The Year of Reading Dangerously – Donald Barthelme
As we’ve already seen in Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, trangressive subversion of the fairy-tale was all the rage in 1960s America, no doubt in part a reaction to its Disneyfication in the previous two decades. What better target, then, than Snow White, the cartoon that started it all, whose title itself resonates with cosy innocence?
Much of the initial humour in Donald Barthelme’s Snow White comes in the contrast between the Disney version we know so well, and Barthelme’s contemporary interpretation. Rather than mining diamonds, the dwarfs clean the outside of buildings and make Chinese baby food. They queue up to have sex with Snow White in the shower. In the ‘housework’ scene Snow White begins by cleaning the library: spraying the books with DDT, oiling the bindings, ironing the pages. The care and detail suggests the work of a maid rather than the joyful animal-accompanied singing we are used to. (Strangely, I just typed ‘horsework’ rather than housework, clearly more influence by Barthelme than I thought – he uses the term horse wife more than once to describe Snow White’s role).
The novel begins in a spirit of ennui. Bill (one of the ‘dwarf’ characters) has grown tired of Snow White:
“We speculate that he doesn’t want to be involved in human situations anymore.”
She, meanwhile, exclaims:
“Oh I wish there were words in the world that were not the words I always hear!”
and takes up writing poetry and wearing “heavy blue bulky shapeless quilted People’s Volunteers trousers.” Even Paul, the ‘prince’, and therefore the most dynamic of the characters, is largely aimless:
“I have loftier ambitions, only I don’t know what they are, exactly.”
Not knowing, he sets off for a monastery in Nevada.
In desperation, like all good fairy-tale princesses, Snow White decides to hang her hair out of the window. Barthelme uses the introspection and knowingness of his characters for humorous effect throughout (most the novel is written as a series of short monologues):
“This motif, the long hair streaming form the high window, is a very ancient one I believe, found in many cultures in various forms. Now I recapitulate it for the astonishment of the vulgar and the refreshment of my venereal life.”
The sophisticated vocabulary is amusingly at odds with both the character and the genre, but the constant introspection can also be seen to stand in the way of action. Paul spots the hair (we, in fact, are aware of this from his introduction on the eleventh page) but the sight makes him “terribly nervous” and only leads to him arranging to spy on Snow White further. Even when he sees her naked later, he is happy to remain at a distance:
“Paul savoured the sweetness of human communication, through the window.”
Barthelme is able to both highlight the inadequacies of the fairy-tale, particularly its inherent sexism, while at the same time using it to examine the flaws of modern life. With chapters rarely more than two pages long, and flitting from character to character with little in the way of narrative or dialogue, the novel’s style itself suggests the disconnect the story explores. Barthelme also uses pages of what might be described as slogans in block capitals to summarise events, reducing the anxieties of the characters to signposts or adverts. Overall he creates an impression of a society so caught up in its own neuroses that it struggles to act at all.
Snow White is an amusing novel, but one that is difficult to love until the end. Though the characters are deliberately tiresome, this does not make it easier to spend so much time with them. If you have never read Barthelme before, then I would suggest that you begin with his short stories, which are easily available in two volumes from Penguin Modern Classics, the functionally titled Sixty Stories and Forty Stories.
Danger rating: you may never be able to watch Snow White again without thinking about the shower…