Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Richard Bausch: "Tandolfo the Great"

From University of Memphis Website
According to his twin brother Robert Bausch who provides the introduction in 3x33, Richard Bausch comes to his work with "serious intent" which is not to say "somber" but rather "not frivolous." I want to use this space to urge folks to read Robert Bausch's essay on his brother's work. Robert B. says something about the difference between literature and entertainment: literature investigates "the truth," while entertainment aims to be "a delightful and diverting lie." He asserts that literature brings us "the human news," a quote by John Updike.

I'm not saying I agree with this distinction, and of course this has something to do with my lack of belief in "the truth" but rather just a series of human choices of what to believe. But I don't have a better explanation of a difference that I feel when I'm reading and therefore believe in.

In my opinion, the best story of these three is "What Feels Like the World."


  1. It feels obvious why we’re reading Baxter’s “Regarding Happiness” alongside “Tandolfo the Great.” It is a story so fully-loaded with sadness, dismay, and periods of upswing that get shattered down within moments, that it’s almost as if Bausch is intentionally playing with the idea that “If he grants [his characters] their happiness, he has no story, and if he has no story, he has no reason for being there” (Baxter 210). Bausch handles our emotions like a ball he’s tossing up in the air—a ball he throws happily up with lines like “Nothing could be sillier than to have… a cake six tiers high…Maybe fifteen pounds of sugar” and scenes when the kids cheer repeatedly for his act. However, inevitably, the ball Bausch tosses up must come plummeting down to the ground eventually, as does Tandolfo’s magic act and any positive associations we could make with the cake.

    I have to go back to the last poem Jennifer Perrine read the other night. She said it was the result of a dare from a friend, a dare to “write a happy poem.” This is an odd coincidence when we look at Baxter’s mother’s question on page 197 that asks “‘When are you going to write a happy poem?’” As Perrine and Baxter both demonstrated, the answer may very possibly be “never,” because that’s just not what people want to read. It makes no sense for a story/poem/essay to revolve around the central question “why am I happy” because, well, hell, who cares? You’re happy! Don’t ruin it; enjoy it while it’s there. If Tandolfo was completely cheerful, had a successful gig with the kids, handed the cake over, and ran off into the sunset with the woman he loves—there’s no way it’d be anthologized. Anything “happy” here is merely a device Bausch is using to beat Tandolfo down—and not all that subtly either.

    Tandolfo is very much representative of what we could consider the “ideal short story character.” He’s a clown (he’s likeable, friendly, approachable); he’s “got a broken heart” (he’s a lonely, social and emotional outcast); he’s totally aware that he “is his own cliché” (he’s self-questioning, aware of his flaws, and exists in a period of his life where he must confront those flaws).

  2. I can honestly say for the first time I read a Baxter essay all the way through without any complaints. Not only that, but I also enjoyed "Tandolfo." Maybe it's that my existential crisis has come to its breaking point, begun to thaw. Am I happy? Impossible. Maybe just glad to feel as though the profound unhappiness I write about over and over is valid. I found myself agreeing with almost everything Baxter was saying. I saw his essay talking to my real life more than I'd like. For example, the intense bitterness I feel towards people I perceive as happy. I am the unhappy onlooker. Why would I ever want to read a story about happy people? It'd only make me furious. I'd never be able to relate. And I don't think most people could, at least I hope not? Are any of you really happy? If so, please explain how. I can quote one of the writing professors saying (and this might not be an exact quote) "I'm certainly not unhappy, but am I happy? God no." I mean, even in comedies, there has to be conflict.

    Moving on to the short story though, because that is what we're supposed to blog on, and with the essay in mind, is "Tandolfo" an unhappy story? I mean, obviously it's just tragic, this guy's story. But that very last scene, wasn't there a sense of joy or happiness in it? Of release? Maybe destruction and anticipation is the thing that can bring us the closest to happiness. I mean, destruction, I can relate to that and man does it bring a smile to my face. Have any of you ever put a golf club through a TV screen? It's liberating.

    Through most of this story I had this horrible sinking feeling. That anticipation of something is about to go so, so wrong. I mean, the writing is just superb. How he gets to the party and there's no table and there's this confusion, and little kids are coming up and he's making them cry and there's a folding table stuck in the door, it's like "Oh God, this is going wrong. This is going to get worse. What exactly is going to happen? It's gonna be bad." In so many ways this story is a cliche. But I accepted it because as Alex pointed out, the character recognized his own clicheness. A sad, heartbroken, drunk of a clown. And there's a bit of silliness in it too. If this story had ended with him sitting on the curb outside the party, then I'd say MAN THAT WAS DEEEEPRESSING. But it didn't. It ended with a bit of hope, I think. Definitely not a happy story, but maybe we can write happy endings? Even if there's little hope for the character in the long run? I don't know. (As usual).

  3. Above, Alex has spoken about happiness in Richard Bausch’s “Tandolfo the Great” solely in terms of the lighthearted things that are briefly flashed in front of our faces only to be eclipsed by moments of confusion and despair. Kim, on the other hand, has pointed our attention to the ending of the story, suggesting the final paragraphs bring feelings of hope, which is integral to my reading of this story coupled with Baxter’s essay “Regarding Happiness.” I don’t know if I agree that the story is, to use Kim’s word, “tragic.” Would it be simply a copout if I reclassified the story as “tragicomic”? Regardless, I think the most important element of the story in our discussion ought to be how Tandolfo (Rodney) feels at the end. Let’s look at the facts. He’s been kicked out of a kid’s birthday party and pummeled by a bunch of parents. He has a huge cake to bring to the girl of his dreams, his unrequited love, but he decides to leave it out in the street instead. He is, in a very strict sense, an example of the “unhappy onlooker” in exactly the circumstances that Baxter describes, on the outside looking in at “the young couple and their happiness.” He should fit this trope perfectly except for the fact that, at the end of the story, Bausch tells us Tandolfo feels happy, or at least describes our hero’s mood with happy-like words. Bausch writes, “He feels almost glad, almost.” Okay, that’s a start. He goes on, “He realizes with a feeling akin to elation that what he really wants—and for the moment all he really wants—is what he now has.” Elation, that’s great, but can we get any closer? We can because in the very last line Tandolfo is “happily awaiting the results of his labor.” Happily! Jackpot.

    So what can we make of this? I see a discussion question emerging: Why is Tandolfo happy at the end of this seemingly tragic tale? The first possible answer that pops into my head is that our poor protagonist is in denial. Tandolfo is drunk and won’t let himself feel the way he should having hit rock bottom, or something near it. (He still has Chi-Chi, after all.) But that answer, in my opinion, is far too easy and downright boring. Baxter provides us with another answer to this question, one much closer to an explanation worthy of such a brilliant story: “The Germans have a phrase, das Glück im Winkel, happiness in a corner, referring to a particular species of happiness that arises from a contentment with the things you have, i.e., a state of being free from the longing for things you don’t own.” Indeed, this quote jives very well with Bausch’s line that I already cited above, in which we learn that “all he really wants—is what he now has.” It’s a perfect match. Tandolfo has wanted a girl he can’t have, but in this moment at least he doesn’t want anything but what he has, so he feels content. Baxter gets the square, right? Not so fast. What happened to make Tandolfo stop wanting things and feel happy all of a sudden? Has he simply resigned himself to defeat? That doesn’t sound like real happiness to me, and I insist on reading this ending as one in which Tandolfo receives genuine happiness. The missing ingredient here, I think, has already been mentioned above by my illustrious colleagues: Tandolfo’s self-awareness. Kim and Alex have both pointed out that Tandolfo knows he’s a cliché, but it goes beyond even that. When Tandolfo sets the cake in the street, it “makes him feel some faint sense of release, as if he were at the end of a story.” I have to give it up to Richard Bausch. That might be the ballsiest line I’ve ever read in a short story. If I saw that in a workshop piece, I would definitely roll my eyes, but here I love it. Here Bausch cranks up Tandolfo’s self-awareness so high that he chips a hole in the fourth wall doing it, and I think that is integral to our hero’s happiness in the end. I just realized that I talked about self-awareness last time, too, in the context of Butler’s husband-parrot. This must be a hang-up of mine. At least I’m aware of it.

  4. While reading Baxter, I experienced something similar to my black hole, the world is falling down around me and none of it matters, feeling. It had the same terrible weight but none of the pressing need to just let this feeling happen. I was more determined to fight this feeling then I was the black hole. I was reading about how John Cheever's narrator struggles to make a story out of nothing, struggles with his character's bland, "happiness" and thought of an issue I had writing nonfiction last year. I thought my life was to boring to have been of any interest to anyone, and that the problems that did arise were petty or need not be shared because they didn't have a great enough impact. So Baxter's essay really hit home when I thought of my life, but in regards to my writing, I have never come out of story or a movie and just abandoned the feelings it stirred inside for beer and video games.

    I was incredibly nervous when I started reading "Tandolfo the Great" because of the very cliche acknowledged by the author and Tandolfo himself. The sad clown, the nice guy who doesn't get the girl, the bachelor with the furry animal who is the butt of jokes for kids and adults, as part of an occupation and in everyday life because he's so pathetic. But the ins and outs of the language, the way the story let his worries drift from problems of being the clown, to the women he loved leaving, and how he never stays on one thought, was enough to keep me reading despite my concerns. It was like the character was a pendulum swinging out of control to ignore all the negative things happening in his life. When Baxter talks about the innocent man, who ignores the truth he has been shown that removes him from the garden, I think Tandolfo must fit into that category a little, even if he does accept the reality she does not love him in the mirror before he leaves or in thinking about the cake in his car.

    I like that Bausch uses the word “vindicated” to describe the way Rodney feels leaving that wedding cake in the middle of the road. And then again he uses “elation” when Rodney realizes he doesn’t want his fantasy of the girl running out and seeing what he is doing to come true. When reading Baxter I considered the difference between joy, content, and happiness, and came to the conclusion that there are too many situational uses of the three. Joy feels unrealistic, happiness too vague, and content too negative. In this story, Rodney’s feels are earns and feel right, at least relieved if not what I’m supposed to feel when I read happy. I don’t know. All I know is last Saturday I woke up with a feeling in my chest that caused me to mass text all my friends telling them to be awesome. That kind of feeling may not belong in a story, at least on it’s own. But it exists. So whatever Baxter’s essay caused me to feel has it’s equal opposite which is enough for me to say that I am happy, or at least content.

  5. This story made me uncomfortable. I don't deal with secondhand embarrassment well and Tandolfo's literally a sad clown and oh, the build up during the party, the tension climbing as you wait for him to mess everything up - that was painful for me to read. And yet it's not some big dramatic moment like you might expect, like you'd probably get if this were what Robert Bausch identifies as entertainment. The moment when Tandolfo insults the child is subdued, and the riotous reaction is fairly glossed over. It ends quickly. The fuck-up isn't the highlight of the story at all, but that's what you might have been waiting for.

    I mean, it sounds like a bad comedy movie set-up, between the relationship with a girl who he thinks has "friendzoned" him - and in such a comedy the friendzoning would've been taken seriously and not acknowledged as a delusion of grandeur. And it's not just about the self-embarrassment. It's not about the fuck-up. It's not about self-pity. It's not about us laughing at this character.

    The end of the story goes somewhere I didn't expect, and I would bet most people were surprised. It's that foray into happiness Baxter talked about - and like Kim said, this was definitely one of the less painful Baxter readings we've done. The story does not culminate with any of the expected emotions, or with any of the emotions present earlier on. The story, the character, turns to a sense of happiness where it's unexpected, where it doesn't really make sense outside of the character. Look at the circumstances that led to this bizarre happiness; look at Rodney. You're willing to accept this progression in him. And you're willing to accept this progression in the story because it's not all happiness. Baxter says you can't have a story that's all happiness, and this one is not at all. What Bausch does is take a story full of negativity and twist it at the last moment, insert this idea that things worked out in a way that feels right, even if those things sucked as they happened. It's not a story about happiness but it's a story that doesn't have to end in a depressing fashion. It's not even hopeful and doesn't really address the future. It says a lot about the creation of Rodney as a character that, despite what he does, we're willing to go along with him and see things as okay too. I kind of feel like I should dislike him but I wind up being okay with everything, similar to the way he feels about the progression of events. I think I'm making a stretch with the connection I'm trying to come up with here, but - Bausch has a weird way of making things settle by the end of the story that's fascinating considering how physically uncomfortable I'd been two pages before, and I think this is one of the most interesting stories we've read all semester.

  6. Tandolfo the Great reminded me of a nightmare I had that dealt with clowns. Yet my nightmare was more horrifying than this story. I actually didn’t find it uncomfortable at all but rather I felt sorry for Rodney. To me he did nothing wrong but react to how the world changed around him. I did like this story and I thought it was well written but at the same time I kind of knew where this was headed. I don’t know if it is because of reading Baxter’s essay or me being highly aware of plot. What I mean predictable, I meant the whole party thing and the girl dumping Tandolfo. But what surprised me was the wedding cake and how at the end he acts based around that cake. I guess the best part of this story was the wedding cake and how it becomes that one detail that defines the story and the character. It takes the usual clown storyline and pushes it way beyond. I mean who on earth would buy a wedding cake for someone that doesn’t even like him or her. It adds the desperation, which made me really connect with the characters. Like I found myself ready to defend Tandolfo’s actions at the party because I knew what he was going through.

    Besides the wedding cake, what interested me was how we got inside Tandolfo’s mind and we got to feel his pain. I love stories that deal with damaged people, which in correlation to Baxter’s essay is why many pieces that deal with happiness are hard to find. I myself have experienced what Baxter experienced in the first page of the essay in which my mother asked me “Why don’t I write about happy things?” My response was probably the exact same thing that Baxter said. I found this essay to be very interesting as it allowed me to understand that my own interests in the dark and depressing is not uncommon and that it is perfectly normal to not write about happy things, well at least for me.

    I guess in a way there is a reason why the wedding cake appealed to me. I feel like it symbolizes the only true happiness that Tandolfo can ever get. If I remembered this correctly wedding cakes signify a time when there is happiness and love. The way Tandolfo uses it at the end of the piece, shows that there really isn’t a signal bit of happiness in the story at least in Bausch’s story. I think Tandolfo runs over the cake as he goes home but I’m not quite sure about that. In any case, but putting the cake in the middle of the road it is like he letting his own happiness being destroyed. I personally think that if Bausch wrote this story in a novel Tandolfo wouldn’t experience any happiness until possibly the very end or dies a lonely old man filled with regrets. It is this reason why I love the character because I just feel so bad for him, that I am willing to read ahead to see if anything good will happen to him. Which is why I feel like I’m very much cultured in the American way of wanting a good happy ending. I do agree in what Baxter is saying but I can’t help but want a happy ending. It makes me feel good inside knowing that after all that I’ve just read something good came out of it, even if it is unrealistic.

  7. Before reading Tandolfo the Great, I looked into it a bit and was really shocked to see it was a movie offered by Spike TV. Naturally, I read the piece and then settled down to watch the eighteen-minute piece (Film? Movie? Is it a film if it’s offered on Spike TV? Bias, bias, bias…) I love the idea of someone thinking they’re trapped within an old-fashioned romance, even if he IS terribly hopeless. Within the film he gets a giant pink cake and intends on proposing with it to a girl who (unfortunately) ran away with another guy. This explains so many things about the sad-and-pissy clown as well as the drunken clown humor pieces.

    The thing that I enjoyed most from the piece was the fact that Rodney thought that he could get the girl through ‘magical’ and absolutely illogical ways that he assumes would swoop her away and as a clown he tries to produce magic for the kids and they crush his dreams. He’s driven to drink to the point that he shows up as the clown/magician drunk and ends up making fun of one of the kids, but it’s in the name of love, so it’s worth it, right? Wrong. He ends up breaking down and making a mockery of the child’s party only to end up going over to Maggie’s place to see her and the new fiancé kissing. The film ends with Rodney watching the cake get run over and a smile on his face, which made me as a reader amazingly happy.

    Tandolfo the Great was honestly one of the most depressing things I’ve ever watched/read. How I can’t agree more with Baxter on the grounds of a happy character has no story, I do think that there is a certain amount you can push someone before they just refuse get back up again. It’s shit, especially seeing as this Tandolfo literally ONLY wants to make people happy. He’s friendzoned, goes into debt to make the girl he loves happy, gets shat on by her, tries to make the money back and fails, watches Maggie in the arms of another woman, and ends up STILL stuck with debt/the cake.

  8. Well, Tandolofo was thoroughly depressing. Usually I tend not to like stories that are predominantly depressing. Though this story does have its flecks of humor every now and then. It sort of reminds me of a story about Margaret Atwood in which she describes a couple that falls in love, gets married has kids who are intelligent, attractive and do well for themselves, and they all lived happily ever after. She points out that to the couple, their lives would seem very interesting to them. But to us we’re completely bored. That’s because there’s no conflict. There’s no opposing force. There’s nothing to combat all that happy and convenience. I suppose in the same way, one could argue that a story that’s completely depressing and has no chance for hope, change or positivity would be equally as boring, if not more so because it could suck you into a bad mood. Of course as people we do have the ability to laugh at the misfortune of others, which I suppose would be considered a good example of Schadenfreude. But of course that all depends on how this misfortune is presented, because it can be done in So maybe it is more interesting to see character’s consistently fail. Who knows.