Short story: “Concerning the Bodyguard”

by look i have opinions

“Concerning the Bodyguard,” by Donald Barthelme

From the October 16, 1978 issue of the New Yorker, also read wonderfully in an excellent episode of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast; also here; collected in Forty Stories

1,497 words (my guess was actually correct this time)

This story is told almost entirely in questions. What we learn is so indefinite that the possibilities remain menacingly open. I’m not sure whether the main character is ambivalent or utterly hostile towards Communism, whether his job prejudices him in favor of his client (a politician) or against him. And yet he remains a real and particular character: his job matters to him, his failure hurts him.

On the podcast, Rushdie comments that he finds the occasional non-question sentences slightly disappointing, as though Barthelme was a little too cautious to commit to his form. I see his point but after listening a few times, I disagree. A single question tends to call attention to itself, but a long series of questions dulls the impact, much like a long series of exclamations or terse, pithy lines. The story’s last two questions come immediately after a handful of declarative sentences, and I think that’s part of why the ending hits so hard. Also, some of the questions in this story (usually the yes-or-no ones) already read like statements in disguise, and too many of them in a row would seem forced. The questions feel most natural when the answers aren’t obvious, when they’re the questions the bodyguard should be asking himself.