Barth on 9 / 11: postmodern retrospective

April 04, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,Sun Staff

The Book of Ten Nights and a Night, by John Barth. Houghton Mifflin. 304 pages, $24.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, countless writers have confronted the question of how, if at all, to address those world-shaking events in their fiction. But leave it to John Barth to complicate matters -- by fretting about reconciling the attacks with his pre-9 / 11 writing.

As Barth's narrative stand-in explains at the outset of this curious potpourri, the author had been planning, before the attacks, to gather in one book 11 previously uncollected short stories, most from the late 1990s.

Because the stories were "autumnal" in tone, concerning "such jolly topics as the approach of old age, declining capabilities and death," the author had decided to sex things up by introducing a comely muse whose allure would supposedly inspire the telling of the tales.

That was the plan -- until "(expletive) hit the world-in-general's fan, and the US of A's in particular." The narrator wonders whether his "impossibly innocent" stories are suited for a post-9 / 11 world, but Miss Muse convinces him that telling "irrelevant stories in grim circumstances is not only permissible, but sometimes therapeutic."

So, in the 11 days following the attacks, the author -- or rather, his wayward imagination -- shares his stories with the muse, one per night, with each telling preceded by a racy (though purely "metaphorical") bout of lovemaking.

This elaborate construct doesn't entirely hold up. The fact is, plenty of entertaining, "irrelevant" fiction has appeared since 9 / 11 without need of justification. It seems contrived, or at least off-key, to use the attacks as the peg for stories written several years earlier -- particularly because the narrator reckons little with the meaning of 9 / 11, beyond some standard moderate-liberal observations.

Easier to understand is why the author wanted a frame to buttress the stories in the first place. The collection bears the trademarks of late-period, postmodern Barth: There are stories within stories, and stories about telling stories, all laced with clever wordplay. But for all their inventiveness, many lack the dramatic spark to get off the ground.

A common theme runs throughout: A sixty-something protagonist, typically a writer or professor, is enjoying a contented transition to a mid-Atlantic retirement with his wife, when some random sign or event gets him thinking -- about life, about a long-ago infidelity, or, yes, about narrative structure. In one story, the provocation is a wedding ring found on the sea floor; in another, a mysterious date that pops up on the computer screen.

After a while, these ruminations tend to blur together. The one exception is "9999," in which a somewhat older protagonist is about to commit suicide out of his longing for his dead wife. The couple had shared a playful obsession with assigning significance to numerically unusual days (3 / 3 / 33, 1 / 23 / 45, etc.) and he runs through memories of those dates as he prepares to kill himself on 9 / 7 / 97.

It is an affecting story, recalling the ironic suicide contemplation in Barth's terrific first novel, The Floating Opera, and indirectly putting the reader in mind of 9 / 11, another day that seemed selected for possible numerical meaning. The story is proof that even post-attacks, good fiction justifies itself, with no excuses needed.

Alec MacGillis is a member of The Sun's new investigative reporting team. He has also covered higher education for the paper. He spent the week following the 9 / 11 attacks covering their aftermath in the suburbs of New York and New Jersey.

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