I Bought a Little City

Donald Barthelme’s 1974 short story “I Bought a Little City” is a surreal and satirical take on the American Dream, consumerism, and the power dynamics of ownership. The story follows an unnamed narrator who, upon hearing that the city of Galveston, Texas, is up for sale, decides to purchase it on a whim.

From the beginning, the narrator’s motivations for buying the city are unclear. He speaks of wanting to “take possession” of something, to “own a piece of land” and to “have power over people.” He seems to view the city as a commodity, a product to be bought and sold like any other, and he revels in the sense of control and authority that ownership brings.

Once he has bought the city, the narrator sets about making radical changes to it. He tears down houses, shoots 6,000 dogs, and rearranges the remaining buildings and streets into a giant Mona Lisa jigsaw puzzle, visible only from the air. His actions are senseless and destructive, driven more by a desire to assert his dominance than by any coherent plan or vision.

The destruction of the houses and the mass killing of dogs are particularly shocking moments in the story, as they demonstrate the narrator’s callous disregard for the lives and property of others. The dogs, in particular, are innocent victims, and their deaths seem to serve no purpose other than to demonstrate the narrator’s power to do as he pleases.

The creation of the Mona Lisa puzzle is equally absurd, as it suggests a kind of artistic vision or creativity on the part of the narrator that is entirely absent from his other actions. The fact that the puzzle is visible only from the air further emphasizes the narrator’s desire to be seen and admired from a distance, rather than engaging with the city and its inhabitants on a human level.

Overall, “I Bought a Little City” is a biting critique of American consumerism and the power dynamics of ownership. The narrator’s actions are presented as absurd and destructive, revealing the emptiness and cruelty that can lie at the heart of the pursuit of wealth and status. At the same time, the story is a celebration of the power of the imagination, as the narrator’s surreal actions demonstrate the limitless possibilities of creative expression. In this sense, the story can be seen as a warning against the dangers of unchecked power, but also as a celebration of the potential for human creativity and ingenuity.

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