John Barth Barth, John (Vol. 14) - Essay

Beverly Gross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 paradox of all. Barth is most immediately a humorist…. The comedy in Barth's novels is the mockery of emotions and moral values: what his characters feel and perceive is only further grist for hilarity…. [For example, his ménage à trois situations are] a kind of touchstone. The ordinary moral and psychological implications don't count here at all. What immediately counts is, on the level of plot, the entanglements; on the level of meaning, the nuttiness. But what also counts, beyond immediate laughter, is a lingering sorrow, an underlying disgust, and a metaphor for the impossible strain of human attachment and commitment. (pp. 96-7)

Fine black comedy. End of the Road seems at first to be much like the other comic monuments of the decade. It has the right ingredients: a psychotic therapist, an identity crisis, a wild ménage à trois, ironic views of our crippled society and trivial culture—a groovy corroboration for the disaffected. But something happens to this novel: its ending is appalling. End of the Road repudiates itself, or rather it repudiates what would seem to be its glib ability to deal with, and therefore dismiss, ugliness, pain, and despair. Rennie's pregnancy is initially part of the incongruous comedy: the problem is that she doesn't know whose baby she is carrying…. Rennie decides to have an abortion. More madcap exasperation for Jacob who has to hunt down an abortionist. But Rennie's butchering on the operating table is the shattering fact of End of the Road. The ugliness is sudden, undisguised, unironic. The emotional crisis preceding it … was only the game. Rennie's hemorrhaging corpse cannot be transformed into comedy, nor does Barth try. That is the second stage of undercutting: having reduced everything to comedy, the book suddenly reduces its comedy to loathesomeness. (p. 98)

Roles are the motif of all Barth's novels. Todd Andrews' life is a succession of identities—rake, saint, cynic—the search for a character appropriate to his ailing heart. Henry Burlingame reappears in different guises throughout The Sot-Weed Factor…. George the Goat-Boy, wavering between goat and boy, seeking the proper stance in which to assert his Grand Tutorship, keeps changing his advice to the people around him with each new modification of what he takes to be his gospel. But most of all it is John Barth who emerges as the seeker of self. He is an author in search of a disposition. The novels are not only about roles—they are roles. Barth's novels are comic masks for a tragic face. Barth is an inveterate comedian because he depends on the masks, and not only to hide his face but to discover it, and not only his face, but ours.

That doubtlessly is what makes Barth at once so interesting and so irritating. The comedy which seems to be everything is really nothing: it exists to announce its own inadequacy…. Giles Goat-Boy is Barth's best novel and his worst—a paradox which somehow accords with the tentative theme of the book: that passage and failure are really the same thing.

Giles Goat-Boy is almost impossible to describe, summarize, or account for. Above all, it presents a problem of understanding that is its most unsettling feature. The problem of understanding Giles Goat-Boy is the problem of understanding Barth, and more precisely, the extent of Barth's seriousness. In this book Barth wears not one mask but several. Philosophically, the book keeps undermining itself and shatters its own testamentary message in a series of editorial comments at the beginning and postscripts at the end. Giles Goat-Boy is a peculiar blending of frivolity and profundity. It often seems to be simultaneously both (a duality we have come to expect from Barth); but at various...

(The entire section is 2157 words.)

Gore Vidal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 summon up a smile at the lazy jokes and the horrendous pastiche of what Barth takes to be eighteenth-century English…. I stopped at page 412 with 407 pages yet to go. The sentences would not stop unfurling; as Peter Handke puts it in Kaspar: "Every sentence helps you along: you get over every object with a sentence: a sentence helps you get over an object when you can't really get over it, so that you really get over it," etc.

To read Barth on the subject of his own work and then to read the work itself is a puzzling business. He talks a good deal of sense. He is obviously intelligent. Yet he tells us that when he turned from the R and R of his first two novels to the megalo-R and R of The Sot-Weed Factor, he moved from "a merely comic mode to a variety of farce, which frees your hands even more than comedy does." Certainly there are comic aspects to the first two books. But the ponderous jocosity of the third book is neither farce nor satire nor much of anything except English-teacher-writing at a pretty low level. I can only assume that the book's admirers are as ignorant of the eighteenth century as the author (or, to be fair, the author's imagination) and that neither author nor admiring reader has a sense of humor, a fact duly noted about Americans in general—and their serious ponderous novelists in particular—by many peoples in other lands. It still takes a lot of civilization gone slightly high to make a wit.

Giles Goat-Boy arrived on the scene in 1966. Another 800 pages of ambitious schoolteacher-writing: a book to be taught rather than read. I shall not try to encapsulate it here, other than to say that the central metaphor is the universe is the university is the universe. I suspect that this will prove to be one of the essential American university novels and to dismiss it is to dismiss those departments of English that have made such a book possible. The writing is more than usually clumsy. (p. 113)

By 1968 Barth was responding to the French New Novel. Lost in the Funhouse is the result. A collection (or, as he calls it, a "series") of "Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice." Barth is not about to miss a trick now that he has moved into R and D country. The first of the series, "Night-Sea Journey," should—or could—be on tape. This is the first-person narrative of a sperm heading, it would appear, toward an ovum, though some of its eschatological musings suggest that a blow-job may be in progress. Woody Allen has dealt more rigorously with this theme.

The "story" "Lost in the Funhouse" is most writerly and self-conscious; it chats with the author who chats with it and with us. "Description of physical appearance and mannerisms is one of several standard methods of characterization used by writers of fiction." Thus Barth distances the reader from the text…. Some of [the] schoolteacherly commentary is amusing. But the ultimate effect is one of an ambitious but somewhat uneasy writer out to do something brand-new...

(The entire section is 1833 words.)

Linda A. Westervelt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1924 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1124 words.)

Tony Tanner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 898 words.)

Geoffrey Wolff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.


(The entire section is 538 words.)

Philip Stevick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 508 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 964 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 entire section is 772 words.)

Josephine Hendin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 584 words.)