Barth, John (Vol. 14)
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, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
It is striking … to see how much Barth's fiction has been moving toward the fulfillment of an idea—the idea being the repudiation of narrative art…. That is the paradox of Barth's novels: they are about paralysis, they seem even to affirm paralysis, yet they have more narrative energy than they know what to do with. (pp. 95-6)
Each [of Barth's four first novels] is generally longer, wilder, more ambitious, more outrageous than its predecessor, and at the core of each is a greater nihilism…. Nihilism is merely a quirk of character in The Floating Opera and End of the Road; it is not much more than a setting for comedy, a device for irony. But nihilism is what The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy come to. It is the moral, meaning, and upshot of experience in these novels, and it is embedded in their very form. The Sot-Weed Factor, disguised as an eighteenth-century novel, is really a radical definition of the novel of the twentieth century. Giles Goat-Boy, disguised as cosmic allegory, keeps undercutting its own allegorical premises by denying the possibility of meaning, identity, and answers in a world in which these things are always shifting, masked, and unattainable. The deeper nihilism of [these] … novels comes from their proclaiming not so much the impossibility of life but the impossibility of narrative.
All this talk about nihilism suggests the greatest...
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For a dozen years I have been trying to read The Sot-Weed Factor. I have never entirely completed this astonishingly dull book but I have read most of John Barth's published work and I feel that I have done him, I hope, justice. There is a black cloth on my head as I write.
First, it should be noted that Barth … is a professional schoolteacher. He is a professor of English and Creative Writing. He is extremely knowledgeable about what is going on in R and D [Research and Development] land and he is certainly eager to make his contribution. (p. 111)
The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958) are two novels of a kind and that kind is strictly R and R [Rest and Recuperation], and fairly superior R and R at that…. [The Floating Opera] is written in first person demotic (Eastern shore of Maryland, Barth's place of origin). The style is garrulous but not unattractive….
Certainly Barth began as an old-fashioned writer who wanted us to know all about the adulteries, money-hassling, and boozing on what sounded like a very real Eastern Shore of a very real Maryland…. (p. 112)
In 1960 Barth published The Sot-Weed Factor…. I am usually quick, even eager, to respond to the outrageously funny, the villainously slanderous [as The New York Times Book Review called his book]…. But as I read on and on, I could not so much as...
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Linda A. Westervelt
Toward the beginning of his confession, the narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground writes, "I am firmly convinced not only that a great deal of consciousness, but that any consciousness is a disease." John Barth, among other recent writers who deal with the theme of identity in the tradition of Dostoevsky, takes the inner division that results from self-consciousness and, by metaphoric extension, makes it a resource—namely, the subject of his fiction. Then, he forces the reader to experience self-consciousness by making him as aware of his role as reader as Barth is of his role as writer. The reader engages in a dialogue with a series of narrators, with reader and narrator consciously dependent upon one another. In challenging himself to sport with, to create a "game" out of this situation, Barth on the one hand educates his reader to confront the problem of self-consciousness, at the same time that he challenges himself to play an exemplary game with such a created reader. Writing innovative fiction of artifice, he attempts to create a reader who, if he appreciates the story first, comes also to enjoy the "good clean fun" of the verbal and technical "circus tricks." Thus, he educates a reader capable of engaging in virtuoso reading.
In spite of the Barth-like Genie's claim in Chimera that the relationship between "teller" and "told" is a "love-relation, not a rape," Barth does not, as might be expected, always...
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JOE WEIXLMANN and SHER WEIXLMANN
[Barth's aesthetic] embodies a conscious attempt to go beyond Joyce—by going backwards. Like the protagonist of his "Perseid," who must return to Joppa, the scene of his youthful heroics, if he is to go forward with his life, Barth roots his strategy in the Shakespearean realization that fiction is "a kind of true representation of the distortion we all make of life." It is crucial, he feels, to attempt to deal with the discrepancy between art and Reality, and he finds that the most effective way to do so is "to acknowledge right off the bat 'this is artifice'—which, of course, is among other things a sly way of getting around the artifice. It's an old gambit,… particularly popular in Renaissance drama: life is a play, the world's a theatre, existence is a dream, etc., etc." He reasons that "… by continually rubbing the audience's nose in the artificial aspect of what you're doing, you're really deliberately confusing the issue you're pretending to clarify, transcending the artifice by insisting on it." Barth's primary vehicle for putting this strategy into practice is his extremely baroque plotting. (p. 193)
Barth's novella ["Perseid"] is elaborately framed and sports an intricate plot. Relying on various accounts of the Perseus myth, Barth retells the story and extends it by reinterpreting certain actions of the original and by inventing a second quest which Perseus undertakes during middle age and which results in his...
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Much of John Barth's fiction arises out of his scrupulous, exacting, sometimes excruciating, consideration of his own position as a Novelist writing Now. The state of fiction is as much on his mind, if not more, than the state of America or the world; indeed he would probably argue that to be deeply concerned with the former is only another way of being deeply concerned about the latter. (p. 1)
As he writes in Letters: "I am by temperament a fabricator, not a drawer-from-life." This, of course, begs all kinds of big questions, and Barth is very adept at teasing and drawing fiction, or fabrication, out of just such begged-questions. But it does pose a problem. If Barth wants to avoid "obscure pretension" and "cynical commercialism" what … is he to write about? And in what way?
In Letters we have the answer. He will write about all his own novels and the characters therein; he will bring those characters together in bizarre, unexpected and complex—not to say ambiguous—relationships; he will intertwine the plots of their lives with amazing dexterity (and at times almost perverse obliquity); mixed in with those plots he will introduce many of the plots which were involved in the history of the first 40-odd years of the American republic and in turn intertwine those with some of the plots … which are active in contemporary America. "Revolution," in every sense, is a theme of the book, along with the...
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[John Barth's] first novel since Giles Goat-Boy (1966) is, as publishers like to say, an event. Letters … is a big event, almost half a million words, 864 pages, seven years in its making….
Be forewarned, then: Here is yet another fiction whose principal purpose is to regard itself, to finger (seldom lovingly, often contemptuously) its own artifices, to play the venerable modernist game of Seems and Is. In keeping with his preoccupation with what he has called "exhausted" literary forms, the "used-upness" of, say, the picaresque novel, which he exploited and parodied in The Sot-Weed Factor, Barth has chosen to fabricate an epistolary novel.
Barth's Letters is nothing if not implausible. Five of its seven correspondents are characters or the descendants of characters from Barth's previous fictions…. A sixth character is called "the Author" or "John Barth."…
The "John Barth" of Letters is an autobiographical fragment, or figment…. Letters is coyly referential; I cannot imagine a reader ignorant of Barth's previous fictions able to comprehend it or willing to bull through it. Barth's courage and stamina are not in question….
Loyalty to Letters demanded a daunting complexity of plot and time….
Barth has been attracted, sometimes harmfully, by the schematic. The Rube Goldberg fictional devices of Giles...
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In a novel [Letters] that takes many risks, the identity of the correspondents is the biggest risk of all. They are all figures from Barth's previous fiction…. [Even] though the letters generate their own energy and the correspondents develop their own lives, the choice of the correspondents still retains a coterie effect…. The device does, to be sure, expand two conceits which, now and then, enter the minds of all readers of fiction. The first is that playful act in which one rearranges characters, placing Becky Sharp in Swann's Way or Huckleberry Finn in The Wings of the Dove. Barth's fictions are very different from one another; and thus characters from each of them, placed in the same work, make a collage which is startling and amusing. The second conceit is that equally playful act in which one imagines the lives of characters after the book is finished…. And here too, Barth's choice allows him an eccentric excursion into the implicit sequels of his characters' lives. Two more significant effects of such a choice, however, are the exercise they permit Barth with the fictive and the real (characters ingratiate their way into the book, or deny any interest in becoming a part of the book, all of this in letters to Barth, an author then living in Buffalo, the fictional invention of an author, named Barth, then living in Buffalo), and the exercise they permit Barth with history, which is, ultimately, the "subject" of the...
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[In Letters, the] subplots, counterplots, and crossplots … exfoliate maddeningly and impinge even more maddeningly upon one another. Its language ranges from the disconcertingly flat and factual to the disconcertingly baroque, from drab to lunatic-ornate. And when it is not tracing insane patterns of coincidence and repetition—patterns almost as insane, indeed, as those of "real life"—the story is variously lubricous, violent, and macabre: rape, murder, suicide, arson, pillage, incest, and cancer are among the prominent and structurally supporting gargoyles of Barth's design….
[Everything] is—deliberately—"wrong" with Letters that is "wrong" with that most ancient, most shaky, and most cherished of human defenses against the void: fiction itself. Between the bloodless abstractions of reason and the bloody compulsions of passion we live out our single lives and the life of the species, and we make up stories, invent mythologies, to explain and heal the real, the infinitely recapitulated Fall of Man, the fissure of head and heart. Barth has always known this, and has explored its tragicomic implications in six brilliant previous books….
But in Letters he rehearses and realizes, more brilliantly than ever before, the essential and humanizing paradoxes of fiction….
[As Barth has] always understood and articulated, you can't begin to think about the future until you...
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[The author of Letters manages] to keep a sober promise he makes early on, namely that "the several narratives will become one." He brings it off by framing the individual narratives in a film production, an attempt by a moviemaker to create a screen version not of one of his books but of all of them, including those still unwritten. (p. 91)
Midway in Letters, Barth reproduces a patch of his own correspondence in which he asserts that the book "will not be obscure, difficult, or dense in the Modernist fashion." And he adds that, while "it will hazard the resurrection of characters from my previous fiction … as well as extending the fictions themselves, [it] will not presume, on the reader's part, familiarity with those fictions, which I cannot myself remember in detail." I'm sorry to report that there's some self-deception in these observations. Ambiguities of identity in the chief characters, the irrelevance of whole chapters of historical matter to what the nonspecialist reader must regard as the narrative main line, the author's near obsession with historical and linguistic correspondences, doublings, and layerings—these combine to produce extreme difficulty. And if it is true that Barth doesn't expect his reader to know his previous books, it is no less true that readers ignorant of them are bound to be mystified often….
Is it really worth bothering? Yes and no, leaning yesward. Besides...
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John Barth has seen art as the world "elsewhere," the better world where nothing disappears. Letters is his billet doux to literature and his plea to his own creations to return the gift of life…. Barth attempts a kind of self-renewal through retrieving and repossessing his fictional offspring and his youth as a writer. Wading through the plots and people of his past novels, Barth seems to search for some fresh emotion. Although he fails to find it, his search is itself a wily and powerful statement of Letters's best subject: aesthetic ambition.
Of our contemporaries, only Barth has looked to art for the key to life. In the past, his characters have outwitted even suicidal despair by seeing themselves as storytellers, by weaving fictions that conceal their troubles. They seem to find the magic words, the abracadabras, that permit them not to distinguish style from lifestyle. The logic of sentences seems to refute mental chaos, syntax helps collapsing personalities cohere, and parody operates as a force for order for characters who become only witty voices….
In Letters, Barth opens up the dark side of formalism. No virtuosity can redeem some of his characters from chaos and collapse. Their obsessional need to pattern life verbally exemplifies and embodies their derangement. The book abounds in "patterns" based on the repetition of numbers, word games, alphabet tricks, and anacrostics...
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