Books: Social-Science Fiction

UNSPEAKABLE PRACTICES, UNNATURAL ACTS by Donald Barthelme. 170 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $4.95.

Donald Barthelme's game is best described as surrealist anthropology or perhaps social-science fiction. Literature today is overshadowed by audio-visual art forms that threaten to turn into total pinball-machine environments. But Barthelme, 37, continues to demonstrate that language can be a mixed-media production all by itself. He translates the chipped teacups, navel lint, prattle and random static of life into even rows of words that twitter, bong, flash and glow signals of exquisite distress.

These 15 scrupulously crafted stories, all...