John Barth


While I was attending Michigan State University during the 1960s, I was introduced to a wide variety of contemporary writers whom I hadn’t sampled before.  By then I had read most of the classics – from Dickens to Hemingway – but I was completely out of touch with current mainstream fiction.  I had never heard of John Barth, but since “everybody” was reading The Sot-Weed Factor at the time, I did so as well, and that led me to track down his first two novels. 

The Floating Opera (1956) is in many ways a depressing book. It is written in the first person by a character who is retroactively trying to explain why he didn’t commit suicide many years earlier.  The original ending was deemed too depressing and the publisher forced Barth to change it, although his later success resulted in a restored edition.  Todd Andrews is the ultimate cynic.  As his story unfolds, it is evident that he feels no emotional attachment to anyone.  At times he believes this to be a fault and manufactures artificial feelings, but that’s as far as it goes.  His philosophy, which evolves during the course of the narration, is essentially that there is no such thing as intrinsic value, that everything is arbitrary, and therefore it doesn’t matter whether or not he commits suicide because both choices are equally valid. 

Jacob Horner, protagonist of End of the Road (1958), shares many of the same traits.  He becomes involved in an adulterous affair with the wife of one of his fellow faculty members, with the husband’s full knowledge, and their odd ménage a trios continues for some time even though none of them can properly articulate their feelings.  Horner also feels abstracted from the real world, and disconnected from any system of values, much like Todd Andrews, although Horner regrets his inability to feel strongly.  The subsidiary characters are much more interesting this time, and some of their arguments are darkly humorous, although the novel itself is a protracted tragedy. 

The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) took some of those same elements but used them in an entirely different way.  The story is set during the 17th Century.  Ebenezer Cooke is the son of a well-to-do British gentleman who owns property in the Maryland colony in the New World.  Ebenezer and his sister are tutored by Henry Burlingame until his sudden dismissal while they are in their late teens.  Ebenezer is sent off to boarding school, where he finds it difficult to form a bond between himself and his environment, eventually retreating into poetry.  He is also afflicted by an extreme form of indecisiveness in which he is literally frozen in place, some times for hours on end, incapable of making a decision.  His abstraction from the world is reminiscent of Jacob Horner and Todd Andrews, although exaggerated even further. 

The plot grows rapidly more complicated.  Ebenezer is apprenticed in London, where he fails to prosper.  He becomes infatuated with a prostitute, despite his own militant virginity; his poor prospects are then conveyed to his father, who ships him off to the family holdings in the colonies.  Ebenezer decides to request a commission from Lord Calvert, governor of Maryland, to become its official Poet Laureate, believes that he has been awarded that honor, and sets out for the new world.  In the course of that journey, he rediscovers Henry Burlingame, who has taken on another identity, is kidnapped by pirates, walks the plank, and eventually reaches land. 

The complexity and twisted humor that ensue cannot be adequately described in a few words.  Secret identities are revealed, coincidences flourish, absurd situations follow in rapid sequence.  Ebenezer is honored and disgraced, is captured by angry natives and threatened with death.  He discovers pieces of a secret journal of the adventures of John Smith and Pocahontas, and helps Henry Burlingame discover the truth about his own origins.  There is considerable bawdy content, much of it surrounding the mysterious process by which John Smith managed to sexually satisfy Pocahontas. The combination of ribaldry, witticism, and cynicism, laid over a plot that contains numerous reversals, startling revelations, and comically exaggerated characters, was certain to appeal to college students of the time, who might well have identified with Ebenezer’s difficulty making important decisions.   This was, after all, the time when the Vietnam War had become a major topic on campuses. 

Barth’s next novel was Giles Goat-Boy (1966), which crossed the border into satirical SF.  The book opens with a fictional introduction, supposedly a debate among editors arguing whether or not the book should be published.  Some of the commentary there applies even more today than it did at the time.  Editor A wishes it to be known that the book is too revolutionary to be proper, that rebellious books “..rebel along traditional lines, shock us in customary ways..”  A cover letter then established the conceit that the manuscript was actually produced by WESCAC, a computer at the heart of a university which stands in for the world at large.  The narrative is the biography of Giles Stoker, or perhaps Stoker Giles, who until he was fourteen believed himself to be a goat, went about on all fours, and mated with the does in his flock.  What follows is an elaborate satire in which East Campus and West Campus stand in for the Communist Bloc and the West, WESCAC represents nuclear weapons, and so forth, most of it quite clever. 

When I first read this back in the 1960s, I liked it as well or better than The Sot-Weed Factor, but this time there was no comparison.  Clever and witty, the highly complex prose is mixed with puns, metaphors, and hyperbole, but after the first couple of hundred pages, I felt as though Barth had made and remade his points too often.  Some of the goat-boys adventures are hilarious, some clever, some delightfully ribald, but too often they are interspersed with overly long lectures that might stand well individually, but which broke up the pace of the story, and were frequently repetitious.  It was still absorbing enough to hold my interest for over seven hundred pages, but it was clearly not as tightly constructed and successful as a novel as had been its immediate predecessor.  Or maybe I’ve just gotten old and crotchety. 

Next up is Lost in the Funhouse (1968), a collection of shorter pieces which opens, after a humorous introduction, with “Night Sea Crossing”, a parable about human and religion told from the point of view of a fish who questions the purpose of swimming, particularly when its ultimate goal, the Shore (Heaven), may not even exist.  Like the protagonist of The Floating Opera, our fish can see no real difference between living and dying.  “Ours not to stop and think, ours but to swim and sink.”  Cute, but not really a story.  This is followed by the first of the Ambrose stories, “Ambrose His Mark”, which is narrated, sort of, from the point of view of an infant, though supposedly from stories he learned later in life.  It’s a pretty funny piece about a rivalry for a swarm of bees, nursing in public, and the unforeseen consequences.  “Autobiography”, another very short piece, continues the string of odd narrators with a discorporate entity’s self portrait. 

“Water Message” takes up Ambrose’s story years later, and portrays quite effectively the many ways in which children create fantasy worlds for themselves.  Parts of this reminded me of some of the best of Steven King’s childhood stuff, with a more literary twist.  “Petition” is a striking story about a pair of Siamese twins jointed so that one is essentially riding the other’s back, mute, unable to assert himself.  There’s some refreshingly dark humor here.  It serves to introduce the title story, the third involving Ambrose, this time on the brink of sexual awakening.  He and his family and a young girl venture into a carnival with unexpected results.  Barth manages to mix humor and the mini-tragedy of frustrated youth so that both elements work.  The narrative is interspersed with brief discussions of literary devices and techniques, which sounds awkward but which works surprisingly well in this context.  He repeats this in some of the other stories, but never as effectively or as frequently. 

The next four pieces are very minor, but they’re followed by “Life-Story”, in which an author decides that he is a character in one of his own stories and who subsequently berates the readers for their perceived flaws.  This self-referential quality is a reflection of a similar device in “Lost in the Funhouse”, further developed in this case.  The collection ends with two stories that are sort of about ancient Greece and Troy.  The first uses multiply nested quotations to describe layers of storytelling.  It’s cleverly done but more interesting as an exercise than as fiction. 

Chimera (1972) is also technically a collection, three loosely related tales based in large part upon legends.  The first “Dunyazadiad” is a retelling of the frame story from the Arabian Night, with Scheherazade preserving her life and that of her sister Dunyazade by telling the tyrannical ruler half of an intriguing tale each night, delaying her death until the story is concluded.  She and her sister manage to conjure up a Genie, actually a writer from our world who is intended to be a quasi-John Barth who, self-referentially, is engaged in due course upon the writing of Chimera.  The writer promises to help out Scheherazade by telling her the stories each day which she will need during that evening.  Although she is somewhat disconcerted, if not insulted, when he refuses to accept her sexual favors as recompense, she agrees to the plan.  Their conversations are replete with sexual innuendoes and anachronisms, but this is, of course, not meant to be a serious narrative. 

Eventually the 1001st night arrives and the Genie tells the sisters that they will live happily ever after, but Scheherazade has never actually learned to love the man who slaughtered a thousand virgins before she tricked him.  In fact, she views even voluntary marriage as a form of slavery for the woman, and she has no intention of submitting, or allowing her sister to submit, to the attentions of evil men.  The sisters plot the murder of their husbands to be, but in part their roles are reversed.   The ambiguous ending is appropriate and the story itself is beautifully written. 

Part two is “Perseid”, which runs considerably longer, perhaps too long.  The first half is very entertaining, which tells us of Perseus after he has slain Medusa and married the fair maiden.  They decidedly do not live happily ever after and poor Perseus spends much of his time regretting the loss of his days of greatness.  Unfortunately, Barth’s usual tricks begin to wear a bit thin this time, the use of anachronistic dialogue, sometimes clever sexual innuendoes, self referential allusions, digressions into commentary on literary forms, and a depth of hinted detail about Greek legends that begins to feel like intellectual bragging.  A profound cynicism about marriage – evident in his earlier books as well – pervades the story, as well as his observations that heroism is a passing quality, that heroic acts might well have been performed by inadequate men.    “No man’s a mythic hero to his wife.”  The encounters with a reconstituted Medusa are very entertaining; the concluding Shakespearian slaughter less so.  The final and longest section, “Bellerophoniad”, is even more convoluted and self indulgent, and the charming bits are so widely separated that I found it a bit of a chore to finish.   

It was quite a while before Barth wrote his next, the extremely self-indulgent Letters (1979), an epistolary novel consisting of letters among several of a large cast of characters, many of whom are drawn from his first four novels, or are descended from characters in The Sot-Weed Factor.  Another is a moderately successful writer named John Barth.  Several of these characters are cleverly drawn, however, including the businessman who believes he is George III, but George III after the onset of insanity.  He therefore believes that his delusion is his actual life, and therefore functions normally. Other characters are enigmatic including one who must might be a giant insect. 

The early plot, if that’s the right word, involves a political struggle over the presentation of an honorary degree at a small, pretentious southern college.  The correspondence between “Barth” and Lady Amherst leads to his inviting her to become a character in his next novel, Letters, to which she ambivalently agrees.  She, it appears, has at least met most of the most significant authors of the late 20th Century, and slept with most of them.  This is probably the closest thing to a plot in the usual sense, an ongoing struggle to keep the honor from going to a politically reactionary poet, who is descended from Henry Burlingame.  The most interesting segments are this and some retroactive, revisionist American history featuring Benedict Arnold, Aaron Burr, and others.  Despite the lack of a clear story line, the book flows remarkably well, simply because Barth’s prose is so intricate and witty, but by the end, there is the inescapable feeling that without focus, it’s a remarkable but ultimately unsatisfying piece of fiction. 

Sabbatical (1982) is a much more accessible novel.  Married couple Fenwick Turner and Susan Seckler are returning to shore after a near disaster in their sailboat.  This is the frame from which we see flashbacks of Fenwick’s first marriage, a disastrous affair when he thought he was going to be a novelist and other incidents from their past.  The prose avoids most of the self conscious devices of the previous two novels, although there are numerous footnotes and occasional passages in which the characters seem to be addressing their lives as a work of fiction. 

The early stages of the novel in fact feel much like a conventional thriller.  They anchor for a day and two nights near mysterious Key Island, from which they are heckled and later shot at.  The sinister events there do not at first appear to be related to the recent disappearances of CIA operatives, one of whom is Fenwick’s twin brother, and the death of another, ruled a suicide but very suspicious indeed.  Fenwick himself worked for the CIA, then wrote an expose for which he is held in low regard by his former employees.  Susan, who wonders if his recent heart attack was artificially induced.  The book is, of course, an indictment not specifically of the CIA but of the tendency by governments, including our own, to initiate vile acts against the citizens of other countries, ostensibly to protect the interests of our respective peoples, but frequently to protect the interests of vested politicians or interested corporations.   

Unfortunately, about one third of the way into the novel, the story begins to drift more randomly than their boat.  The narrative meanders, nothing much happens, and the cleverly devised prose becomes self conscious and occasionally bland.  It’s almost as though the author realized at the midpoint that he was producing just another literary protest against the excesses of the CIA and switched modes to create distance between the two halves. 

The Tidewater Tales (1987) has even less of an overt plot.  The protagonists are a writer who has contracted a perhaps terminal case of writer’s block and his very pregnant wife.  They take a cruise during which she taxes him with telling a story that parallels their own lives, which he undertakes to do, revealing much about the two of them.  During the course of this exercise, Barth draws upon several literary classics, including Huckleberry Finn.  Although it tended to wander a bit far at times, I thought this one was technically better and certainly more coherent. 

Barth’s next novel was much better and more consistently entertaining.  The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991) is technically a fantasy, although not in intent.  The frame story involves a man from our time who somehow travels back to the days of Sinbad and visits him just as the famous sailor is preparing for his seventh and presumably last voyage.  The frame, which is reminiscent of Chimera, contains some of the same literary devices that characterized Barth’s previous novels, but they are more restrained and the narrative is smoother and simpler.  Sinbad and his guest, Somebody, both begin regaling the other guests with stories of their voyages.  Sinbad is unabashedly exaggerating and adding fantastic elements just to be entertaining.  Somebody, actually Samuel Behler, responds with less melodramatic but no less dramatic events from his own life, matching each of these “journeys” with those of his host.  Since his world is so alien from his, they find his stories even more bizarre than tales of monsters and shipwrecks.   Behler takes the name Somebody the Sailor, because his father always wanted him to make “somebody” of himself.  Behler, incidentally, is a failed SF writer, and Barth’s unfamiliarity with the field is apparent.    

Somebody’s journeys are not so much physical processes as events in his life which caused a change of direction.  His early fascination with aircraft and determination to become a pilot ends when, as a child, he is taken up for a flight and discovers that the process is more mundane than magical.  He has his first intense sexual experience on another birthday, the same day that his brother is reported missing in combat, and his relationship with a girl his own age is one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.  The third voyage is another birthday, many years later.  He and his wife (not the same woman) are barely speaking even years after she discovers his momentary infidelity, and their grown daughter functions as a kind of intermediary.  During a voyage with his brother (who was not lost after all) and his wife, he undergoes another transformation, related in part to his wife’s apparent attempt to murder her and make it look like a boating accident. 

Behler’s fourth voyage is with his new lover, following his divorce, the younger sister of his childhood sweetheart.  A boating accident separates them and when Behler is pulled from the water, he finds himself in another place and time, captured by pirates who have abducted Sinbad’s daughter.  The frame story becomes the central story from this point onward, and becomes a much more conventional narrative as well, and this is in fact his fifth voyage.  As with Sabbatical, however, the novel seems to lose its way in the waning chapters, ending with Behler returned to his own time, a sadder but wiser man.   

Once Upon a Time (1994) was the Barth novel I liked the least.  It’s a fictional memoir, that is, the protagonist is John Barth and many of the events are reminiscences about real events in his life, but we don’t know which is which.  The framework is a sailing trip similar in some ways to the one in Sabbatical, but this time the narrative flits from subject to subject, occasionally clear cut and entertaining, more often obscure and almost unfocused.  It was a struggle to get through some parts and the others were so good in contrast that it made the next slow section even more difficult to endure.  Barth’s command of language is still obvious, but he seems to have written this book more for himself than for his audience. 

On With the Story (1996) is ostensibly a collection of short stories, but as with most of Barth’s work, it’s not quite that simple.  There’s a kind of a frame story, and the stories themselves are rarely traditional, and usually self referential.  Barth’s discussions of the mechanics of the story are often more interesting than the stories themselves.  The first one, for example, is simply a lengthy, rambling introduction of a fictional author who is analogous to Salman Rushdie, living in hiding and making unannounced, guarded public appearances.  The second, “Ad Infinitum”, describes the receipt of bad news via telephone in terms of Zeno’s paradox about infinitely divisible time.  “And Then One Day…” deals with a successful author whose elderly father has recently died.  The early part of the story considers the structure of fiction, using a typical fantasy or fairy tale plot as a model.  She begins to apply the same principles to an analysis of her own life.  One of Barth’s best short pieces.              “Preparing for the Storm” is exactly what the title suggests, three neighbors preparing for a hurricane.  Interwoven with the obvious is a subtle byplay, the attraction of the narrator to one of his neighbors, the difficulties in making connections even when they seem obvious. 

The title story continues the theme that real life is also a story.  A middle aged woman facing divorce reads a short story that is eerily reminiscent of her own situation, even to the physical location.   Some years ago I was reading a thriller by mystery writer Michael Slade, Canadian, in which his protagonist visited Providence, where I was sitting waiting to have my hair cut at the time, and he wandered into a local club that was visible from where I was sitting.  So this story resonated with me.  Anyway, some of the devices in the story within the story are then applied to the story itself.  Confused?  It’s actually not, but it’s hard to describe and extremely readable.  “Love Explained” is a rather minor vignette, followed by “’Waves’ by Amien Richard’”.  This one bears some semblance to “On With the Story”, which pondered whether we are always at rest or always in motion, this time speculating whether people are particles or waves.  Amien Richard is the joint pseudonym of a husband and wife writing team who have reached a rough spot in their relationship, which we eventually learn is the result of the accidental death of their child. 

“Stories of Our Lives” reinforces the theme, illustrating the frustrations people feel about the shape their lives have taken and their occasional efforts to revise the plot.  “Closing out the Visit” and “Goodbye to the Fruits” didn’t do much for me; they’re short but too unfocused.  “Ever After” is a more effective and entertaining look at human relationships.  Finally, “Once Upon a Time”, which is more of a lively essay than a story, but Barth’s dissection of the devices of storytelling is fascinating.  Overall a very good collection although the running theme of stories as lives feels a bit self indulgent in the latter half of the book. 

Barth’s most recent novel is Coming Soon!!! (2001), another one set in the Chesapeake Bay area.  It also repeats the self referential themes and poses as a novel submitted by a student with whom Barth is familiar and since it deals in part with a showboat (the same showboat that inspired The Floating Opera) he is predisposed to like the student’s work.  But not everything is as it seems.  Perhaps Barth is a character in the student’s book as well.  The narrative alternates between straightforward and surreal as portions are meant to simulate a hypertext novel.  There are moments that are very funny and there are others that are quite moving, but as a whole, this one just fell apart for me.  It’s less a novel than it is a commentary on the novel, on writing in general, and in Barth’s preoccupations with word play.  

His last (to date) two books have been short story collections.  Ten Nights and a Night appeared in 2001 and Where Three Roads Meet in 2005.   The former has framing text which once again play with language, are self referential, and sometimes clever, but for me Barth has gone to this well too many times without changing his bucket.  The individual stories are much better.  Barth’s progression away from narrative structures in his short fiction is as pronounced as ever and most of these are essential portrait pieces in which little, if anything, happens.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t a pleasure to read, and some of them are quite impressive. 

The first collection opens with a minor piece about an aging man, followed by “The Ring”, which follows the consequences of the discovery of a lost wedding ring at a beach.  “Dead Cat, Floating Boy” is a rambling but still excellent story that should be avoided by cat lovers.  “A Detective and a Turtle” continues the flow of well written but unmemorable stories, with a slight lift in “The Rest of Your Life”, a more interesting piece about a computer fault that leads the protagonist to investigate one day in 1956.    “The Big Shrink” is the best in the book, dealing with the distances (metaphorically speaking) we place between ourselves and others. “And Then There’s the One” is also pretty good, the protagonist in this case ruminating about the reasons leading to his teenaged granddaughter announcing she has no intention of ever bearing a child.  "Click" flirts with science fiction but chooses surrealism instead, the story of a couple's strange interaction with their PC.  

The second collection only contains three stories.  The title refers to the Latin word "trivium", a junction of three roads and the source for our word "trivia".   "Tell Me", the first story, is Barth at his very best, reprising some of the themes from his first two novels, but delivering them much more effectively.  The story deals with a trio of college aged people whose mixture of sex, art, and conviviality reaches an unforeseen conclusion.  The remaining two stories are less linear, though loosely related to the first.  "I've Been Told" struck me as kind of flat, but the concluding "As I Was Saying..." is nearly as good as the first.  Barth's later fiction is, I think, too often a reworking of themes he'd already mined quite thoroughly.  The self referential material is amusing at first, distracting after a while, and ultimately annoying.  At his best, he is one of the most impressive writers of the 20th Century, and even at his worst, he's thought provoking.