By Blair Mahoney
Lost in the Barthhouse
For whom is the fiction of John Barth fun? Perhaps for lovers of complex metafictions. For people constrained by nineteenth century notions of realist literature it is a place of fear and confusion. Typographical play, such as the use of, and explanation of the function of, italics is a feature of John Barth's story "Lost in the Funhouse," which appears in the volume Lost in the Funhouse. In that story Barth observes that italic type is "the customary type for titles of complete works, not to mention."
John Barth is "at that awkward age." He was born May 27, 1930 on B_____ Street in D_____ County, Maryland. Once again, Barth has something to say about the substitution of initials for proper names in nineteenth century fiction in order to heighten the sense of reality: "It is as if the author felt it necessary to delete the names for reasons of tact or legal liability. Interestingly, as with other aspects of realism, it is an illusion that is being enhanced, by purely artificial means." Barth's great skill (or one of many great skills he possesses) is to lay bare these illusions which underlie fictional narratives, pulling back the curtain to reveal not an omnipotent creator/omniscient narrator, but an aging Professor Emeritus in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. When you open up one of John Barth's books you know you're not in Kansas anymore (if you take "Kansas" to metaphorically stand for the world of "conventional" realist literature, rather than literally referring to the state in the central US -- pop. (est. 1990) 2,477,570; capital, Topeka; acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and became the 34th state of the US in 1861 -- which wouldn't make a lot of sense, especially if, like myself, you've never even been to Kansas).
This is not the story of John Barth's life and writings, but it is certainly a story thereof. Every life has a Scheherazadesworth of stories. Has that been said before?
Insert Subtitle Here
Barth, John (Simmons) (1930-) American novelist and short-story writer. Born in Cambridge on the eastern shore of Maryland, the grandson of nineteenth-century German immigrants. Owing to the hectic circumstances of his birth, for some months he had no proper name. Hoping for a daughter, whom she intended to name Christine, his mother made no mention of a name upon returning home and showed no interest in selecting one. Ambrose was considered as an option, before being rejected in favour of the more prosaic John. He was educated at East Cambridge Elementary and Cambridge High before attending the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied Elementary Theory and Advanced Orchestration -- a bit like simultaneously studying Written Composition 101 and a graduate fiction workshop -- and he aced both, but learned nothing much beyond the useful lesson that what he had innocently supposed was the talent of a prospective professional musician was in fact an amateur's flair.
His literary education began not with the texts studied in his English classes (the usual suspects of canonical literature failed to move him), but with the recently invented pocket paperbacks which he devoured. He went through tons of Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and had a special love for supernaturalists such as H. P. Lovecraft, John Collier and Abe Merritt, whom-all he recognised as something different. When he stumbled on John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer and Faulkner's Wild Palms and Sanctuary, however, he perceived them as belonging to realm somehow beyond that of his spook operas and whodunits. These were real. (An odd conclusion to come to for a writer whose specialty is ontological uncertainty.)
Having got Juilliard out of his system, Barth went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to major in journalism (which he enjoys believing that he believed that it had to with keeping journals), offered by a new department of the university called Writing, Speech and Drama, and only the second such degree-granting "creative writing" program (after Iowa's) in the US (there are now more than 400). Barth fondly remembers the liberal-arts undergraduate core curriculum, where he "was able to study simultaneously Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses with a specialist in each, while in the middle distance wrestling Don Quijote out of Spanish with the refugee poet Pedro Salinas, and sneaking time with Scheherazade on my book-filing cart back in the stacks of William Foxwell Albright's Oriental Seminary, and pondering with David Hume, via George Boas, the Problem of the Retreating Subject -- a made-to-order education, one would think, for a potential postmodernist." Summarization of the biographical details and oeuvre of an author is one of several standard methods of composition used by writers of Scriptorium pages. It is also important to "keep the reader interested"; when a detail from the biography of the author (not the author) is "crossed" with a detail from the fiction of the author (as opposed to the author) the reader's imagination is oriented to the description, perhaps unconsciously. John Barth's love of sailing is replicated by Simon William Behler, the central character in Barth's 1991 novel The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Similarly, Jacob Horner, the protagonist of Barth's disturbing existentialist second novel The End of the Road (1958), reminds one of.
Fill in: Having completed his undergraduate degree, Barth went on to write an ersatz-Faulkner M.A.-thesis novel -- something of a failure -- get married to Anne Strickland -- also something of a failure, as it turned out, but I'm getting ahead of myself -- and recklessly make babies for several years. Meanwhile, in the midst of reading Boccaccio, he serendipitously happened across the earliest specimen of North American satire: Ebeneezer Cooke's Sot-Weed Factor poem, set in Colonial Maryland, of all places. That combination inspired the project he worked on for the next few years: one hundred tales covering three hundred years of tidewater history, a kind of Dorchester County Decameron. This too failed, but it proved to be the last step but one toward finding his voice.
In 1953 Barth commenced teaching in the Department of English at Pennsylvania State University. He was in freshman comp hell (I know what it's like: I've been there too). But something was brewing: a real novel was about to bubble it's way to the surface, an inspired combination of a lingering memory of a Chesapeake showboat or floating theatre from the early decades of the twentieth century and Albert Camus' writings on suicide. One reason for not writing a lost-in-the-barthhouse narrative is that either everybody's read what John Barth has written, in which case it goes without saying, or else no normal person reads such things, in which case Barth is a freak. "Is anything more tiresome, on the Internet, than an exposition on some obscure writer you've never heard of?" And it's all too long and rambling as if the author.
Narrative aria: "Wunderjahr"
Coined by those kind folks who also brought us the Volkswagen and other, often unfeasibly long, words, Wunderjahr is the German term for a phenomenon associated with the Romantic conception of Genius: the sudden emergence of an until then perhaps quiescent talent into a burst of brilliant productivity; the breakthrough wonder-year in which a Keats (1819) writes nearly all of his major odes, an Einstein (1905) publishes five papers that change forever mankind's view of the physical universe, and a Barth (1955) writes The Floating Opera, the story of Todd Andrews, a gentlemanly bachelor lawyer, who resolves to end his life on a certain fine day in June of 1937. Not only that, by the end of the summer he's conceived not only a companion to that first novel (tentatively called What to Do Until the Doctor Comes, later published as The End of the Road) but also, more dimly, a third novel, to complete a sort of "nihilist" trilogy. Naturally The Floating Opera was never published. As it happened, the Opera was rejected by six publishers before a seventh finally agreed to publish it, as long as Barth agreed to make one or two changes. . . . Here is how he describes it in the prefatory note to the revised edition of the novel, which finally appeared some twelve years later:
"The Floating Opera was written in the first three months of 1955; its companion piece, The End of the Road, in the last three months of the same year. The Opera was my first novel; I was twenty-four, had been writing fiction industriously for five years, and had had -- deservedly -- no success whatever with the publishers. One finally agreed to launch the Opera, but on condition that the builder make certain major changes in its construction, notably about the stern. I did, the novel was published, critics criticized the ending in particular, and I learned a boatwright little lesson. In this edition the original and correct ending to the story has been restored, as have a number of other, minor passages. The Floating Opera remains the very first novel of a very young man, but I'm pleased that it will sink or float now in its original design."
My first words weren't my first words. I wish I'd begun differently. In fact, I haven't gone about this very well at all. I've mixed fact with fiction, stolen phrases and passages from various sources without acknowledging them, I've given you the sketchiest details of Barth's life and work -- we're only up to his second novel; at this rate we'll never get out of the Barthhouse -- and I've constantly interrupted the narrative with inconsequential asides.
On With the Story
On with the story. Okay. In 1960 The Sot-Weed Factor, a seventeenth-century mock epic which satirized the form and content of the historical novel, emerged to critical acclaim and a few of those critics noted that the author had clearly been influenced by the Ur-myth in general, and in particular by Otto Rank's treatise on the myth of the birth of the ritual wandering hero. Barth had not in fact yet read Otto Rank (or Carl Jung, Lord Raglan, Joseph Campbell etc.), and did not know exactly what a "ritual wandering hero" was, but having been informed of this influence he made sure to read up on all this so it could authentically inform his next novel, Giles Goat-Boy (1966). By that time Barth had moved on to the State University of New York at Buffalo and he "was hard at work assimilating Borges . . . and beginning to envision an unorthodox volume of short fiction: not a conventional collection of discrete stories, but some sort of . . . non-linear series, maybe, certain items of which might be designed not expressly for print but for live authorial voice . . . or specifically for monophonic or stereophonic tape, or some combination of those media -- a more or less high-tech reorchestration of the oral storytelling tradition." This was, of course, to be Lost in the Funhouse (1968). His marriage was now over, and on a visit to Boston, where he gave a reading of "Meneliad" from Lost in the Funhouse, he met Shelley, his former student (at Penn State), future (now current) wife, and dedicatee of most of his recent books.
By 1973 Barth had returned to Baltimore to take up a post teaching English and Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins on the back of winning the National Book Award for fiction the previous year for Chimera, three interconnected novellas. This was followed by Letters (1979), a revisioning and reinvigoration of the epistolary novel. To say that Barth's novel The Tidewater Tales, a picaresque masterpiece which draws on Homer's Odyssey, Don Quixote and James Joyce's unusual novel entitled Ulysses, now available in most countries, is remarkable is to accomplish nothing; the reader may acknowledge the proposition, but his or her imagination is not engaged. Besides, his earlier novel Sabbatical: A Romance (1982), in some ways a precursor to The Tidewater Tales, was also remarkable, yet in an altogether different way.
"Click?" So (sans question mark) reads the computer monitor when, in time, you go to check your e-mail on your already booted-up machine. Just that single uppercase imperative verb or sound-noun floating mid-screen, where normally the desktop would appear. So you click on Click and up comes a familiar title, or in this case maybe subtitle -- The Hypertextuality of Everyday Life -- followed this time by a parenthesized instruction: (Click on any word of the above). Well, no doubt you've tried to click on those words and discovered (to your consternation) that they are not, in fact (in fiction, then?), hyperlinks. If they were it would defeat the purpose, for John Barth's story "Click" (printed in the December 1997 issue of The Atlantic Monthly) is not about the hypertextuality of the Internet (which very hypertextuality has brought you to this page), but the ways in which Everyday Life approximates said hypertextuality. Of course, if you look at Barth's fictional works it also becomes apparent how he has striven to make the printed word approximate the condition of hypertextuality, and this from many years before the word existed.
Blam! Blooey! So, with those exclamatory utterances, this fragmentary, inarticulate, derivative, incomplete, barely informative account draws to a close, and it is just left for me to say that at least my last words will be my last words.
In 1974, Barth was elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Distinguished Achievement in American Fiction in 1997.
--Blair Mahoney, 3 March 2000
More on Barth
You may order Barth's works online through Amazon.com by visiting the Libyrinth's Barth Bookstore.
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.
The John Barth Group, which has more than 50 members, hosts discussions of Barth's works and regular group readings of selected novels.
Dave Edelman's excellent John Barth Information Center includes brief biographical details, a short summary called "Barth for Beginners," a comprehensive bibliography with notes on each book, a Barth FAQ, the transcript of an interview between Edelman and Barth and several of Edelman's own reviews of Barth's works.
This fantastic resource from The New York Times includes reviews of most of Barth's books and a number of essays by Barth.
The Center for Book Culture's journal CONTEXT contains fascinating articles by and about Barth: Reading Barth by Charles Harris and "The Parallels!" Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges by John Barth.
Literary journal Conjunctions has three stories by Barth on its Web site: "Preparing for the Storm," "And Then One Day" and "Goodbye to the Fruits." It also has an extract from "And Then There's the One," available in its entirety only in the print version.
An online version of Ebeneezer Cook's poem "The Sot-Weed Factor," inspiration for Barth's novel of the same name.
An essay by Dirk Vanderbeke on "Vineland in the Novels of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon" -- the Barth novel in question is The End of the Road.
Kyle Callahan has written some interesting notes on John Barth's "Chimera."
An account of the film version of The End of the Road, scripted by Terry Southern at the Terry Southern Web site.
An excerpt from Coming Soon!!! courtesy of the Houston Chronicle. They also review the novel favourably.
A positive review of Coming Soon!!! from British broadsheet The Observer.
A brief article and interview with Barth after the publication of Coming Soon!!! from Philadelphia citypaper.net.
You Have Neither The Wits Nor The Patience To Read This Book, says City Pages of Coming Soon!!!
A negative review of Coming Soon!!! from The Atlantic Monthly, hosted at Powells.com.
The Johns Hopkins Magazine has "Virtuality", an essay by Barth.
Interview with Barth from November 1998.
"Click" -- The text of Barth's story from the Atlantic Monthly.
The kind people at Georgetown University have provided this study guide on Barth. Other study guides or study questions include Lost in the Funhouse, & Dunyazadiad.
A short essay on The Floating Opera resides here; or you can read this insightful essay by Jonathan Lethem on the influence that Barth's The End of the Road had on his novel As She Climbed Across the Table. Other essays online include one on Lost in the Funhouse, an essay on the mythological source material for Barth's "Meneliad" from the Suny Buffalo site, an exceedingly shallow "response paper" on Lost in the Funhouse, and an essay by John Bruni on hypertext and Barth's Lost in the Funhouse.
The Internet Movie Database has an entry for the 1970 film adaptation of The End of the Road, starring Stacey Keach and James Earl Jones.
An introduction to "Meneiad" with a diagram of the story's concentric structure.
You can find a few reviews of Barth works around the web:
M.I.T.'s The Tech reviews The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
A short review of On With the Story at Salon magazine
A review of On With the Story by Dr David Bredeen
Other Barth items include:
An article which about fictional representations of Chesapeake bay, including a section on Barth, from Maryland Marine Notes.
An account in the Library of Congress Information Bulletin of Barth reading from his forthcoming novel, tentatively titled Coming Soon!
A story about Barth receiving an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Penn State.
"Fall at the House of John Barth", a rather odd section of a collaborative hypertext called "The Unknown" which features Barth as a character.
Google.com Search -- This will search news groups related to Barth.
Yahoo News Search -- Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Barth.
Northern Light -- This will search Northern Light for online articles and sites about Barth and his work.
|Blair Mahoney was born and raised in New Zealand and currently resides in Melbourne, Australia where he abandoned a PhD at the University of Melbourne on recent Indian fiction in order to be able to read more. He became enamoured with postmodern fiction at university, particularly the work of John Barth, Robert Coover, Paul Auster and Salman Rushdie. He is convinced of the hypertextuality of everyday life, writes about himself in the third person and interrupts himself a lot.
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