If you were going to read Bowdoin College instructor Brock Clarke’s short stories as part of a college seminar in fiction — and I’m thinking these stories would support such reading — you would of course want to place them in an appropriate literary context. Helpful authors might include, off the top of my head, Samuel Beckett, Donald Barthelme, Flannery O’Connor and Nicholson Baker (who I believe may have moved recently from his longtime home in South Berwick).

“The Price of the Haircut” comprises 11 short stories that at a glance you might categorize in the messy literary genre called metafiction. You would not be wrong about this, exactly. Metafiction rears its head when the story you’re reading looks and sounds like a story but isn’t, because 1. its characters, settings and/or plot are fractured out of all recognizable convention, and 2. the main themes or subtexts of the story are the story or language itself. These things are true to one extent or another in all 11 of Clarke’s stories. But not entirely.

The original master of metafiction before it had a name was Samuel Beckett. So you’d want your students to read, maybe, the “Molloy”-“Malone Dies”-“The Unnameable” trilogy, in which events are chaotic to nonexistent and by the third book all semblance of conventional narrative is long gone and the story’s whole verbal reality is represented by a head suspended in the neck of a bottle with its withered body dangling inside, trying to figure out what it is doing when it talks. Its tone is bleakly hilarious.

Some decades later, the American writer Donald Barthelme developed Beckett’s departures from narrative convention. Clarke’s writing has been compared favorably with Barthelme’s, especially with regard to the weird kinds of irony that emerge from his stories (so to call them) about deliberately nonreal characters (so to call them).

Then you might want your students to read something by Nicholson Baker. His novels are metafictional in atmosphere and theme, but more closely represent what we might call actual people. One of Baker’s quirks is to go down the rabbit hole of a few minutes of a character’s thoughts over scores of pages. It sounds boring, but thought by ironic thought, he makes it funny; and the narratives filling the characters’ heads are remarkably continuous despite their discontinuity. (“Room Temperature” is a whole novel about a man’s half-hour feeding his baby daughter.)

Anyway, these three writers would give your students some context for their experience of “The Price of the Haircut,” where you go down rabbit holes of internal thoughts; where conventional plots and settings are only elusively present; and where the characters are not quite real. A couple of the stories, such as the title story, are told collectively, in first-person plural — “‘Wow,’ we said, turning off the television set. ‘Eight-dollar haircuts.’” These are not representations of real people, but caricatures constructed as vehicles for the tenor of certain kinds of ironic behaviors and dispositions recognizable in the world. As in Barthelme, Clarke’s caricatures are largely personalities made of words and most of the plot events are surreal at best (“Children Who Divorce,” narrated by a theater cast, reads like a dream of disconnected events centered around the actors’ collective desperation to deal with lifelong petty neuroses). But as in Baker, recognizable emotions emerge.

And so you also might want your students to read Flannery O’Connor, one of America’s great masters of realistic fiction. Not to overgeneralize, but a major emotional thread explored in O’Connor’s stories involves disaffection, resentment and antipathy up to outright violent hatred. Similarly, Brock Clarke’s stories, despite being metafictions, are yet prevalent with hypocrisies, ironies and pathetic human weaknesses readily recognizable in the world. The irony you encounter in Beckett and Barthelme turns sardonic in Clarke, and through these stories, at least, it is relentless and caustic.

In “The Price of the Haircut,” the narrators/protagonists cannot get out of their own ideological way; the story is a sort of surreal allegory (if there could be such a thing) on the hypocrisies of middle class Americans who believe themselves to be self-reliant, anti-racist, yet conservative progressives, who are bumbling experts at rationalizing the penny-pinching avarice that guides everything they do. In “What Is the Cure for Meanness?” a dead dog and a teenage son’s continual misreading of his emotional and ethical links to his father add up to the general sense that there is, after all, no cure for meanness. The most nearly realistic story in the collection is “Concerning Lizzie Borden, Her Axe, My Wife,” whose title captures the sensibility.

In “The Misunderstanding,” we boil through the thin-skinned, petty life of a family whose kids cause an uproar in a restaurant, spurring their being hired to cause uproars in other restaurants. Meanwhile the dad has had an affair with a black woman which the mom has forgiven — not. The emotional interaction becomes Flannery-O’Connor ugly (thinking of “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” for example) and then ups the ante when the mom cracks and starts launching appalling racial insults at the dad and his former lover. The emotional tenor of this story is all too real in its unreality.
The tone of these stories brings the reviewer’s cliché “savage” to mind. Funny, but bitterly dark. Caustic. “There is no resentment so pure as that for the people who you love and who you have let down,” observe the collective narrators of “Our Pointy Boots.” The difference between Clarke and O’Connor is that in O’Connor redemptive events end up highlighting human sympathies; in Clarke, there’s hardly a trace of anything like sympathy.

Your seminar discussion would no doubt allow as how the darkness in these stories felt true to life, in a grisly way. You would engage questions, I imagine, about how the postmodern world got from Beckett to Barthelme to Baker to “The Price of the Haircut.” And whether the antagonism, meanness and racism in Flannery O’Connor’s South wasn’t a key cultural current, after all. It would be, I’m thinking, a desperate-sounding discussion.

Brock Clarke lives in Portland and teaches creative writing at Bowdoin. His recent novel is “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.”

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first Thursday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].

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