The Tidewater Tales
The basic structural metaphor of John Barth’s eighth novel is the navigation of Story by Peter and Katherine Sherritt Sagamore—literally the navigation of their small sailboat of that name, and figuratively the navigation of the actual story which makes up this novel entitled The Tidewater Tales: A Novel. Indeed, The Tidewater Tales is a novel, as its subtitle insists, in spite of the fact that its primary title suggests it to be a collection of shorter pieces. For what Barth attempts to do here is to return to the basic origins of the novel form as a series of loosely-strung-together tales. This novel, then, is both a collection of stories—Barthian retellings of the classic plots which for him form the very basis of story—and a novel which recapitulates the classic origins of the novel. As such, it is filled with modernized versions of stories from Homer and Scheherazade to Miguel de Cervantes and Mark Twain.
The teller of the book, or more precisely its point of view, since no identifiable author really seems in obvious control, is the narrative itself, which first tells about Katherine and then Peter, and then, in a leisurely ebb-and-flow sort of way, meanders through the rest of the book introducing various characters and other storytellers as they are encountered on Chesapeake Bay. The basic idea for the work’s mode of existence is that it is created as it is read, for it ends when Katherine gives birth to the twins she is carrying and when Peter is able to write the novel entitled The Tidewater Tales which the reader has just finished reading.
This is not the first time Barth has played this particular kind of game, in which the very narrative with which he is self-consciously involved is the subject matter of the narrative the reader is reading. As early as 1960, with the publication of The Sot-Weed Factor, Barth indicated that the nature of narrative itself was his favorite fictional subject; it has been almost his sole preoccupation since his first collection of short stories, Lost in the Funhouse (1968), and his collection of novellas, Chimera (1972). Letters: A Novel (1979) is probably his most extreme (and perhaps most unreadable) venture into the reflexive realm. With the publication of Sabbatical (1982), although he came back to a more “realistic” ground level of story and characters, he indicated a continuing interest in narrative itself as the most appropriate, perhaps even the only, subject matter of narrative.
The Tidewater Tales is in certain ways a continuation, or a precursor—depending on one’s point of view—of Sabbatical, for in The Tidewater Tales, the primary characters of Sabbatical, Fenwick Turner and Susan Seckler, appear as Frank and Leah Talbott, and the reader discovers that Sabbatical is a book written by Peter Sagamore: The Talbotts tell Peter the story of Sabbatical, which he then transforms into the novel by that name. Many of the plot elements of the earlier book are therefore rehashed here, although they are presented as if they constituted the actual basis of what is fictionalized by Peter in the novel Sabbatical.
Peter and Katherine share many of the characteristics of Fenwick and Susan, but, since the novel in which Fenwick and Susan appear is Peter’s, that is not surprising. Ultimately, both Peter and Fenwick share many of the characteristics of John Barth—and since Barth has written the novels in which they both appear, that, too, should not be surprising. Barth delights in these kinds of epistemological games, in which reality and fiction blur together.
The Tidewater Tales begins with Peter’s urging Katherine to set him a task; the task she sets for him is to tell their story as if it were not their story, moreover to tell it in a way that is richer than everyday realism is capable of conveying. That very richness, which is the richness of reality as an elaborate fictional game, is what Barth constantly seeks. Everyone in this novel is a storyteller in some way, for, according to Barth, life itself is the stuff and process of fiction.
Katherine, director of folklore and oral history at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, is, in her own way, as adept at telling stories as Peter once was at writing them—that is, until the demon of “less is more”...
(The entire section is 1816 words.)