John Barth -- totemic, iconic, postmodern and all that -- is still a hell of a lot of fun


Do you? I have eight books (or nine or 10 - depending on my state of mind or recall) that are, I guess, more or less who I am. Their impact, nourishment, instructions and indelibleness have been so powerful that if I were innocent of them I would be, simply, somebody else. Whether those books are good or bad, important or not, is not a judgment I should be trusted to make.

Two of them are "The Floating Opera" and "The Sot-Weed Factor." Both are by John Barth, a major Maryland figure but one whom I have never met, which despite my untrustworthiness on the matter of his prior accomplishments may license me to make comment on his umpteenth book, "On With the Story: Stories" (Little, Brown, 257 pages. $23.95). It's just out. I just read it.

An additional trouble in my ruminating on Barth, or Barth's work, is that he is a totemic (or iconic, depending on your present ic-iness) figure of literary postmodernism.

Wuzzat? you may - should - ask.

If you go on the road amidst universities and corner taprooms, or otherwise in Literary Circles, you will get arguments. Try this one: In postmodernist literature there is no character, no plot, no point of view, and in their place there is an overattenuated self-consciousness about language and what some call "reflexivity" - which is taken to mean, more or less, writing about the process of writing.

Questions, not answers

In this discipline it is assumed, or insisted, that each reader will read a different book, that all writing changes or is defined by what the reader brings to it, and author take the hindmost. Chuck out the canon (and Chekhov's Rifle with it), get on with introspection - and if anybody shouts "narcissism," give him a shove into the pond.

That bears some kinship to the abandonment of representational form - of pictures - in painting and sculpture (and melody in music). Advanced painting today witnesses victory over all previous art forms by a plain white canvas - the presumably ultimate expression of individual aesthetic experience as superior to mere objects. Feeling, not seeing; emotion, not story-telling; demand, not delivery; questions, not answers.

Somewhat similarly, postmodern literature declares the absurdity of literature itself, orperhaps it seeks only to deflate the self-importance of High Literature of the eras before it. It can be taken as reaction against the modernists who, simplistically put, were saying: Leaping Lizards, this world of ours is insane, anarchic, pernicious and out-of-control, so let's get hold of it, by understanding it though art, in order to cure its ills.

To that the postmodernists say, or said, It's all too insane and anarchic to do a damned thing about, so be of good cheer and look inward; the individual is it. (To postmodernists, the very best game of shuffleboard might be the last, mad, one as the Titanic went down: The pitch of the deck would make it a gas.)

So thus postmodernism tends to obliterate itself, to reduce literature to nothingness. That, of course, can lead perfectly reasonable people to ask, Why write at all? Right on!

Heavy stuff! Or light.

So what about Mr John Barth? Or, rather, his present book?

To begin with, though it reeks of the discipline's usages, I would argue - and herewith do - that it ain't postmodernism, not at all. Not anyway in any central sense that fits my attempt at definition above (which if you or they take to libel the academy or its denizens, so sue me).

In other ways, it invites defining in negatives: Though in some manners it parades as a collection of short stories, it is not; it is a single work, an act of seamless webbery. Though in some manners it scorns classic dramatic structure, it has just that; squinting a bit, you can read it as an intensely affirmative romantic novel. Though it raucously ridicules point of view in the traditional sense, it speaks from and with a single moral consciousness; it is a sermon, and a quite linear one at that, on the redemptiveness of love.

You may note I like it.

The book is a playlot of literary tricks and allusions: One chapter, not the first, is called "The End: An Introduction" and so on. In form, the book is a story about stories. ("The story of our life is not our life; it is our story ... our lives are not stories.")

End it all

Barth scorns and snubs and pokes fun at and then does cheek-to-cheek dances with the jargon of literary and culture theory. The narrative celebrates, with somewhat elusive irony, "the end of everything": print culture, modernism, physics, history, communism, all the rest - including postmodernism.

Little is spared. The single trait and concept, applied to the Baby Boom generation, of "gumptional slippage" is worth the price of the book and the time to read it. Barth, or one of his W narrator-agents, refers disrespectfully to "our republic's abundant" graduate writing programs - Barth has spent much of his life teaching in such a program at Johns Hopkins.

Barth is a master, a consummate craftsman. The book bubbles and flares with pyrotechnic competence, speaks in often bell-like tones, in perfect pitch. Nonetheless, there arises again and again a sense of finger-exercise - of working out problems for the purpose of example or even of conditioning. There is a sense throughout of using up diary or journal entries, anecdotal material carefully recorded without specific purpose.

And, finally, that is the most effective of all Barth's prodigious bundle of tricks: At the end, where endings belong, all those pieces join and merge and become a whole - finally, a remarkable and moving novel.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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