John Barth, rendered in gobbledygook Monday Book Reviews--A pair of clunkers

John Goodspeed

September 17, 1990|By John Goodspeed

THE MUSES OF JOHN BARTH. By Max F. Schulz. Johns Hopkins University Press. 220 pages. $28.95.

OF THE 2,000 new books this old reviewer has read and written up over the last 40 years, the present volume is probably the worst. I bring it up only because its subject is the work of John Barth, one of Maryland's most famous fiction writers, pride of the Eastern Shore, and because his name in the title might seduce some of his fans into plunking down its ridiculous retail price, $28.95.

See what I'm saying? Don't buy "The Muses of John Barth."

Unless, of course,you want to be the first kid on your block to own one of most extreme examples of depraved academic literary criticism published since the death of Marshall McLuhan. The author of "The Muses of John Barth," Max F. Schulz, is an English professor at the University of Southern California, but his prose bears only a slight resemblance to English.

Schulz never uses a plain word where an obscure word will clog the meaning. His operative verbs are hard to find, his jargon unbelievable, his trendiness almost sickening.

Here's one of the clearest statements in the book:

"Although the connections are not apparent, the transformational complications of Barth's fictive constructs are accompanied by an inverse disentanglement of History from his post-modernist aesthetic."

How about that? As we all know, scholars in science and medicine and law have long since perverted their professional language in the manner of priests speaking a dead language -- and for the same reason, one suspects: to appear to be elite. I once sat with a psychologist and an anatomist at Johns Hopkins as they developed a scientific paper in straight English, then translated it into jargon (while drinking beer and laughing a lot) "so it can get published in the professional journal." But there is still no excuse for an English teacher writing the following remarks about Barth's seventh novel, "Letters":

"... In terms of its dual fulcrum, "Letters" is a novel about the making of universes cast in the form of a novel about the making of fiction. A text about texts about texts, convoluting as a series of intertextual acts in historical-literary interpretation, the novel, as part of its metafictional self-consciousness, simultaneously, and lovingly, dissects and reconstitutes the twin handmaidens, history mythologized and myth historicized ..."

Schulz goes on and on like that. Reading "The Muses of John Barth" at reasonable speed is, for the average educated person, like trying to run when you're waist-deep in water.

What's more: As I translate him, Schulz doesn't tell us much about Barth's fiction (not to mention his "aesthetic") that Barth himself didn't tell us six years ago in his own book of essays and literary criticism, "The Friday Book." Barth is a post-modernist fiction writer, which means he's more like Vladimir Nabokov than Tom Wolfe. Barth admires the fiction of William Gass and Robert Coover more, I gather, than he admires that of Evelyn Waugh and Ernest Hemingway. Barth plays tricks with language and numbers in his novels. And his muses, if you want to play that game, are (who else?) Thalia, patron goddess of comedy; Erato, goddess of love poetry; and (maybe) Clio, goddess of history.

College professors have been known to assign books they've written to their students, but I hope Professor Schulz's kids are not required to read "The Muses of John Barth." It would be cruel and unusual punishment, and worse: The masochists who managed to get through it might be steered away from the better Barth novels.

John Goodspeed, a former essayist in these pages, now lives in Easton.

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