The Book of Ten Nights and a Night: Eleven Stories
Houghton Mifflin, 2004, ISBN 0618405666, 304 Pages, Hardcover $24.00. [Browse/Purchase]
Review by Blair Mahoney
I was going to write a review of the latest collection of stories from John Barth (his third, following his iconic 1968 publication Lost in the Funhouse and 1996’s On With the Story) that would playfully parody his self-reflexive style. Barth is, after all, the monarch of metafiction, and it might be construed as a homage of sort to comment on my review of his fiction, just as he comments on the process of writing those fictions in the finished product. Unfortunately, someone else has already done that. Daniel Handler (a.k.a. “Lemony Snicket”) wrote a marvelously witty review of The Book of Ten Nights and a Night for the San Francisco Chronicle, a pastiche of Barth mannerisms with the title “This is a headline for a review of Barth's new book.” So, back to the drawing board. The review will just have to be more conventional, starting with the next paragraph.
John Barth, the postmodern master, is back with his sixteenth book and…oh, this is no good. That was just taken from the blurb on the dustcover, anyway. No, if I’m to hold your attention I’ll have to be more original, yet at the same time convey essential information about the book that will enable you to gain an idea of what it’s like, and whether or not you’ll want to follow the link at the top of this review and purchase a copy. Yet here I am, endlessly commenting on my difficulties writing this review instead of actually getting any of those important aspects of Barth’s stories across. Maybe a conventional account of its contents is in order after all. Let the readers decide for themselves! On with the review.
As Barth suggests in his sub-titular way, there are eleven stories that constitute the core of his new book, or, as the author likes to refer to it, his Hendecameron. At the same time there is a framing narrative that links the disparate tales; and for good measure we get a bonus “stereophonic narrative for authorial voice” entitled “Help!” which gets denied full “story” status. With the exception of the final story, all of these pieces have been previously published in various journals. The original publication dates range from 1960 (“Landscape: The Eastern Shore”) to 2001 (“A Detective and a Turtle”), with the bulk of them dating from the late 1990s, the period in between On With the Story and Coming Soon!!!
Barth being Barth, the genesis of this collection is made clear in the framing narrative, where the capital-A Author’s “narrative imagination,” or “Present Teller” of these tales, characterised as one “Graybard,” has regular assignations with the “Storyteller’s Muse,” known here as “WYSIWYG” (already antique computer parlance for “what you see is what you get”). We find out that “There was meant to have been a book called Ten Nights and a Night” which would have been a simple collection of previously uncollected stories. But then along came (Barth is inordinately fond of acronyms) “TEOTWAW(A)KI 9/11/2001 The End Of The World As We (Americans) Knew It.” Barth found himself questioning the function of (apparently) trivial stories in the aftermath of such a catastrophe, and these musings turned into the frame-tale that eventually encompassed and commented on those stories included in the book.
As it happens, the two story sequences that have most inspired Barth throughout his career and explicitly inspire the present volume also share apocalyptic backgrounds. In the Thousand Nights and a Night, Scheherazade tells stories not only to save her own life, but also to postpone the mass executions of innocent virgins ordered by the vengeful King Sharyar. In Boccaccio’s Decameron, the lords and ladies of Florence have fled their plague-ravaged city, and tell stories as the world presumably comes to an end around them. Storytelling is conceived of by Barth as a life-giving urge, and is very far from Nero fiddling while Rome burns; rather, the function of telling stories in times of crisis is to reassert the human capability to shape the world (in the imagination at least), even as it spins seemingly out of our control.
The first night’s story, “Landscape: The Eastern Shore,” provides an early sampler of Barth’s (at that stage somewhat premature) fixation on elderly men and impending death. The very short and simple sketch of Captain Claude Morgan gently expiring within the familiar surrounds of his Dorset home gains resonance from its incorporation within this collection. An old man dying peacefully in his own home is a very long way from people losing their lives unexpectedly in a horrific terrorist attack, especially when we consider the story was first published 40 years before that event, and was presumably slated for inclusion in Barth’s already-planned book. Yet we find ourselves contemplating what does go through another’s mind at the moment of death; and through its placement in the elaborately conceived frame tale, we inevitably make connections between vastly different deaths. Much as Borges’ famous Pierre Menard composed an entirely different albeit exactly the same Don Quixote to that written by Cervantes, so Barth has given new meaning to his own story by publishing it in a world that’s very different to the one of its conception. Context is everything. Of course, much the same may be said for all of the stories in the collection; but given its significantly earlier origin, the effect is accentuated.
The second of the book’s eleven nights yields “The Ring,” a familiar example of Barth’s metafictional musings, as the narrator runs through the possibilities inherent in a simple “dramatic vehicle” the discovery of a lost ring while on a Caribbean holiday. As he informs us, the conventional understanding of a story requires a “ground situation” to give meaning to the dramatic vehicle. The “story” we have in front of us, however, lacks any such device. Although some readers are certainly infuriated by this kind of postmodern slight-of-hand, at his witty best, Barth uses such conceits to explore the boundaries of fiction, often demonstrating his mastery of a narrative form even as he’s utterly rejecting it. The following story, “Dead Cat, Floating Boy,” operates on a similar principle, but is somewhat less effective at conveying the sense of endless imaginative possibilities.
When a writer lays bare the process of composition within his stories, slowly panning across to reveal the other cameras filming the event (ah, but there remains the cameraman behind that camera that we still can’t see…), one of the first things exposed is the enigma of inspiration or lack of it. Many of Barth’s stories deal with the struggle to write the very work that we see on the page before us. The narrator is suffering from writer’s block of some description, a dramatic turn that must be overcome by story’s end, surely, if we are to judge by the evidence of our eyes. Thus we see C. P. Mason, the “author” and protagonist of the fourth story, “A Detective and a Turtle,” “leaf through his notebook for some more promising bit toward which to direct his muse’s energies. But there is none, he’s fairly certain; inspiration doesn’t come to him as readily or frequently as in decades past…” To extract a story from the peculiar (and seemingly unpromising) dream image of a “detective and a turtle” takes a bit of narrative dexterity, but fortunately Mason or Barth is up to the task.
Amidst his authorial struggles, C. P. Mason informs us that “telling stories is as characteristically human a thing as we humans do, and is thus itself at least as fit a story-subject as another.” It’s a statement that could amount to a manifesto for Barth. He is in love with the idea of the story, and his playful comic riffs communicate that love to the reader. Who else would open a story, as Barth does in “The Rest of Your Life,” with the words “Sounds like the beginning of a story”? This story, and the following ones, “The Big Shrink” and “Extension,” prompt Barth to a few wry acknowledgements of his narrative fixations, such as “oldies,” “stuck storytellers,” and as Wysiwyg complains, “innocent marital guilt.” Barth’s themes and characters are often familiar, but he gets such mileage from his material that it’s hard to begrudge him a few favoured elements.
The story for the ninth night is appropriately titled “9999,” and arises out of a fascination with numerical confluences, particularly numbers written in date notation. Frank Parker is born on the eleventh of November, 1911, otherwise expressed as 11/11/11. But not only that. His eldest brother was born on the ninth of September, 1899 (9/9/99) and his sister was born on New Year’s Day, 1901 (01/01/01). This “formalist” fascination becomes the basis for the entire story.
Barth’s critics claim that his tendency to focus on the formal construction of his stories too frequently detracts from their quality, that he values “surface” over depth. Within this formalist focus, however, there is always a search for meaning. Just as Frank and his wife Pamela order their lives through the “significant” dates that punctuate them, so the search for significance impels the reader through the foregrounded façade of a Barth story. Just where is meaning located in fiction? Is it a central core concealed within, or a dispersed collection of ideas? Barth is with Joseph Conrad’s Marlow in arguing that the “whole meaning” does not lie “within the shell of a cracked nut.” For Marlow, in Heart of Darkness, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze,” and so it is with Barth in all of his writings.
Robert Coover, after anticipating elements of hypertextual fiction in stories such as “The Magic Poker” and “The Babysitter,” has gone on to champion the form in subsequent years. Although Barth’s early stories from Lost in the Funhouse also display multiple storylines spiralling out from a single point, he hasn’t shown the same degree of enthusiasm for computer-mediated fictional forms as Coover. Originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1997, “Click” explores what Barth calls “the hypertextuality of everyday life” (playing on Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life). An elegant investigation of narrative constructed around the tale of a couple’s falling out and eventual reconciliation, the piece makes use of underlined text set in blue type. Paradoxically, the story works best on the printed page, where it functions conceptually the story works best as a concept on the printed page. T the “hypertext” links are not intended to be followed; indeed cannot be followed. When placed online, these faux links become distracting, adding an element of frustration unintended by Barth, who used the “old technology” of print specifically to mimic playfully the “new technology” of the computer screen.
The final piece in the collection, “WYSIWYG?”, is the only one not previously published, and gives a back story for the frame tale’s Wysiwyg character. The overall conceit works well to link the various stories, although The Book of Ten Nights and a Night lacks the overall coherence of Lost in the Funhouse or On With the Story, both which had stronger thematic connections between the stories.
The final “Afterwords” leave us with the question, “Will there be a story henceforward to go on with?” The query could apply to the world, post 9/11, or to Barth himself, who is always suggesting his next book will be his last. We can only hope that he has a few more “last books” up his sleeve yet, as The Book of Ten Nights and a Night suggests that he still has plenty to tell us in his distinctive, occasionally roundabout way.
25 October 2004
Barth Scriptorium Page -- The Libyrinth's introduction to John Barth and his work.
Blair Mahoney conducted a brief interview with Barth prior to the release of Coming Soon!!!
Blair Mahoney has also written on the influence of Borges in Barth's fiction, which may be found at the Garden of Forking Paths.
Daniel Handler wrote a marvelously witty review of The Book of Ten Nights and a Night for the San Francisco Chronicle, a pastiche of Barth mannerisms with the title “This is a headline for a review of Barth's new book.”