Once Upon a Time
Forgoing the pensive seriousness of V. S. Naipaul’s THE ENIGMA OF ARRIVAL, John Barth’s twelfth book overall and ninth novel, “if it is novel,” is an odd sort of autobiographical fiction, less a personal revelation than a nest of narrative boxes, a Borgesian garden of forking paths and well-manicured playing field for the author’s baroque postmodernism. Once upon a time, on Columbus Day in 1990, Barth finds himself in a Dantean dark wood, at the end of the road, having recently retired at sixty from The Johns Hopkins University.
Having just seen into print his last (or rather, his latest) book, THE LAST VOYAGE OF SOMEBODY THE SAILOR, he is ready for a little kenosis, the emptying out of the “vessel” of his imagination in preparation for—or in hope of—replenishment. Thus he begins writing a story about what is to be a short sail around the Chesapeake—a story that is set exactly two years in the future, the quincentenary of Columbus’s discovery of America. By this sleight of narrative wits, Barth projects himself, or a version of himself, two years down the road he presumably had already reached the end of. Soon, however, that story stalls, literally up a creek in a mazelike marsh where a proleptic Barth meets the apparition of his twin sister Jill and his recently deceased, wholly fictional alter ego and “acerbic counterself” Jerome Schreiber, also known as Jay Wordsworth Scribner. Jill and Jay play Beatrice and Virgil to...
(The entire section is 496 words.)