Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As seen from the previous discussion of theme, it is impossible to discuss theme apart from style and technique in the case of absurdist fiction. The vehicle becomes the message. In short, the view that life is essentially meaningless and incoherent is dramatized by a plot, characters, and actions that embody that vision. There is no gradually ascending series of events that leads to “an exciting climax and denouement,” but there is instead a kind of interior monologue that seems to end where it begins, static or circular in its movement. Even the tone of the story is mechanical and sterile, capturing the narrator’s announced feelings of sexual and creative impotence. The repetition of “et cetera” and the use of multiple narrators and stories within stories, all of which are replicas of the initial narrator and story, suggest life without variation, life that is dull, monotonous, and endlessly repetitious.

The essential technique of the story is the purposeful attack on traditional mimesis. The narrator’s cumbersome and painfully self-conscious manipulation of text focuses the reader’s attention on fiction as artifice, not as a reality fixed and determined by a Supreme Creator. Similarly, by establishing parallels between life and art as similar creative ventures, the narrator leads the reader to see, as he says, that “I’m an artifice,” author of his own life-story. By addressing the reader at numerous points, the narrator forces readers to become cocreators of his story, even further establishing the oneness of life and fiction.

Life-Story Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bowen, Zack R. A Reader’s Guide to John Barth. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Fogel, Stan, and Gordon Slethaug. Understanding John Barth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Harris, Charles B. Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Morrell, David. John Barth: An Introduction. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Schulz, Max F. The Muses of John Barth: Tradition and Metafiction from “Lost in the Funhouse” to “The Tidewater Tales.” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Scott, Steven D. The Gamefulness of American Postmodernism: John Barth and Louise Erdrich. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

Waldmeir, Joseph J., ed. Critical Essays on John Barth. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

Walkiewicz, E. P. John Barth. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Ziegler, Heide. John Barth. New York: Methuen, 1987.