barthelme, maker of lists. Here’s from “The Zombies”. A (zombie) waiter approaches a table of women and lists the breakfasts for the week:
“Monday!” he says. “Sliced oranges boiled grits fried croakers potato croquettes radishes watercress broiled spring chicken batter cakes butter syrup and café au lait!
Tuesday! Grapes hominy broiled tenderloin of tout steak French-fried potatoes celery fresh rolls butter and café au lait!
Wednesday! Iced figs Wheatena porgies with sauce tartare potato chips broiled ham scrambled eggs French toast and café au lait!
Thursday! Bananas with cream oatmeal broiled patassas fried liver with bacon poached eggs on toast waffles with syrup and café au lait!
Friday! Strawberries with cream broiled oysters on toast celery fried perch lyonnaise potatoes cornbread with syrup and café au lait!
Saturday! Musk-melon on ice grits stewed tripe herb omelette olives snipe on toast flannel cakes with syrup and café au lait!” The zombie draws a long breath.
“Sunday!” he says. “Peaches and cream cracked wheat with milk broiled Spanish mackerel with sauce maitre d’hotel creamed chicken beaten biscuits broiled woodcock on English muffin rice cakes potatoes a la duchesse eggs Benedict oysters on the half shell broiled lamb chops pound cake with syrup and café au lait! And imported champagne!” The zombies look anxiously at the women to see if this prospect is pleasing.
The list was in a continuous block paragraph. I have reparagraphed by day of week to breathe the easier during the reading. Perhaps the Zombie, in Barthelme’s mind, didn’t need to breathe like me. Group the above without breaks for the original effect.
And Piepenbring’s comments, which I value highly:
“List-making is often dismissed as sloppy writing, but in Barthelme’s hands, a list never functions as an elision or a cheap workaround; he makes marvelous profusions of nouns, testaments to the power of juxtaposition. His lists feel noetic—they capture the motion of a mind delighting in how many things there are, and how rampantly they’re proliferating, and how strangely they collide in life, when they do.”
“The list is the ideal vehicle here. It’s an efficient mechanism for comedy, yes, but it also pulls back the curtain a bit, letting the reader share in the wry wonder that I imagine Barthelme might’ve felt as he composed it: How did it come to pass that we, in our kitchens and our restaurants and our fluorescent supermarkets, developed such a sophisticated vocabulary for food, for breakfast? How is it that we eat so many things, that the human experience has come to encompass rice cakes and fried liver, to say nothing of courtship rituals centered on ingestion? I would guess that Barthelme was not so wide-eyed about these things as I am—but what his lists offer, in effect, is the working of a mind, an invitation to join him in doing the math, connecting the dots, asking the questions, and so on.”
Piepenbring connects all this to a larger issue: To what extent is writing really “more about the mind than about the external world?”, and offers this from Barthelme’s Art of Fiction Interview:
Wordsworth spoke of growing up “Fostered alike by beauty and by fear,” and he put fearful experiences first; but he also said that his primary subject was “the mind of Man.” Don’t you write more about the mind than about the external world?
In a commonsense way, you write about the impingement of one upon the other—my subjectivity bumping into other subjectivities, or into the Prime Rate. You exist for me in my perception of you (and in some rough, Raggedy Andy way, for yourself, of course). That’s what’s curious when people say, of writers, This one’s a realist, this one’s a surrealist, this one’s a super-realist, and so forth. In fact, everybody’s a realist offering true accounts of the activity of mind. There are only realists.”