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Olivia Mardwig on Barthelme's "Not Knowing"

These notes offer a narrative response to Donald Barthelme’s “Not Knowing,” his essay on intention, uncertainty, and storytelling.

Barthelme sits down at his desk to write. A pale inkling of an idea, of what?

A man, turning onto a quiet street perhaps, sees a wallet left by a heap of trash. (Dropped accidentally.) He picks up the wallet. (He leaves it there untouched.) The wallet has ten crisp $100 bills. (The wallet is emptied already by the thief.) The man puts the wallet in his pocket and walks happily home. (The man leaves the wallet, regretting it later as he brushes his teeth in the mirror.)

What comes next Donald? “Of course, I do not know.”

Barthelme flings open the closet doors. Faced with indecision, with the anxiety of beginning, he shouts, “I have nothing to wear!”

Somehow he makes it to the party.

Mallarme is behind the bar, shaking cubes loose, refreshing a friend’s drink. Barthelme saddles up, unloads his problems, something about a story. The question is how to move in unanticipated directions, how to invent. “You try get the words outside of language,” Mallarme says, “like ice slips out of the tray.”

Flaubert arrives, dressed impeccably. He pats his cigarette into an ashtray from the Hard Rock Café and offers a note of solace. “Style,” he says, “enables us to speak, to imagine again.” Or was it “style enables us to imagine, to speak again”? Barthelme can’t decide.

Several hours later, four double pours of sherry, more talking and inconclusion.

He thinks vaguely about leaving and suddenly there’s a beautiful woman. He wants to ask for her name, her story, but her finger is already pressing the button for the lobby, the elevator doors are already closing.

“Make a riddle out of an answer,” he thinks on the subway ride home. “Make the problem the pleasure. Not knowing, the gift.”