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Story Review: Chablis by Donald Barthelme

Chablis by Donald Barthelme

Chablis is my first foray into what I now believe is the wonderful world of Donald Barthelme’s fiction. I’ve been wary of trying out his works before because his brand of postmodernism might not be to my liking. I have conflicted feelings about postmodern fiction: it either rises gloriously in my eyes or falls flatly at my feet. In the case of Chablis, it’s the former.

This story, around a thousand words, is a sort of interior monologue delivered by an obviously anxious and possibly neurotic man. It begins with a dog problem: his wife wants a dog but he doesn’t want one. His wife says their daughter also wants a dog, and when he asks his daughter whose child she is, she says “Mama.”

There are many more anxieties going on in the man’s head. He’s apparently jealous that his daughter is closer to his wife, he wonders if crayons are really nontoxic and are therefore okay for accidental consumption, he covers electrical sockets for his daughter’s safety, and he worries that his daughter will go to an ugly school if he doesn’t get a better job. He feels that he has no skill and is therefore unequipped for all the demands of parenting, until a glass, or bottle, of Chablis at five in the morning makes him realize something.

There are more little yet revealing scenes in this story that shows the man’s want to be a good parent. His wry humor makes his character very compelling despite his perceived unreliability as a narrator. There is so much to say about this story. It is short and yet it is dense. Each sentence brings to light something about the man and his family. It’s a quirky family: what kind of wife would know the religion of a dog?

There are hints that the man may be alcoholic or that he carried the black sheep streak that marked him during his coming of age. Even if we put these into consideration, there doesn’t seem to be a tragedy looming in. On the contrary, the man, despite his idiosyncrasies, is doing what he can to avoid any tragic ending for his family.

By the last sentence, I’m exhilarated. There is a reaffirming note in it that feels like a thinly missed car crash. I’m on this man’s side all the way. Why wouldn’t anyone be? He bought that dog.


Listen to Etgar Keret reading this story at The New Yorker Fiction Podcast.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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3 Responses to “Story Review: Chablis by Donald Barthelme”

  1. Chris Rose

    I’m sorry to disagree with you on your own website, but I don’t believe the POV character in Chablis actually bought the dog. At least, it’s true that he doesn’t buy it during the story, and it’s also true that you can’t conclude definitely that he will buy a dog after the story is over. It’s maybe a proof of your own faith in the narrator, that his own better nature will win out, but it’s far from certain.

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    • Angus Miranda

      Nothing’s certain anyway but I claim even just for my satisfaction and for my faith not in the narrator but in humanity that he got the dog.

      Like

  2. Dana

    I just don’t get what is going on at the end and what is “skillfully done” at the end meaning?

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