John Barth Barth, John (Simmons) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John (Simmons) Barth 1930–

American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Barth is a major practitioner of the postmodern literary movement known as metafiction. Many of his works may be seen as studies of how fiction is created and how the reader and the text interact. Barth's approach to writing derives from his belief that the traditional novel is unsatisfactory. In his essay "The Literature of Exhaustion" (1967), published in The Atlantic Monthly, he describes the new writer as one who "confronts an intellectual dead end and employs it against itself to accomplish new work."

In his search for new fictional modes, Barth utilizes and parodies traditional forms such as the epic and the epistolary novel. Although the structure of his work varies, there are several common elements: the "protean fictionalizers" or narrators with whom Barth identifies; the black humor, often bawdily overstated; the negative diagnosis of the plight of modern man; the blurring of past and present; and the use of sex as a symbol of human vitality. The settings of Barth's novels range from seventeenth-century Maryland in The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), to a modern-day university in Giles Goat Boy or, the Revised New Syllabus (1966). His main consideration always is how individuals can learn to deal with reality.

Experimentation characterizes all of Barth's work, including his collections of short fiction. Only three of the stories in Lost in the Funhouse (1968) are traditional in form; in the others Barth seeks alternatives to conventional writing and the stories become fantastic creations continually changing shape. In the three novellas of Chimera (1972), Barth makes new use of Arabic, Greek, and Roman mythology to show that myth permeates everyday life.

In his recent novels, Letters (1979) and Sabbatical (1982), Barth again utilizes imaginative techniques. Letters incorporates the main characters from his previous works, adding only one new one who becomes the point where the narrative threads meet. In Sabbatical Barth gives his two main characters more attention and illumination than he has since his early works. Here the metafictional qualities of his work are most apparent, for his two main characters are in the process of writing the book which the reader is reading.

Throughout his career, critics have been divided in their estimations of Barth. While some feel he is pretentious, others praise his verbal agility and his courage to experiment with new forms.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.)

Charles Trueheart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whether or not we are ever so rewarded, most of us believe we deserve a sabbatical, a time outside the scheme of our lives to rest and ruminate, to reckon how far we have come and, if we're lucky, to recognize where we must go. That's the theory, anyway. It is also the earnest hope of Fenwick Scott Key Turner, 50, and Susan Rachel Allan Seckler, 35, in their seventh year of marriage and in John Barth's seventh work of fiction [Sabbatical], as they cut loose on a year's cruise from their native Chesapeake Bay to the Yucatan and the West Indies and home again.

These two are no idle dreamers, for whom forced indolence would be unnecessary. Fenn, as he's called, is a career CIA officer some years lapsed; in the time since his retirement from active duty he has tried to make peace with himself, if not with the agency, by publishing a devastating exposé of its clandestine services division, one of several such tell-alls to appear in the 1970s. Now he is contemplating his next move. A novel? A professorship? An eternity of sailing?

So too is Susan contemplating her future. She teaches English at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and carries with her an offer to join the faculty of Swarthmore at sabbatical's end. She also carries a disconcerting urge to bear children before her biological clock runs out. Such are the competing possibilities Fenn and Susan entertain at sea….

Sabbatical purports to be their running notes, recorded during the last weeks of spring, 1980, as their 33-foot sailboat Pokey tacks and reaches its way from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, island by island, toward home. The exact location and nature of "home," to be sure, is one of those vexing uncertainties the narrative entertains.

Although the novel is no retrogression, stylistically or thematically, for Barth, it does respect those rudiments of storytelling Barth has been willing to sacrifice of late. He attends to characters and the illumination of their drama more scrupulously and straightforwardly than in anything he has written since his first pair of novels, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road. As a consequence, Sabbatical lodges itself firmly in our imaginations and memories—and it is a pleasure to read besides.

A significant pleasure is the one the lovers share. Life aboard Pokey is heaven on … well, not even on...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)

James Wolcott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After the slow-grinding, interlocking minutiae of Letters, John Barth may have thought that his readers deserved a breather, and he's given them one: Sabbatical. Set largely on a sailboat nosing along the chops of the Chesapeake Bay, Sabbatical is a chummily facetious scribble about a former CIA officer and his sweetie and all the weird, wacky things that happen to them "twixt stern and starboard." Like other Barth novels, this one ladles on the Maryland lore: the tweeting couple is named Fenwick Scott Key Turner and Susan Seckler (nicknamed "Black-Eyed Susan," after the Maryland state flower), and their sailboat is dubbed Pokey, in honor of those two Baltimore legends Francis Scott Key and Edgar Allan Poe. A comical twosome, Fenwick and Susie trade teasing wisecracks like a nautical Sonny and Cher, announcing flashbacks and flash-forwards, unfurling digressive reminiscences, bringing chapters to a close as if cutting to a commercial. (p. 16)

As their voices crisscross on the page, the novel seems to be broadcasting in stereo, with static crackling from each speaker. The static is set off by the noisy busyness of Barth's language: the clever-boots names (Eastwood Ho, Edgar Allan Ho), the sudden bursts of alliteration ("bald, brown, bearded, barrelchested" is how Barth describes Fenwick, while Susan is "sunburnt, sharp, and shapely"), the clickety-clack interior rhymes of—well, this: "Fenwick steadies the tiller in the crack of his ass and trims the starboard genoa sheet for the new tack." Barth also busies up his text with footnotes, mock headlines, and clippings about the CIA scissored from the Baltimore Sun.

For all its snappy patter and kissy-poo antics, however, Sabbatical soon proves to be a chirruping ode to nothingness…. As in the story "Night-Sea Journey,"… the ruling conceit of this novel of the upward swim of sperm toward ovum, a teeming migration beset with strife…. So the thinning-out of sperm becomes a metaphor for the absurd random...

(The entire section is 835 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"We'll have to stick to the channel," John Barth wrote in his first novel, "The Floating Opera," and let the creeks and coves go by." His new work ["Sabbatical"] explores all the creeks and coves it can, both literally and figuratively. It drifts with what one of its characters calls the narrative tide, it goes back, goes forward, stands still. It begins with a storm at sea, describes an uncanny island not to be found on any chart and records the surfacing of a hefty sea monster in Chesapeake Bay. "Have we sailed out of James Michener," the narrator wonders, "into Jules Verne?"

The metaphors, as Barth said of his earlier use of them, are not gratuitous, and that's putting it mildly. "If life is like a voyage," we read in "Sabbatical," "a voyage may be like life." "Not the least of sailing's pleasures, in our opinion, is that it refreshes, by literalizing them, many common figures of speech: one is forever and in fact making things shipshape from stem to stern, casting off, getting under way…." Barth's list lumbers on ("making headway, giving oneself leeway"), tilting a promising thought toward pedantry. The implication is that symbol and reality, unlike broken Humpty Dumpty, can be put together again. In practice, reality comes off handsomely—the boat, the bay, the weather, clothes, flesh, language, the looks and gestures of people—while the symbols clank like loosely stowed gear.

"Sabbatical" recounts the end of a voyage made by Susan Seckler, a literary academic who is wondering whether to return to teaching and/or have a child, and Fenwick Turner, her husband, a former C.I.A. man who has written, in the manner of Philip Agee, a scathing book about the Agency—his heart divided, as he says, between patriotism and dismay. (pp. 1, 24)

[The] story fills up with the rough contemporary world. The West sinks into the sun, as Susan puts it. Does the Company have a new drug that can...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Lorna Sage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With Sabbatical John Barth confirms that he has joined the ranks of the Old Poops. A useful category this, invented by Kurt Vonnegut for purposes of self-description. OPs are writers who once upon a time were prodigally talented, funny and full of bright and savage ideas, but have now "mellowed" into premature anecdotage; cuddly, avuncular, sermonizing old buffers, whose main text is how, once upon a time … etc, since of course OPs are nothing if not self-aware. Self-awareness was one of the tricks that made their writing so exciting in the 1960s, and now it provides them with a kind of narrative afterlife, "on in death like hair and fingernails" as Barth wrote less than ten years ago in Chimera, his...

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Charlotte Renner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Asked by the editors of the New York Times Book Review … to explain how he became a writer, John Barth gave a surprising answer. "It is my fate and equally my sister's to have been born opposite-sex twins, between whom everything went without saying." But "after circumstances and physical maturation" separated him from his sister, Barth was forced to sail belatedly into society on the changeable winds of language, "talking to the Others, talking to oneself."

Coming from a student or critic, that sort of analysis would undoubtedly seem far-fetched, yet it works as the key to Barth's latest novel, Sabbatical: A Romance. There, Fenwick Turner, the 50-year-old narrator, himself a twin,...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Robert Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'There was a story that began—' begins Sabbatical, and the story is then interrupted for two nights and a day by a storm at sea, itself interrupted by a dialogue on Aristotle's distinction between lexis and melos. Like most Post-Modernist fantasies, Sabbatical takes a lot of unpacking. But this is John Barth in a holiday mood, and a virtuoso display of techniques brought together from different kinds of novel is here frankly offered for enjoyment. One of its methods is purely realistic: it is full of information, for instance, about sailing in the Chesapeake Bay…. Sabbatical is as devotedly a novel about sailing as The Riddle of the Sands; and like that rather staid...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Doug Bolling

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the no man's land of contemporary fiction, Barth has always been a willing occupier of the trenches, a writer concerned both to advance and defend, and this posture has given us works both of great interest and unevenness. His newest, Sabbatical, continues the pattern of engagement and stands as a worthy effort, if a flawed one. As with the earlier novels so with this one: the false starts and rough edges in Sabbatical derive not at all from a lack of skill but rather from the difficulties inherent in juggling diverse rhythms and mixed modes. Some of the features of the new novel remind one of other postmodern writing and also of the asymmetries and unresolved tensions in mannerist art as it sought to...

(The entire section is 1064 words.)