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The Phantom of the Opera's Friend (1970)

     by Donald Barthelme

          from City Life, 1970


This is probably the shortest piece I'll be looking at in the entire project, and it is certainly the shortest so far at only five pages long. Donald Barthelme is a widely-respected and critically-acclaimed postmodernist writer whose short stories are both incisive and insightful. I've mentioned before that I think it's in some ways much harder to write a really good short story than it is to write an entire novel; Barthelme's stories are examples of the craft that the vast majority of us can barely aspire to understand, much less emulate.


The piece, less a story than a snapshot, involves a person (identity, gender, and prior relationship never mentioned) who has befriended the Phantom and who after the disastrous events of Leroux's novel attempts to urge him to join the outside world. The Phantom is never referred to by name, and even only intermittently by his sobriquet; neither he nor his friend, the narrator, are developed as characters. It's a very minimalist setup, relying on prior knowledge of the original story to be thoroughly understood.


The basic theme of the piece is stagnation. The Phantom typifies it by remaining fearful of change and growth and refusing to leave his hidden life beneath the opera for the outside world. His friend urges him on, citing the advances made in plastic surgery, the rehabilitation programs available, the chance for a normal life; the Phantom replies that he is too old, when in reality he is too fearful of the possibilities of the outside world, too afraid that he will be unable to adapt to it and that it has changed beyond his ability to recognize or participate in. The Phantom recognizes the need to break his pattern - indeed, he and the narrator converse over it at length over a period of years - but he seems unable to bring himself to do so.


Christine is mentioned only once, in a small passage wherein the Phantom reminisces about her. She has no bearing on the story; she serves only as a reminder of the past, and a marker of the events that the Phantom is unable to move past in order to have a normal life. He talks about her to illustrate how much more closely he is tied emotionally to the past and to the things he has lost than to a possible future. He does not use her name.


Not inconsiderable is the secondary theme of separate worlds, which permeates so much of the Phantom literature. In this case, it is parallel to the idea of stagnation: the Phantom's realm is not an achievement but rather a symptom of his withdrawal, his inability to change and his fast slide into obscurity and self-destruction. The narrator asks, "Is one man entitled to fix himself at the center of a cosmos of hatred, and remain there?", both underlining the Phantom's ultimately doomed existence as he remains stubbornly isolated, but also noting the curious triumph that this affords him; even as he buries himself alive, the Phantom chooses his own interment. ""One hundred million cells in the brain! All intent on being the Phantom of the Opera!", he cries. "Between three and four thousand human languages! And I am the Phantom of the Opera in every one of them!" His existence is itself his life's work and his legacy, and because of that he's afraid to move out to become a citizen, his condition alleviated by modern medicine and his existence happier but unremarkable. He has managed to be someone important in spite of all the horrors of his life, and thus he struggles - if becoming unremarkable will make him happy, is it worth it? The entire piece is also a meditation on disability and identity and on how attempts to "cure" disability may sometimes destroy - or at the very least reshape - a person's entire identity, and how attempts, however well-meaning, by people who neither have nor understand that disability can feel like erasure.


The unnamed friend spends much of his time in frustration, torn between two modes of thought when it comes to his surreptitious comrade. On the one hand, he bears him a great deal of respect for his genius and a certain amount of sympathy and pity for his uniquely tragic situation, but on the other hand he cannot appreciate his reclusive behavior and is frustrated by the realization that by his very nature, the Phantom will never behave as a "normal" friend could be expected to. "Why must I have him for a friend?" laments the speaker, as though it were a force beyond his control that binds them together; the helplessness of the relationship is in direct correlation to the Phantom's situation as he laments his lot while refusing to do anything to change it. It also again highlights the subtle violence inherent in the Phantom's friend's attempts to rehabilitate him: as with many people who push back against the disabled just for existing, it's obvious that the friend doesn't just have the Phantom's best interests at heart. They wants the Phantom "cured" because his disability inconveniences them.


In a tiny but incredibly pointed paragraph aside, Gaston Leroux yawns with boredom, sets aside his work on The Phantom of the Opera, and begins to work on The Mystery of the Yellow Room instead. He has plenty of time to finish the Phantom's story later, he reasons. Leroux's putting off of the narrative is symbolic of the degradation and demise of the Phantom under the weight of years and his own hobbling of himself. The highlight of the Phantom's life, the events of the novel, has passed and gone; he is at this point only a shadow waiting for death, a reminder of the past with no future of his own. The significance of the Phantom's story is ultimately only relevant to him in his solipsistic universe, the separate world he has created and maintained rather than participate in the society of his fellows; stripped of its romantic trappings and the immediacy of present events, it becomes just an exercise in futility, an unimportant legacy of petty crime that would have been entirely forgotten if it weren't for Leroux's silly schlock serial. Events long past have no bearing on the world today but consume the Phantom's universe utterly. He has never moved on from those days, no matter how much the world has turned. His story has become itself his requiem for a life that might as well already be dead.


At the age of 65, the Phantom finally capitulates to his friend's urging and declares that he will join society. His ecstatic friend makes preparations for his lodging, his income, for plastic surgery and societal lessons, all to help ease him into things, but when the appointed day comes, the Phantom does not appear, having chosen in the end to remain in his underground kingdom. The Phantom's courage fails him; despite his lifetime longing to be a part of the human race which has rejected him, in the end he cannot bring himself to face the level of growth and change that would be required of him to interact with them. Or perhaps it is that in the end, the Phantom has become who he is through a lifetime of struggle, and when he finally looks at society, demanding a level of almost insurmountable change from him to become a part of it... he rejects the society that has always rejected him.


The Phantom's friend, in a lovely symbolic moment, sits down in front of the opera house to wait for the Phantom, feeling that they might be waiting forever. In this, the Phantom's entrapment in inertia becomes suddenly not just one man's tragic tale but a larger comment on the connection between people. The Phantom may be choosing to trap himself in his underground world, but his friend likewise traps themself in their determination to aid (or simply change) him; despite the discomfort of being the Phantom's friend and the constant frustration and disappointment of his choices, the unnamed friend, too, falls prey to the same inertia. They could leave, but they don't, and furthermore know that they won't, just as the Phantom has always known he wouldn't.


In a tiny, 5-page portrait, Barthelme gives us a double tragedy. Is this a story about a man who, finally being offered the one thing that he craved above all others, doesn't have the courage to actually accept it? Or is it a story about a man who, offered what he once thought he wanted, discovers that the society full of cruelty that demands he change to suit its standards isn't worth doing so? The events of the novel are petty and peripheral, mere sturm und drang; the real struggle is here in the leaden uncertainty of day to day and the battle each person has to fight between what might be and what is unacceptable in pursuing it.

It's easy to make guesses about who the Phantom's friend is and how the story ties in to the original tale. The most obvious person to put into the role of the friend is Leroux's daroga, who knew the Phantom before the original tale began, followed him to Paris, and in many later adaptations is explicitly converted into his only friend in the world. The daroga is a policeman and his focus on changing and rehabilitating the Phantom, as well as his obvious familiarity with what went on in the previous story, would make sense; and the tragic end of this story is made even more tragic if you assume that the daroga's weary wait for the Phantom to emerge ends in the newspaper ad announcing his death. On the other hand, it could be any person not in the original story, and probably is - the previous story is a framework for Barthelme to use to talk about the issues he wants to raise, and bringing in canon characters is irrelevant to that.


Incidentally, the text mentions acid in a manner that seems to imply that the Phantom's disfigurement is a result of an accident involving the caustic substance.  When combined with a passing reference to Liszt, I wonder more than a little if Barthelme saw the Lubin/Rains film prior to writing this story.  It seems like a logical progression.


It's going to be really hard to top this story. Barthelme is a true master of the short story, and this one is emotionally ripe and compelling enough to be worth a reread again and again, regardless of how short it is.

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