But now, after the news of Barthelme’s death, this simple fact of presence or absence, which I had begun to recognize in a small way already, now became the single most important supplemental piece of information I felt I could know about a writer: more important than his age when he wrote a particular work, or his nationality, his sex (forgive the pronoun), political leanings, even whether he did or did not have, in someone’s opinion, any talent. Is he alive or dead? — just tell me that. The intellectual surface we offer to the dead has undergone a subtle change of texture and chemistry; a thousand particulars of delight and fellow-feeling and forbearance begin reformulating themselves the moment they cross the bar. The living are always potentially thinking about and doing just what we are doing: being pulled through a touchless car wash, watching a pony chew a carrot, noticing that orange scaffolding has gone up around some prominent church. The conclusions they draw we know to be conclusions drawn from how things are now. Indeed, for me, as a beginning novelist, all other living writers form a control group for whom the world is a placebo. The dead can be helpful, needless to say, but we can only guess sloppily about how they would react to this emergent particle of time, which is all the time we have. And when we do guess, we are unfair to them. Even when, as with Barthelme, the dead have died unexpectedly and relatively young, we give them their moment of solemnity and then quickly begin patronizing them biographically, talking about how they “delighted in” x or “poked fun at” y — phrases that by their very singsong cuteness betray how alien and childlike the shades now are to us. Posthumously their motives become ludicrously simple, their delights primitive and unvarying: all their emotions wear stage makeup, and we almost never flip their books across the room out of impatience with something they’ve said. We can’t really understand them anymore. Readers of the living are always, whether they know it or not, to some degree seeing the work through the living writer’s own eyes; feeling for him when he flubs, folding into their reactions to his early work constant subauditional speculations as to whether the writer himself would at this moment wince or nod with approval at some passage in it. But the dead can’t suffer embarrassment by some admission or mistake they have made. We sense this imperviousness and adjust our sympathies accordingly.
Yet in other ways the dead gain by death. The level of autobiographical fidelity in their work is somehow less important, or, rather, extreme fidelity does not seem to harm, as it does with the living, our appreciation for the work. The living are “just” writing about their own lives; the dead are writing about their irretrievable lives, wow wow wow. Egotism, monomania, the delusional traits of Blake or Smart or that guy who painted the electrically schizophrenic cats are all engaging qualities in the dead.