The peak isn’t the one most folks point to. I’m speaking of John Barth, now in his mid-80s and debilitated, and of a career that stretches back to when he was a vigorous 25. At that age Barth published his debut, The Floating Opera, and just five years later came the work for which he’s most celebrated, The Sot-Weed Factor. I’d never deny that the 1960 novel was a watershed for American fiction, nor that what he accomplished over the following decade, in particular the stories of Lost In the Funhouse, established landmarks for what we now call Postmodernism. Nevertheless, the man’s career overall now suffers a misbegotten consensus. Too many critics—a catchall expression, I realize, but bear with me—hold that the author had shot his bolt by, give or take, 1972. That was the year he published Chimera, and the same ill-informed consensus considers the subsequent National Book Award as a kind of recognition for Lifetime Achievement, a late salute to Sot-Weed or Funhouse or both. Yes, the author was barely into his 40s, at that point. Yes, but whatever he published thereafter was at best hubristic overreach and at worst . . . well, see George Steiner’s treatment of LETTERS, a Neanderthal bashing in The New Yorker. That piece appeared in 1979, and from then on the buzz about the work, in the hive mind, fell away. No one, buzz buzz, read the novels of the ‘80s and ‘90s. No one was buying Barth and his po-mo brand, as first Raymond Carver made it look prissy, and then David Foster Wallace rendered it unhip.
I admit I’m being hasty. I’m working with a catchall, and ignoring for instance the work of Frederick Karl, who made LETTERS a centerpiece of his massive ‘83 overview, American Fictions. In ‘91, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor garnered a dream review in the Washington Post, from no less a figure than Angela Carter. The publisher sprang for a book tour, and the reading I attended, at Powell’s in Portland, was standing room only. Barth still had his fans, including including David Foster Wallace, who closed Girl With Curious Hair with an homage to “Funhouse,” and he still garnered the occasional thumbs-up. Indeed, this very essay is occasioned by the good news that Dalkey Archive will bring out all his titles in new editions. Dalkey will also have a companion volume of appreciations, a book that will include this piece, in different form.
Still, for a good three decades, a distressing number of Barth’s better write-ups have flown under the radar. Up in the vast airship known as the New York Times Book Review, meanwhile, Jonathan Raban took a hatchet to Last Voyage. Gore Vidal, both in The New York Review of Books or on various TV talk shows, insisted that Barth was “unreadable” and “astonishingly boring.” Long and short, while the claim with which I began this piece might be throttled down, on the other hand I could as easily rev the engine even more loudly. I could tote up more citations, showing how people have failed to notice the actual zenith of the man’s storytelling.
Again, I don’t mean at all to downplay the impact of Sot-Weed or Funhouse, or Chimera either. I’ll grant, too, that such impact, game-changing, ranks as a different sort of accomplishment from simply producing one terrific novel after another. Barth’s work in the ‘60s ushered Americans into a new literary arena, whereas in subsequent decades he held his place, working (or playing?) with what William Gass called, in the Paris Review, a “combination of enormous knowledge with fine feeling and artistic… energy.” He came out with three long fictions that, at the least, rank with anything he did earlier, and the last of them when he was past 60.
Two I’ve cited already, namely LETTERS and Last Voyage. The third, The Tidewater Tales, falls squarely between them, in 1987. Of course, during these same dozen years he brought out one other novel, the brief Sabbatical, as well as the first and best of the Friday non-fiction sets.It’s all good, as they say, and another sort of essay, a critical biography, would also take time for those works. For this essay, though, I’ll confine myself to two brief notes. First, The Friday Book contains Barth’s lone defense of his later work, “The Poetry and Prose of It All, or Dippy Verses,” and it’s one sharp-cornered piece. It makes clear that, had he cared to fight back, à la Joyce Carol Oates, firing off a letter after every bad review, he’d have given the naysayers pause. Second, Sabbatical has plenty to recommend it, but when compared to the trio I’m celebrating, it lacks imaginative reach. The ’82 novel doesn’t send out such long, muscular tentacles, drawing in so many different varieties of fascination.
But then, that book concerns a sail around Chesapeake Bay, and an affable shorthand for the masterworks of this period might be Sailors Three. In each, Barth mines his personal passion for sailing to bring up configurations of story and meaning more varied and colorful, even, than what he accomplished on the sea-voyages of Sot-Weed.
LETTERS of course sprawls across the globe, but just about every key event takes place either onboard ship or within hailing distance. The machinations of Andrew Burlingame Cook VI, trying to foment a “second American Revolution” in the late ‘60s, prompt much of the present action—but in the end his schemes die with him, blown to bits on a boat. The bomber proves part of the novel’s greater tragedy: it’s A.B.C.’s own son Henry Cook Burlingame, and the letter in which the younger man confesses to patricide is composed on board another vessel, engaged in still more shadowy maneuvers. This greater family tragedy looms behind the novel’s first smaller one, also its first great scene, when radicals almost blow up Choptank Bridge. Bridges and boats teeter, all LETTERS long, above an ebb and flow that threatens to become a bloodbath. Todd Andrews, a reluctant hero throughout, spends as much time as he can in his beloved skipjack, yet every time he looks over a map of Chesapeake Bay, he can’t miss how often it “turns into a catalogue of horrors: … Shore bombardment… area. U.S. Navy… Long-range and aerial machine-gun firing….”
Less violent turning points also occur on the water. In the skipjack Andrews first reignites his old affair, ill-considered, with Jane Mack, and later tumbles into a tryst, even a worse idea, with Bea Golden. Both encounters draw him uncomfortably close to the mysterious Jerome Bray, “more like a bird or bat or bumblebee.” The unaging Jane begins to look like Bray’s “unearthly” progenitor, and then Golden serves as this creature’s drugged-up breeding stock, and overall the sexual roundelay turns “red in tooth and claw,” to cite Andrews citing Tennyson: it becomes a painful embodiment of the allegory that unifies all the myriad stories here, namely, Man vs. Nature. That allegory of course recalls Moby Dick, to which LETTERS nods more than once. But the many allusions in the ’79 text also reference a novel that hadn’t yet appeared. Infinite Jest owes as much to Barth’s novel as to any out of the older writer’s generation. Wallace too makes no apology about the steep challenges he’s setting for the reader, and he too works up one harsh admonition after another about American swagger and obliviousness. More than that—speaking of the nation and its failures—I must point out that the prescience of Barth’s accomplishment extends beyond the realm of books. Recent history bears a number of bloodstains that could’ve leaked from these pages, including much of the madness surrounding 9/11.
A novel so complex, to be sure, must have its happier elements as well. Among these, the outstanding example is Lady Amherst’s discovery of a lasting love, a man worthy of her. Still, the author seems to have been saving the sunshine for The Tidewater Tales. He himself observed, in a colloquy with John Hawkes, that his books come “in twins,” and while the ’87 novel suffers its share of nasty business, it’s perhaps best appreciated as the upbeat coeval to LETTERS. The love story of Tidewater, between Peter Sagamore and Katherine Sherritt, faces a considerable risk, when husband and wife set off on the Chesapeake during the ninth month of Katherine’s pregnancy, yet the getaway works for them. For one thing, “KSS” doesn’t eventually birth a monster, as Lady Amherst threatens to—though monsters do turn up, it bears repeating. No other Barth title so dramatizes the destruction of the Chesapeake environment, and as the Bay endures a rape, so does Katherine herself. Worse, her own brother shares responsibility for both violations. As for Peter, the bruising he gets when he tries to unravel CIA secrets serves as powerful reminder that “the Earth spins on [a] blood-greased axis.”
Nevertheless, here the tentacles of story reach toward optimism. Major players again and again survive a “sudden view over the edge of the known world:” a glimpse of how “Nature is not naturally narrative,” and so our lives, themselves a construction of Nature, are “not except by accident… meaningful.” This chill finger touches the parents-to-be early on (at a tense moment to be sure), but thereafter, what’s used to warm them proves remarkably potent. Katherine suggests that they “not write down these tales,” but rather only “tell and dream, dream and tell.” So Tidewater counters LETTERS in another way. As the earlier book was scribbled over on every surface, a heap of documents, so this one offers up the oral tradition in every form. Scheherazade takes a longer turn here than in Chimera, and this time the author has the nerve to put his lifelong inspiration onstage at a Storytelling Conference in present-day North Carolina. Homer too shows up, in a tour de force sequel to the Odyssey. For my money, this tale-within-the-Tales surpasses all the author’s pre-’72 visits to Greek myth.
Also we have two figures at the interstices of oral literature and written, Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn. Likewise speaking through a filter, a membrane, are the novel’s many dreams and, especially, the twins in Katherine’s belly. Those two comment on what they overhear, playfully for the most part, but soberly when it comes to the Bay’s pollution, the poisoned world they’ll inherit. Extinction looms on all sides, whether in the form of a silent spring, a recalcitrant muse, or a woman ravaged beyond the ability to love. If this superb novel possesses a unifying allegory, then, it’s that of Chaos Theory—the life-force bursting, willy-nilly, through any membrane intended to smother. Come to think, aren’t these Tales set during the bursting final weeks of June?
Now, as I’ve indicated, both these lengthy fictions unfold as that sort of multi-level construction we call a “social novel.” Both develop community portraits, savvy about economics and politics: fully mature works, to put it another way. The tide of maturity, however, carries this author in a surprising direction. LETTERS has more history, Tidewater more magic. Then four years later, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor showed less concern for society (it ran 100 pages shorter than the Tales, as that one was 100 pages less than LETTERS) while boldly embracing the surreal.
The controlling conceit turns death itself to a fable. Simon Behler is the sort of sailor-journalist whose work takes him all over the globe, yet his various “drownings,” first virtual, finally actual, carry him off to one of the few places he’s never been, the world of The Thousand Nights & a Night. He sits down with Sindbad, and hears of his voyages, presented in alternation with Simon’s. At first the tales out of old Baghdad come across as the fantasia we know, the damsel carried off by a roc and so on. Yet as the double-barreled narrative unfolds, the changes in perspective are sure-handed enough to allow for a wide variety of other voices. In the process, the incantation “abracadabra” begins to open portals to the everyday, a genie comes to look like an ordinary con man, and Sindbad himself seems less like a hero and more like a pirate. At last the text calls attention to the pun in his name: he’s sinned bad.
Revelations build with a slow burn, a passion unmatched in Barth, not least because it’s so charged with eroticism. The drama engages so thoroughly, I’ve often recommended that readers new to this author try Last Voyage first. But newcomer or not, in this book they eventually come to know the old Arab sea-dog’s worst evil, his incest with his daughter Yasmin. Yet this woman, now grown—“now,” that is, within Sindbad’s portions of the novel, the time of the Caliphates, a good thousand years in the past—proves damaged but not corrupted. Yasmin refuses to keep her love for Simon a secret. In so doing, she offers her father a final shot at redemption and her lover one ultimate death-defying metamorphosis.
Canny and courageous, Yasmin joins Lady Amherst and Katherine Sherritt as the third great woman character in these novels. More’s the miracle, Sindbad’s daughter grew up in the era of the Thousand Nights, which in this text gets systematically stripped of its magic. Readers come to see this medieval patriarchy for what it was: a time of infinite male license. Yasmin’s and Simon’s love affair allows her to learn of 20th Century America, with its relative female empowerment, and eventually she expresses the pain of the difference between their two eras during a tearful and magnificent coming-clean at her father’s table: “in [Simon’s] world at least some women have the freedom that none has in ours.”
In that line we hear again the feminist argument that has resonated powerfully throughout this author’s work since at least The End of the Road. In the 1958 novel, Rennie Morgan may have education and depth, but she’s reduced to a token of victory in the battle of wills between the two male leads. Physically abused, impregnated in a loveless coupling, dying in a botched abortion—it’s Rennie’s betrayed and staring corpse that renders the narrator catatonic, and not some vague epiphany about the absurdity of life. This “existential” reading of the novel isn’t wrong, but rather incomplete: another case of critics playing The Blind Men and The Elephant. Then Barth followed up Road’s tale of a woman wronged with one even more striking, as Sot-Weed detailed the adventures of Joan Toast, scarred but tenacious. That both creations were dreamed up during the era of Mad Men (infinite male license, anyone?) speaks to this artist’s ability to transcend his time. That he went on to work up a similar drama of inequality as late as the early ‘90s bears out feminism’s centrality to his vision.
But now I’m speaking of Barth’s whole career, give or take. I’m no longer constructing an argument about the three later novels that I would hold up as his greatest—in the process demonstrating, by no means incidentally, that the man sustained an extraordinary literary standard for a good 35 years, a feat for which it’s difficult to find a match in American letters (Don DeLillo would be one of the few who come to mind). But my argument, or my two, is or are now in place. For better or worse.
In closing, perhaps it’s best that I offer something from my experience in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, where our workshop leader asked to be called “Jack.” I was lucky enough to study under him for two semesters, back while he was between Chimera and LETTERS. Nobody famous came out of my group, nobody like Mary Robison or Frederick Barthelme, but naturally I tried to follow Hopkins grads. I noticed when Barthelme, in a 1988 piece for the Times Book Review, described Jack’s approach as a “natural combo of brilliance and kindness.” Right on: that was his teaching style in a nutshell. Nonetheless, I’d add one more word, perhaps under the general rubric of “brilliance.” I’d add that I most remember Jack for his toughness. An aesthetic toughness, I mean, a stubborn adherence to ideals. In a roomful of callow undergraduates, kids so desperate to publish that, God knows, maybe they’d blow up their own father, maybe they rape their own daughter… anyway, in such a crowd, he kept urging us towards something greater than “success,” towards the transcendence of our writer’s gifts, whatever their dimensions. So I remember now, and so I first recalled when I came to his work as an adult, in the three magnificent novels of his later career
John Domini’s latest book is the selected criticism Sea-God’s Herb, on Dzanc Books. Dzanc will also bring out a linked set of stories, MOVIEOLA!, in 2016, and a novel the following year. He has taught at Harvard, Northwestern, and elsewhere. See www.johndomini.com.
Image of John Barth by John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA – Author John Barth, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75822460
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