If literary blogs exist to dredge up the underrated authors of our time, I must ask why the litblogosphere, so capable of unearthing the neglected, has remained so silent concerning the great novelist John Barth. If Gilbert Sorrentino, William Gaddis, and David Markson cut the mustard with their postmodernist innovations, then Barth likewise deserves a spot in the This Guy is the Real Deal pantheon. Here is a novelist who playfully uses first person plural in Sabbatical to represent a romantic escapade on the Chesapeake Bay with the apparent descendants of Edgar Allan Poe and Francis Scott Key. Here is a novelist who, in his early trilogy of novels The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, and The Sot-Weed Factor, takes the piss out of absolutist thinking: Todd Andrews, the protagonist of The Floating Opera, is an attorney who contemplates a moment in his life when he should have died. The answer to his conundrum might lie in the ridiculous logic he uses in relation to a court case, unearthed in hilarious fashion over a protracted “logic” reminiscent of the crazy legal brief in William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own. Jacob Horner’s reason for living in The End of the Road is predicated upon following the dicta of a mysterious Doctor, with the series of instructions being woefully misunderstood and employed in an insensitive manner that even Horner doesn’t seem to see. Consider, for example, the way that Barth describes this moment in which Jacob Horner shares dinner with the Morgans:
Since there were only four chairs in the kitchen, Rennie and the two boys and I ate at the table while Joe ate standing up at the stove. There would have been no room at the table for one of the sling chairs, and anyhow it did not take long to eat the meal, which consisted of steamed shrimp, boiled rice, and beer for all hands. The boys — husky, well-mannered youngsters — were allowed to dominate the conversation during dinner; they were as lively and loud as any other bright kids their age, but a great deal more physically co-ordinated and self-controlled than most. As soon as we finished eating they went to bed, and though it was still quite light outside, I heard no more from them.
Who is this guy? Is this really a sad domestic situation or is Jacob Horner more concerned with externalizing every situation he comes across? We have all sorts of general details about who this family is and what the dinner entails, but why can’t Jacob Horner pinpoint anything about them? Why the strange comparative qualifiers compared to other boys? Why the concern for the boys’ conversation? These are the questions that pop up when reading a Barth novel.
Likewise The Sot-Weed Factor, possibly Barth’s masterpiece, frames a hypocritical concern for virtue using a real-life historical figure (Ebeneezer Cooke) over the course of a playfully picaresque novel.
Why not Barth? He regularly subverts conventional narrative. He is very funny and regularly irreverent. He is often unapologetically preoccupied with sex. He sneaks in little tidbits about mythology, history, and little-known procedures of the law. And his work often bristles with a warm-hearted sense of mischief, even when the scenario being described is an extremely troubling one involving abortion, rape, or suicide.
If Barth can be accused of any literary crimes, his rap perhaps involves an overwhelming preoccupation with Maryland and Virginia history and a restless ambition. Nearly every Barth reader I’ve talked with gave up on LETTERS at some point. It was the most ambitious volume that Barth produced, involving characters from Barth’s previous novels writing letters to a guy named John Barth. After LETTERS, it seemed that people wanted to forget that Barth even existed. (He is still alive, presumably residing somewhere around the Chesapeake Bay.) Even I, when I first read Barth a decade ago, failed to continue reading Barth’s works in sequence. But now that I’m reading one of the novels that came after LETTERS, Sabbatical, I’m finding it to be a great surprise, just as fun and inventive as his early work. And LETTERS is due for a serious reassessment. (LETTERS and Sabbatical, incidentally, are available from Dalkey Archive Press.)
I have been rereading Barth’s novels in a rather odd manner over the past month, starting with the first two and now including Sabbatical and The Sot-Weed Factor, the latter of which I am reading for the third time. If anything, the playfulness and narrative tinkering that first wowed me when I was feeding on a variety of lengthy and ambitious novels in my early twenties has resonated more.
Has Barth in some sense declined over the years? I don’t think so. I think the guy still has it, even though my reading of his post-LETTERS books remains limited. Nevertheless, I have now obtained almost all of his novels and I aim to figure out precisely what happened.
In the meantime, I jam this message into the bottle and throw it into the tidewater. I cannot be the only guy out here who thinks John Barth is the cat’s pajamas. So what of you, readers? If you tried out Barth, why did you put him back on the shelf? Or have you remained silent over the past few years because Barth ain’t exactly the heppest cat to rave about? Well, I’m here to tell you that Barth is the real deal! You are not alone! Let’s make some noise and get people talking about Barth! Who’s with me?
[UPDATE: Dan Green, wryly quoting me in the manner of a film publicist truncating blurbs, points out that he has written about Barth. The specific words I used were “so silent,” which is not to suggest total silence, but a comparative qualifier. Dammit, let’s make some noise!]