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The Emerald (in The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties - RAVENEL)

av Donald Barthelme

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"And what now? said the emerald. What now, beautiful mother?
We resume the scrabble for existence, said Moll. We resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now." - Donald Barthelme, The Emerald

Donald Barthelme’s The Emerald was first published back in 1979 as a limited hardback edition with all 330 copies signed by the author. Good news for present day readers - this green gem of quirky postmodern literature is included in the author’s Sixty Stories as well as available online by a simple Google search.

The Emerald, a forty-pager with signature Donald Barthelme playfulness, irony, and an added special something that reminds me of those Fractured Fairy Tales from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle TV show.

Generalizations about this novella will simply not do, at least by this reviewer’s reckoning. Oh, yes, novella since The Emerald contains 21 short, unnumbered chapters and dozens of offbeat characters and capricious oddities. So, without further ado, bopping through the story chapter by chapter, a batch of assorted observations, remarks, asides, tangents and digressions:

Two big questions among a group of American guys hanging around: What’s your name? and, Hey, buddy, are you after the emerald? Right as rain these cool cats are after the emerald and all have hip names: Tope, Sallywag, Wide Boy, Taptoe, Sometimes, Brother, Wednesday. America the fluid – all you need do in order to click into a fresh groove is change your name, your clothes, your car, your home address – and presto! – new, supersmokin' you. Of course, what will really and truly give you the edge up is to have your very own primo uno status symbol - like the giant emerald.

Freedom of the press in the land of the free means the right to pry into private affairs, as when a journalist interviews Mad Moll who, after seven years of pregnancy (her husband was an extraterrestrial), gave birth to a 50-pound emerald. The journalist insists on details regarding the alien’s “hideously engorged member.”

If this sounds like Donald B. is pushing his tale beyond the limits of preposterous, take a look at America’s supermarket tabloid, The National Enquirer, running stories on such sensational subjects as Martians landing during a Monday Night Football game and the intimate sex lives of celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. The journalist tells Mad Moll about the public’s right to know “every last little slippy-dippy thing.”

Mad Moll places an advertisement in the newspaper for a guard to knock down anybody who tries to come in her room. A full-sized, mean looking dude applies for the position. He’s big all right – six eight and 249 pounds. But when Mad Moll asks his name and he replies, “Soapbox,” she hesitates, telling him that’s not a very tough name. Soapbox offers to change his name since he’s been called different things in different places (I bet he has!) but Mad Mall says Soapbox is OK and he can start tomorrow, at dawn. Curiously, when Kinky Friedman reviewed Elmore Leonard’s Be Cool, he remarked on the improbable name of a Samoan body guard – Elliot. Hey, this is the USA, where your name should have cash value.

Vandermaster is a magician who is accompanied wherever he goes by a black bloodhound raised on human milk. Vandermaster wants the emerald for himself and now has a weapon to achieve his goal – he stole the foot of Mary Magdalene belonging to the monks in a Carthusian monastery, a foot encased in silver that has a history of being used to kill or maim witches. Since Mad Mall is a witch and knows Vandermaster has the foot, she’s on the lookout.

An example of how Donald Barthelme doesn’t hold back on postmodern pastiche, pasting together assorted genres and throwing everything into his story, even the revelation that the father of the emerald is the man on the moon. That's right - Deus Lunus. Artists such a Robert Rauschenberg noted for large collages – a prime influence for Donald Barthelme.

Joining the emerald hunt, we have Cold Cuts with his laser beam emerald cutter, Pro Tem with a giant wishbone, Plug who knows how to “diddle certain systems,” and a gent from Antwerp’s Emerald Exchange. Meanwhile, the action moves apace: Dietrich von Dietersdorf bribes Soapbox with silver thalers as big as onion rings and the baby emerald asks Mad Mall who is his daddy and what it felt like to have sex with him. Mad Mall hesitates (not a proper subject to discuss with one’s child) but confesses she had an orgasm that lasted three hours.

I suspect I've provided enough detail to serve as a taste test, so I'll conclude with my favorite part - Mad Mall at home playing the oboe, an instrument she loves - the sound of the oboe. The noble, noble oboe. Although she admits the oboe is not the premier instrument of the present age. Now what would that premier instrument be? Hmmmmm. Ah, yes, she surmises, the bullhorn.

I couldn't agree more. Living in the noisy modern American world - the continuous sounds of traffic, construction equipment, trucks backing up - Beep! Beep! Beep!, car horns, car alarms, sirens - the bullhorn is the instrument of choice.

Well, at least there's always reading.

American author Donald Barthelme, 1931-1989

"Understand ye sons of the wise, what this exceedingly precious Stone crieth out to you! Seven years, close to tears. Slept for the first two, dreaming under four blankets, black, blue, brown, brown. Slept and pissed, when I wasn't dreaming I was pissing, I was a fountain. After the first year I knew something irregular was in progress, but not what." - Donald Barthelme, The Emerald
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
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