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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

John Barth, a novelist who found possibility in a ‘used-up’ form

American author John Barth in 1995 (Wikipedia)

By Dave Kim

Nobody likes the comic who explains his own material, but writer John Barth, who died Tuesday, had a way of making explanations — of gags, of stories, of the whole creative enterprise — sing louder and funnier and truer than punchlines. The maxim “Show, don’t tell” had little purchase with him. In novels, short stories and essays, through an astoundingly prolific six-decade career, he ran riot over literary rules and conventions, even as he displayed, with meticulous discipline, mastery of and respect for them.

He was styled a postmodernist, an awkwardly fitting title that only just managed to cover his essential attributes, like a swimsuit left too long in the dryer. But it meant that much of what Barth was doing — cheekily recycling dusty forms, shining klieg lights on the artificiality of art, turning the tyranny of plot against itself — had a name, a movement.

For many years, starting in the 1960s, he was at the vanguard of this movement, alongside writers like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. He declared that all paths for the novel had already been taken, and then blazed new ones for generations of awe-struck followers. He showed us how writing works by letting us peer into its machinery, and reminded us that our experience of the world will always be dictated by the instruments we have to observe and record it. While never abandoning narrative, he found endless joy in picking apart its elements, and in the process helped define a postwar American style.

The constructive disruption, the literary public service announcement: It became something of a signature for Barth, and it’s best expressed in his story collection “Lost in the Funhouse” (1968). The title piece, a masterwork of metafiction, follows a teenage boy lurching about the revolving discs and mirrored walls of an amusement-park fun house, where he realizes, dolefully, that he is better suited to construct such contrivances than experience them.

Throughout, a comically pedantic narrator critiques the very tale he’s telling by identifying the flashy tricks of the “funhouse” that is fiction: symbolism, theme, sensory detail, resolution. The story is simultaneously a rigorous analysis, vivid example and ruthless dismantling of how literature operates.

“Is anything more tiresome, in fiction, than the problems of sensitive adolescents?” the narrator asks, in his fiction about a sensitive adolescent. “And it’s all too long and rambling.”

David Foster Wallace called the collection a “sacred text,” even drafting one of his stories in the margins of his copy. Although he later, in an act of literary parricide, denounced his hero as a stagnant has-been, Barth’s influence is unmistakable in Wallace’s work, as it is in that of so many others, including Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan, George Saunders and David Mitchell — writers who hauled postmodernism off its ivory tower, who integrated Barth’s fourth-wall breaches, parodic masquerades or typographical pyrotechnics into more accessible, more sincere and, fine, more marketable narratives.

Much of Barth’s raw material actually came from writers of classic texts, not the modern and postmodern navigation stars he steered by. He was Dante reworking the “Aeneid” into “The Divine Comedy” — if Dante were a shiny-pated, bespectacled Marylander with a police-detective mustache. “The Sot-Weed Factor” (1960) is an epic imitation of the 18th-century bildungsroman, something AI bots might aspire to if the prompt were, say, “‘Tom Jones’ plus ‘Tristram Shandy,’ but hornier.” (It’s great.) His 2004 story collection, “The Book of Ten Nights and a Night,” is a “Decameron” set in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Scheherazade, whom Barth called his “literary patron saint,” is a regular presence in his work.

And, of course, there’s Barth’s opus “Giles Goat-Boy” (1966), a bonkers Cold War allegory that draws from the Bible, “Oedipus Rex,” “Don Quixote” and “Ulysses,” among other works. I tried to summarize its many forking paths for a curious bartender once and started to feel dizzy midway through. A bitterly divided college campus is overrun by a tyrannical computer system called WESCAC, and the only one who can save humanity is a boy named George Giles, who was raised as a goat and somehow turns out to be the offspring of WESCAC and a virgin named Lady Creamhair. (It’s great.)

Giles tries his best to live up to the mythic hero archetype, but soon learns, over and over, that simply being human is complicated enough. For all of Barth’s outrageous experiments, he always seemed to find his way back to the basic moral question that every great fiction writer has tried to wrangle: How should one be?

His second novel, “The End of the Road” (1958), is a profound deliberation on the dominant Western philosophy of its time, existentialism, which Barth, in a Camus-like story of a marital affair, first seems to value and then exposes as obscenely inadequate. Anchoring even his most arcane metafictions are recognizable characters who try to commit to a principle or an identity — and often fail spectacularly.

In this way, Barth was closer to the comforts of traditional fiction than he was given credit for. A true postmodernist, he wrote in 1980, keeps “one foot in fantasy, one in objective reality.”

But Barth’s most memorable writing remains the stuff that works on both levels: the gently rising and falling slopes of narrative and the zany mirror maze of self-reflexivity. You get the sense that he found the latter a wearying realm to read in, let alone write in, but couldn’t help veering into it, that the phoniness of the whole endeavor, including his own persona as the artist, had to be accounted for. “It’s particularly disquieting to suspect not only that one is a fictional character,” he wrote, “but that the fiction one’s in — the fiction one is — is quite the sort one least prefers.”

Reading Barth is like taking a cross-country flight while sitting in the cockpit with the pilot, a journey made more thrilling by our observation of the mechanisms that make it possible: We can stare in awe at the instrument panels, or just look out the window. But, through it all, his impossible desire to be his own reader, a naive experiencer of his own narrative, never waned. One imagines the maestro himself snapping his fingers impatiently at the text. “Enough with the diversions,” he might say. “On with the story!”

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