The World Is Too Much With Us: Ann Beattie Close-Reads Frederick Barthelme’s “Box Step”

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As Johnny Carson used to say (this, or some variation, often enough that he was made fun of for doing it), “That was weird wild stuff.” Adding: “I did not know that.” (It’s a four second clip on YouTube now.) This reaction offers a way into Frederick Barthelme’s story, “Box Step,” though when it was written in the early 80s, it would not have been particularly weird. It’s the author’s handling of the somewhat weird that’s interesting, his writing a story that undermines the status quo of literary weird.

A quick and inadequate summary of the story: It’s about Henry (he is probably the boss), who works in an office fitted out in shades of gray, who has a crush on another worker named Ann, and who spends his non-working time playing with games or toys.

The dialogue is good, and you get the sense that when they speak, the characters are aware of that. But there isn’t a lot of talk. The story is more rooted in motion—an acceptance, at least on Henry’s part, that, as in Wordsworth’s famous line, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” People speak briefly, including Henry, whose first helpful utterance is rather startling: He tells a young girl whom her parents think is about to make a big mistake, to “Do what you want and have an O.K. time. You can change it all later if you want to.” Not a great time, but an O.K. time, immersing herself in the gray, quotidian world of O.K., which everyone seems to occupy.

Time does not pass quickly, though Barthelme’s story isn’t long. In the author’s delivery, it poses as occasionally wry reportage. Henry observes; Barthelme observes Henry observing.

Until the end, the story has a staccato effect: written in present tense, this happens and that happens, then something else happens. Raymond Carver, who blurbed Moon Deluxe, Barthelme’s collection in which this story appeared after its publication in the New Yorker, would naturally have been very attuned to what was really going on.

The initially gray, everyday world morphs into something wilder.

In one of Carver’s own, brilliant, sequential narrations in “Are These Actual Miles,” we meet a couple about to declare bankruptcy who, on the eve of disaster, agree that the wife should go out and sell their car. She does, to a used car salesman, but, sexually, she also sells herself.

One in a list of dull things Leo does as his and our tension mounts (Leo “stretches, wipes his face.”) suddenly jumps out at us, though, its flash rewarding us during what has been the rather dull, methodical panning for gold:

His [Leo’s] undershirt is wet; he can feel the sweat rolling from his underarms. He sits on the step with the empty glass in his hand and watches the shadows fill up the yard. He stretches, wipes his face. He listens to the traffic on the highway and considers whether he should go to the basement, stand on the utility sink, and hang himself with his belt. He understands he is willing to be dead.

Barthelme also observes neutrally, in a detached way, but unlike Carver, his preferred method is not to break stride—or, at least, not to do it the way Carver does. Barthelme’s character Henry, as well as the writer’s own delivery, is more poker-faced. In the passage from Carver’s story, notice the increasing length of his sentences. With their many commas, they almost sweep you to disaster.

In Barthelme’s story, there’s an implied lack of understanding about anything, almost an affliction of misunderstanding—though in both cases, some few things stand out. It isn’t subjective; it’s the one sentence or word that doesn’t go with the rest. “Box Step” does not go behind the scenes, in effect (basement; utility sink); nothing imagined is revealed.

But in both stories, we see something, and its resonance is startling. Barthelme’s Henry may not be imploding (though he might be), but in this story, too, the air is thick with futility. In the methodical and aptly named “Box Step,” we’re never going to be told exactly what Henry’s thinking, because he’s a pressure cooker that’s been peeked into too many times to express its real power; it’s hard to get up a head of steam.

Barthelme writes:

We walk down the aisle to the toy dinosaurs. Yesterday they were all jumbled together, but someone has straightened them, arranged them in flat-footed rows, so that the thirty or so rubber toys stare straight at us, scarlet eyes glaring, jaws wide, straight white teeth silhouetted against dark throats.

Here, too, the observations speed up, linked by commas that leave us looking at something sure to make us queasy, with the last adjective applying to the dinosaur’s throat. Much is shown, but, like a puppet show, what we see is at quite some remove from Henry, himself. Someone else’s consciousness has been involved in arranging the dinosaurs on the shelf.

Of course, first a toy’s manufacturer had to make them. Other, absent people have produced these things/images. Our culture has. They’re there for the taking (buying)—these substitutes, these campy (Susan Sontag would have agreed) stand-ins for once truly powerful, frightening creatures that, you know, vanished.

As a writer, it’s useful to have stuff to pile up—cultural clutter—to put on a puppet show, or shadow play, a performance that will be enacted by proxy. Our culture supports a logjam of things. Material possessions, whether, in “Box Step,” they be a “crinkle finish plastic purse,” a skirt “that looks as if it could be used for space suits,” a “taupe Selectric11”, a toy dinosaur. Credit card companies depend on your purchases. If you aren’t consuming, you’ll be offered incentives (points, payment plans).

We’re in a storm (a real one) with the characters, where nothing can be controlled.

But if you are, you’ll have, at least to your way of thinking, things of Significance: a post-Birkin bag, a “taupe” typewriter (though it’s doubtful you’d select this adjective.) In advertising agencies, so-called Creatives are busily trying every day to turn these items into gold. To make them necessary. And merchants rely on branding.

I’m not going to say that the seemingly off-handed way Barthelme handles his narrative is a disguised howl of protest. Just that underneath the surface of all the many specific things invoked—inanimate objects that he works to make equal to (seemingly no better or worse than) human beings—there’s an underworld where the dead, who cannot be animated (at least at this point, with apologies to cryogenics), rise up to the surface: Barthelme mentions a skull and crossbones on a spray can, as well as a little representative from the Mesozoic Era.

He also includes a dead ant “farm.” When asked where it’s gone, Henry’s reply is, “Died. The ants ate parts of each other. The parts they didn’t eat they carried around. It wasn’t fun.” Add to this not the faux-funny, but the funny-faux: the “souvenir palace” at the end, with an enormous, ridiculous 3-D Pirate on the roof. (Maybe his “polka dots” are in the manner of Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots?).

Throughout the story, things have been denatured, demythologized, “castles and spaceships” appropriated for a miniature golf course that also includes “monsters guarding the holes.”

In Carver, the threat is personal, internal; in Barthelme, the more public “end” is here, represented by garish, mass produced toys, available for displacement.

After a break in the text, “Box Step” changes significantly. Early on, we heard about the upcoming sales meeting in Biloxi; when we go to Biloxi, though, it isn’t to a meeting room, but to meet nature. The earlier miniaturizations are gone (the ant farm; the baseball game in a box; the eight-inch dinosaur), and the natural world (as opposed to the workaday office world we initially saw) is very colorful.

We’re in a storm (a real one) with the characters, where nothing can be controlled. One thing that has endured is a “big live oak that looks as if it must be two hundred years old.” (A return to the theme of life and death). Not good weather for a helicopter to hover, but it does, its searchlight aimed at the water letting us know someone must be in distress.

In what is, for the characters, this new world, there are threats, but also possibilities: our perspective also enlarges, to include not just Mr. Pfeister (feisty Henry Pfeister) and Ann, with whom he’s infatuated, but high school kids in uncontrived clothes (a Hawaiian shirt, cutoffs, “beat-up running shoes,” normal-for-teens stuff) who run around yelling and drinking beer, because they’re young.

Nearer the end, we’re left with the ludicrous Pirate that “cackles mechanically,” (giving it a leg up—let’s hope not the wooden one—on Fitzgerald’s Dr. T.J. Eckleburg); when it “cackles,” it might be an astute value judgment. After which, arms linked (Ann instigates this touching), he and she return “into the traffic,” which is what we all do, after our time-out, if we’re lucky enough to return to it.

The initially gray, everyday world morphs into something wilder, even as our culture’s ideas provide a ridiculous refrain; this nonsense is impossible to banish. The jokey games remain (miniature golf), over-the-top souvenir shops are there in lieu of conventional monuments, there’s no way to escape, except, perhaps, in Ann’s touch, which signifies friendship, or something even better than o.k—great love, for all we know: the lady slips her arm through the gentleman’s, bringing them closer.

And if this old-fashioned image is never mass-produced and “framed,” like the ubiquitous David Hockney print (“This one of those fifteen-dollar things he did a million of?”), there might still be hope for liberation—for a wild dance, or at least a significant moment—at water’s edge, resisting the fierce wind.

(Disclaimer: What I’m going to write next has nothing to do with Sheryl Sandberg’s advice; this was way pre-Sheryl). Henry says, “We have to lean into it, just to get to the outer edge of the parking lot.” Being out in the big, colorful world is a clear improvement on doing the simple, predictable, boring box step. We have to wish this couple well.

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