Art of the Opening: Close Reading II
First impressions matter. The opening lines, paragraphs, and pages of a story, essay, memoir, or novel must not only hook the reader, they must ground us in the world of the story, in place, in time, in character. Landing an effective opening is no easy feat. At CRAFT we focus on writing craft in the prose we publish. With this column, we explore the art of the opening in an interactive way, rereading the masters, discussing openings with their writers, peeking behind the scenes at the revision process, essaying about what we find striking. With any luck, no two pieces will look exactly the same.
This column is led by associate editor Suzanne Grove and short fiction section co-editor Albert Liau, working together on behalf of CRAFT. With this piece, guest author Kyle Cochrun adds to our series of close readings, annotating Donald Barthelme’s “The Indian Uprising.” —CRAFT
I can’t recall why I first picked up the old hardback copy of Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories at the Akron Public Library. The cover was creased, the color of chimney smoke, speckled with sticky black dots and abrading at the corners. Not an eye-catching book. Still, I reached for it, on the bottom shelf next to Barth, who I’d sought out since reading “Lost in the Funhouse.” Why did I pick it up? The storyteller in me wants to settle on fate, but we’re discussing Barthelme, a writer who never settled for anything trite.
I read “The Indian Uprising” while waiting for my ride, pacing under the fluorescent lights of a parking garage on a cold January night. The concrete floor felt greasy and grainy under my shoes. I read the opening paragraph through visible bursts of breath.
We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds. The war clubs of the Comanches clattered on the soft, yellow pavements. There were earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark and the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire. People were trying to understand. I spoke to Sylvia. “Do you think this is a good life?” The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. “No.”
I read this over and over, not because I wasn’t interested in what might come after, but because it felt good to chew each line and admire the swell of the prose. I would stop at the crest, that reverberant “No,” and begin again. I didn’t think about interpretations. When I read something for the first time, I’m generally invested on an emotional level, not a critical one. The joy of first readings is the enchantment of potentiality. A thickly braided work of literature opens into a vista of possible interpretations. I can’t make out the close-up details of the interpretational landscape, and I can’t tell if some details are just mirages. That’s for rereadings. Initially, it’s the breadth of possibility that’s intoxicating.
Though ostensibly about war and dubiously about love, “The Indian Uprising” is a story about language. I’m not insinuating it’s shallow. Barthelme’s work isn’t built on the empty gesture of proving how smart he is through postmodern tricks. At least it never reads this way to me.
“The Indian Uprising,” like many great Barthelme stories, is about a notion he describes in one essay on writing as “the combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together.” In this same essay, “Not-Knowing,” he states his belief that a writer, or any artist, should “allow a work that mystery which is essential to it.” Barthelme’s short fiction consistently reinforces this belief. The dissonance between words and phrases enlivens the sense of mystery inherent in even his most conventional narratives.
I couldn’t explain any of this while pacing the parking garage and rereading the opening paragraph to “The Indian Uprising.” I was simply enthralled by the vastness of the interpretational landscape, so vibrant and disjointed.
At this point in my life as a reader, I constantly searched out tasty sentences. I wanted stories crafted from nothing but the literary equivalent of catchy pop choruses. I wanted sugar, effervescence, pulp. I didn’t care about narrative. The pleasure centers of my lit brain were accessed by what Gary Lutz, in his essay “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” describes as “the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.” “The Indian Uprising” is rife with such sentences. The story’s first line, “We defended the city as best we could,” introduces the tension. This is war. Our characters are fighting for survival. What conflict could be more immediate than that? In a piece this experimental, it helps to set such dire stakes from the onset. Barthelme nudges readers into the world with the promise of familiar conflict, aiming low on Maslow’s scale for something we can all get behind, and fast. Of course, the tension is a ruse. He gives it away early, anticipating the reader’s disorientation: “People were trying to understand.”
The second line keeps up the ruse. We have clouds of arrows raining down on our narrator. These arrows loom over the rest of the paragraph. The rest of the story, even. The tension remains even as reality unspools. Later in the story, when Barthelme is pulling wacky tricks, like introducing a character named Block who relays to our narrator, “The situation is liquid,” we’re still propelled forward by the danger of battle. A lesser writer might abandon the story’s initial tension partway through, saying “Ha! I tricked you!” and move along. Barthelme keeps his arrows suspended in midair. This way, he avoids alienating readers (some of them, anyway) and perpetuates the bizarre dissonance between war account and metafictional shenanigans that gives the story its energy.
Surrealism rears its head by the third line. We have “war clubs,” primitive weapons situating the battle in some distant past. The clubs clatter (such a great verb!) against “soft, yellow pavements,” invoking the fantasyland of The Wizard of Oz. The Boulevard Mark Clark is the first of several dedicated locales—the Rue Chester Nimitz, George C. Marshall Allée, Skinny Wainwright Square—that suggest a modern-day setting assembled from scraps of American and French cities.
The oddness heightens again. While presumably still under fire, our narrator asks someone named Sylvia (who I imagine huddled next to him behind a chunk of wreckage), “Do you think this is a good life?” Her answer is delayed by a list of common objects: apples, books, long-playing records. The trio of words is the first of many throughout the story, some of which flow into long lists. Why these objects? What do they mean? This is the first non sequitur in a story largely built from them, just as the barricade that we eventually learn our narrator hides behind is constructed from “a tin frying pan; two-litre bottles of red wine; three-quarter-litre bottles of Black & White, aquavit, cognac, vodka, gin, Fad #6 sherry; a hollow-core door in birch veneer on black-wrought iron legs; a blanket,” among other objects.
In “Not-Knowing,” Barthelme discusses Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram, a Combine in which the midsection of a stuffed goat is wrapped in a car tire. He uses the piece to exemplify how the magic of art “is not the signification of parts but how they come together”:
What precisely is it in the coming together of goat and tire that is magical? It’s not the surprise of seeing the goat attired, although that’s part of it. One might say, for example, that the tire contests the goat, contradicts the goat, as a mode of being, even that the tire reproaches the goat, in some sense. On the simplest punning level, the goat is tired. Or that unfortunate tire has been caught by the goat, which has been fishing in the Hudson—goats eat anything, as everyone knows—or that the goat is being consumed by the tire; it’s outside, after all, mechanization takes command. Or that the goateed goat is protesting the fatigue of its friend, the tire, by wearing it as a sort of STRIKE button. Or that two contrasting models of infinity are being presented, tires and goats both being infinitely reproducible, the first depending on the good fortunes of the B.F. Goodrich company and the second upon the copulatory enthusiasm of goats—parallel production lines suddenly met. And so on. What is magical about the object is that it at once invites and resists interpretation. Its artistic worth is measurable by the degree to which it remains, after interpretation, vital—no interpretation or cardiopulmonary push-pull can exhaust or empty it.
“The Indian Uprising” is Barthelme venturing to discover a magical balance between inviting and resisting interpretation. I imagine him as a sort of metafictional chemist searching out the ratio that will produce the richest possible reading experience, and lend the highest return on emotional resonance, though the procedure is unorthodox. (E.g., sentences like this: “I threw a mushroom on the grave. The officer commanding the garbage dump reported by radio that the garbage had begun to move.”)
I had no idea what this all meant. Pacing the parking garage, I was engrossed by whatever sensation Barthelme had cooked up by smashing together all of these objects and ideas. I was transfixed entirely by how it felt. Barthelme seems to anticipate this reaction from readers: “I might point out that there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool,” one character quips at the end of a rambling monologue.
In other words, it’s okay to succumb to the thrill created by “the combinatorial agility of words” without any conspicuous meaning. I’m reminded of this every time I reread “The Indian Uprising” and notice something new that I’d missed, a sentence capable of freshening my perspective on “the history of the heart” or “the distinguished spirit recapitulating moments that occur once, twice, or another number of times in rebellions, or water,” or how “[s]trings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.”
KYLE COCHRUN is a writer from Akron, Ohio. His essays have been published in The Akron Anthology, Watershed Review, and Echo: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction. His music writing and journalism have appeared in Popmatters, Alternative Press, and The Devil Strip. He reads creative nonfiction for CRAFT.