Book Nook: The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme


It is the fate of all of us, perhaps,
to direct…our first hatred and our first murderous
wish against our father. 
—Sigmund Freud

I SAT AND READ The Dead Father, a formative work of postmodernist fiction, in three bursts: afternoon, evening, then morning. Finishing the novel left me with cerebral indigestion: I am still deciphering the points of the story (despite knowing it’s meant to be essentially and playfully absurd and ironic—to quote, “To find a lost father: the first problem in finding a lost father is to lose him”—which, I suppose, are postmodern devices, gimmicks, and tricks); and I am still weighing its strengths and—for my lack of vocabulary, I shall call them—“flaws,” which mirror my own flaws, for I, the reader, unavoidably give birth to the text, changing it and constructing meaning from it according to myself—my capacity, standard, and perspective. Postmodernism is a literary genre that is self-conscious of the reader’s authority over the text.

Resembling a Kafkaesque world with a dystopian backdrop, the story was about a surrealistic funeral march (only revealed at the novel’s end) for the Dead Father who believed that his children were bringing him into the “Golden Fleece,” where he would recover not just his life and dominion over the world but also his youth. The Dead Father was a 3,200-cubit quasi-omnipotent—yet vain, temperamental, lascivious, and tyrannical—giant who was “dead, but still with [them], still with [them], but dead.” A crew of nineteen men hauled him by means of a cable wire across strange territories to bury him into his equally gigantic grave.

Barthelme’s narrative on The Dead Father was a “fragmented verbal collage”; the sentences were deconstructed—

The wall trembling. The alcove shaped like an egg. Quilt slipping toward the edge. The mountain. A set of stone steps. The cathedral. Bronze doors intricately worked with scenes. Row of grenadiers in shakos. Kneeling. Interior of the egg.

—and some dialogues were written with the shock of non-sequitor (random and unrelated responses to “generate new meanings”), as though in a Freudian free-association game. Take for example this voice-over of a conversation between two female characters:

            Thought I heard a dog barking.
It’s possible. The simplest basic units develop into the richest natural patterns.
Are you into spanking?
No, I’m not.
Pity. We could have something going.
I’m not into that.
Where can a body get hit around here?
Pop one of these if you’d like a little lift.

Barthelme’s daring, unorthodox, even “alien” use of language (a signature Beckettian wordplay, I say, as one cannot not think of Samuel Beckett while reading The Dead Father), his off-the-nuts hilarity, and his ingenious book-within-a-book, A Manual for Sons—which contained the groundwork themes from which the novel stood out, such as fatherhood and its eternal influence on all the father’s procreations, and the sons’ unconscious desires of patricide—were the novel’s strongest suits. From A Manual for Sons,

Then they attacked [the father] with sumo wrestlers, giant fat men in loincloths. We countered with loincloth snatchers…We were successful. The hundred naked fat men fled…When you have rescued the father from whatever terrible threat menaces him, then you feel, for a moment, that you are the father and he is not. For a moment. This is only the moment in your life you will feel this way.

Doubtlessly I enjoyed this challenging book, but it left me unhappy, with a bad aftertaste, like a terrible hangover from a “trip.” I awaited for the “aesthetic event”—my merit of all the books I have read—to happen, but it did not occur throughout the read; perhaps I glimpsed a few flashes of it, but they were nonetheless dim even in that respect.

The ending, which I found human and sentimental, did not find its mark, in me. It’s a rigorous task for me to rate this book objectively since I am yet a naiveté to the avant-garde and postmodern traditions of literature. But conclusively, the late and influential Barthelme was a genius left in his postmodern school and playground, experimenting with possible forms of fiction, leading an evolution that changes the way we think about the written word.

(Published on Sun.Star Weekend: Oct 22, 2016)


“Skipping between Timelines”

“He believed in an infinite series of times,
in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of
diverging, converging and parallel times.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”


DESPITE ITS MATHEMATICAL TERRORS, the curiosities of quantum mechanics have drawn me in. Since last year, I have buried myself into reading its concepts, especially its framework of space, time, and reality. According to its theories, time does not run in a straight line; instead, timelines bifurcate infinitely: all moments, the theories supposed, exist simultaneously—the past, the present, the future—and are like branched-out threads weaved together into a singular rope, which, hypothetically, makes up the whole universe.

          A god sees the universe as a finished race—its beginning, middle, and end all perceived in a single flash of a moment. All this is indeed difficult, maybe even impossible, for us to grasp since the whole idea stands contrary to what our senses perceive. But a physicist’s inspection on how atoms behave on a quantum level tells us that what we see is not exactly what it is. Well, to us nonscientists, quantum mechanics is either a food for the imagination or a trigger to a headache.


In the university’s dormitory bed, weary from the day’s ridge and tunnel hike, I pondered about reality and quantum mechanics and came to realize the different timelines happening in the world within my skull. Then I entered the first layers of my dream.


The dream: I was asked to write a piece inspired by the hike: be it a short story, a poem, an essay, or a haiku. I could remember the first stanza of the poem I wrote titled “The Test of Time is the Jest of God,” “Time is God’s measure / Of how much a rock / Can take / Before it breaks.” The poem ended with the next stanza (the first line of which eluded my memory), “[…] / So the cracks remain silent/ And, without despair, accept / God’s eyes into their darkness.” Admittedly, I imagined during the hike that if I peeked into the cracks, my eyes would, by chance, meet God’s or someone else’s.


And during the hike, I walked behind a girl and took fancy of her impossibly supple and shapely waist, which, in each her twists, turns, and bends, made my blood boil and undeniably inspired this haiku: “Let my fingers trace / That spine of yours that tempts me / Like a devil’s snake.” Reading the lines, one does not need to look far for an interpretation.


Illustration by Geraldine Sy


In the short story titled “Limbo” (apparently envisioned as we reached the ridge’s peak), the narrator, sensing the story’s coming end, refused to continue lest he might disappear afterward. So he went back narrating in reverse, risking the story to fall into a frightening absurdity: “The summit awaits all of us. But I fear we have nothing to see there afterward. Shall we continue? Shall we continue? But I fear we have nothing to see there afterward. The summit awaits all of us.” The story went on and back.


Oddly enough, I conceived of an essay, titled “At the End of the Tunnel,” stating that “the end is imminent, so even if one is alive here and now, one should consider himself dead and gone already, for the future is inevitable and as irrevocable as the past…. In the journey of life, the light at the end of the tunnel is the light of the end—that is, death—and the darkness inside the tunnel was that of life.” Unlike the narrator in “Limbo,” we have been nearing the end of our stories one line at a time, and “in the end, we are all nothing but words.”


So that’s all I’m able to retrieve from the dream. In another timeline’s future, I may have completely written all those pieces better or perfectly. And probably some future is now reading this article, since, to quote Borges, “the future already exists now.”


I hope, in some future out there, I have read and written all the books I want before “getting out of the tunnel.”

(Published on Sun.Star Weekend, October 9, 2016)