Barthelme: Paradise

The first pages of Paradise begin with, “After the women had gone …” and conclude with “He inspected his prick and said, ‘My you’re looking fresh and pretty this morning.'”

images-1.jpgThe remainder of the novel deals with a strange and magical relationship between Simon, an older man on sabbatical from his normal life, and three nubile young women who pause in their own burgeoning life experiences to move in with him. As the publisher tells us on the inside cover teaser:

Simon, a fifty-three year old Philadelphia architect, has been given an almost miraculous gift—a year of his own, to do with as he wishes. In a large, bare New York apartment, he lives like a ghost, thinking back on an unsuccessful marriage and his working life. Through a combination of circumstances he becomes involved with three young and beautiful women, who come to live with him. He is twice as old as they are, as they cheerfully and repeatedly point out, yet is drawn into a shifting, complex relationship. The three women, Dore, Veronica, and Anne, are very different, lively and intelligent but in important ways lost in the world, grappling for purchase. For the eight months of their stay, alternatively advancing and retreating, they test the possibilities of the liaison, as Simon, from the special perspective of one not young, awaits their inevitable departure.

This spare, deliberate novel, at once horrifically comic and bluntly melancholy, is a splendid achievement, astonishing in its erotic directness.

I quote the publisher because the summary seems adequate without sounding like a Junior High book report (much as I might have written). Donald Barthelme’s novel Paradise is perfect: it seems simple yet is actually complex; it is fun and entertaining yet is also makes you pause to think.

imgres.jpgMuch like a story in Penthouse Letters, Simon’s narrative involves his escapades with three gorgeous live-in women. Is that Paradise? I suppose since we might consider Paradise a final destination on our journey through life, perhaps this is Simon’s Paradise. But it all sounds too much like a pleasant and memorable way-station where you can wait for the next bus back to the reality of life.

It’s interesting that although attractive and intelligent, the three girls don’t seem to be suited to any decent profession that would allow them each to break out of Paradise and make their own lives. Are they mythological representations or, as suggested, characters in a story found in a men’s magazine. Before the women left, did Simon greet them in the morning with the compliment, “My you’re looking fresh and pretty this morning.'”

Barthelme’s few novels are quite varied in their style and theme. Paradise is rather direct and understandable: well worth reading.

Here are the works of Donald Barthelme as listed on Wikipedia:

Story collections

  • Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964
  • Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968
  • City Life, 1970
  • Sadness, 1972
  • Amateurs, 1976
  • Great Days, 1979
  • Overnight to Many Distant Cities, 1983
  • Sam’s Bar, 1987
  • Sixty Stories, 1981
  • Forty Stories, 1987
  • Flying to America: 45 More Stories, 2007


  • Guilty Pleasures, 1974


  • Snow White, 1967
  • The Dead Father, 1975
  • Paradise, 1986
  • The King, 1990


  • A Manual for Sons (excerpted from The Dead Father, with an afterword by Rick Moody)
  • The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme, edited by Kim Herzinger, 1992
  • Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme, edited by Kim Herzinger, 1997
  • The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, or the Hithering Thithering Djinn (children’s book), 1971

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