Short story: “I Bought a Little City”

by look i have opinions

“I Bought a Little City,” by Donald Barthelme

Appeared in the November 11th, 1974 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here) and the July 2007 New Yorker Fiction Podcast (here); also, starting on the second page of this PDF; collected in Sixty Stories

2,115 words; about five and two-thirds pages in this copy of Sixty Stories

I remember someone saying Barthelme is a frustrating writer to try to imitate because you just can’t figure out why it works. This story, especially, has the air of just starting out with a neat idea and no particular direction in mind. So my chart making is probably an exercise in futility, but let’s give it a try.

Section ? Word count

Sets the tone: light, whimsical, not quite benign. One little outburst of anger (the “goddamn bongo drums”) followed by an affirmation of “the misery of democracy.” We see that the main character is playing God in his own little way, according to his own ideas of benevolence and ethical conduct.

Initial minor problem (housing)

The main character solves the housing problem pretty easily, while maintaining his good conduct. He even accommodates people who like rectangles.

The jigsaw puzzle is my least favorite bit, because it sounds like somebody’s uninspired notion of the sort of thing that’s supposed to happen in quirky offbeat fiction. I think I’ve seen too many imitations and homages (I remember a similar urban planning scheme in Broom of the System).

Second problem (“I wondered if I was enjoying myself enough”)

Sudden brutality. The tone remains light. Understated emotional reactions. The main character seems to still adhere to his own standards of conduct (he denounces himself just to be fair, he tries to justify the shooting of Butch).

Crisis (Sam Hong’s wife)

Another sudden change of topic. Like Butch’s owner, Sam Hong’s wife is never named or even described in detail. Emotional reactions remain understated.

I suppose if you care about Sam Hong’s wife (I don’t), you might feel suspense over her fate here. The main character is in a threatening position. But “coveting / Is not nice,” he tells us: his peculiar standards hold.


The moral of the story?


And the occasional perfect sentence: “It suited me fine so I started to change it.”

Barthelme’s way of being unseriously serious isn’t like other writers’. I mean, the techniques are familiar (again, possibly due to imitation and homage). He keeps the tone off-balance by throwing in mildly incongruous details: human and dog population data, “jiveass,” Citizen Kane fantasies, the school board. Instead of “fried chicken,” he says, “Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken, extra crispy,” twice. The Hong family has “one and one-third lovely children,” an echo of a census statistic, and the narrator either decreases or increases the absurdity by remarking, “She didn’t look pregnant but I congratulated her anyhow.” All this is familiar territory, but it never feels like the story is just trying to get a laugh exactly, or just satirizing something (though maybe it was). It feels like it has a private agenda, like the creation in “The Balloon.” I think this is one of the things that makes good fiction feel slightly uncanny; it is good partly because it comes from someplace we can’t see.

I really like Barthelme when I manage to take him in stride. I have a bad habit of thinking I need to understand a work of fiction before I get around to enjoying it.