Barth, John (Vol. 10)
Barth, John 1930–
Barth, an American novelist and short story writer, is a skillful parodist, satirizing language and literary style, the tools of his craft, as well as social and moral conventions. Fascinated with literary theory, Barth explores in his novels the complexities of myth and the traditional concept of the hero in literature. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Barth's] awareness of the right word and manipulations of "voice" are brilliant and sometimes devastating. Barth's wit—his word-play, his verbal parody, his subtle ridicule of everything pretentious, banal, ignorant, pedestrian—is clearly inseparable from his basic fictional impulses. The word "flabbergasting" is appropriate to Barth himself as fiction writer, but it is not appropriate to me as fiction writer. On the other hand, my own heavier cadences and "darker" voice—"coldness, ruthless determination to expose, ridicule, attack"—do not seem to me to be at all appropriate to Barth….
If Barth and I are not concerned with realism, not even with psychological realism, nonetheless we are both working with psychic substance or substance of the mind, are both starting with the materials of psychic or cerebral derangement in our efforts to arrive at "aesthetic bliss." Barth's imagination is in fact a kind of higher-fi system out of which he creates new landscapes of mental existence…. (p. 20)
[To] me Barth's desire to "re-invent the world" as opposed to my own desire to "create a world," means that he is a writer who perceives the threatening irrationality of total consciousness, whereas I am a writer who perceives the threatening "rationality" of the unconscious. Barth's total consciousness is comic nightmare, my sometimes comic nightmare creates its own frightening sense.
As soon as...
(The entire section is 1135 words.)
James F. Walter
The theme of interior disorder and illness caused by a division between human faculties which naturally complement each other in the act of knowing is, of course, a common one in Western literature; a certain vein of that literature, however, which extends to us from the satires of a Syrian Cynic named Menippus, takes this theme as its primary obsession. Thus we must place Giles Goat-Boy among the works of that vein, including The Satyricon, Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Praise of Folly, Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, and Tristram Shandy, in order to understand and evaluate it. Giles Goat-Boy is neither novel, tragedy, romance, or epic, nor is it a simple allegory; although it shares much with works in these traditional genres, it remains aloof from all of them, primarily through an extravagant spirit of parody which holds nothing sacred finally except the integrity of its hero's vision, arrived at through an epic glut of experience and ideas ranging across the vast spectrum of possibilities.
An essential characteristic differentiating the Menippean satire from the novel is its attempt to reach the extreme limits of human experience—physical and intellectual, farcical and serious, obscene and sacred, comic and tragic—at the same time…. Menippean satire aims at the tranquil stability in knowledge and experience possessed by "kindergarteners," but it is a stability to be enjoyed only on the far side of...
(The entire section is 1982 words.)
Robert Martin Adams
The sequence in [Lost in the Funhouse] leads us from the meditations of a sperm through the boyhood adventures of Ambrose to the mythical life history of an anonymous Homeric bard marooned on a desert island and forced to create a life-work out of his own life. From infancy through childhood, and then to the province of the mythical, Barth seems intent on writing large that wonderful sentence of Joyce's, "God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain." One thing is largely omitted, to be sure; that is the development of the individual sensibility. We leave Ambrose before he has become much more than a very embryonic artist; and what takes his place in the latter part of the book is simply the narrative process itself.
In playing the games of self-consciousness, Barth is in his own sportive element; he delights in sound-box, mirror, and echo effects, which turn every story into a wry questioning of its own processes. He raids an imaginary textbook on fiction for comments on the fiction that's being told, takes over the mind of a writer complaining about the process of writing, or enters into a story bewailing the mode of its own existence. His mythological fables are contaminated by an awareness that they are already mythological, but they are also cast, not just linguistically but motivationally, in the mode of the present. Most of Barth's mythological figures are in fact self-conscious writers,...
(The entire section is 864 words.)