The Unexpected Subtext of Barth

Yesterday, I picked up John Barth’s Ten Nights and a Night and began reading it. And I couldn’t stop laughing my ass off over the subtext. Not only are the book’s assorted inner voices reluctant to use the word “postmodern,” but they try to settle on the politically correct term of “post-invocation.” All this while recognizing that pre-9/11 tomfoolery (i.e., Autumnal Tales written before) may be more of a premium now than before.

If ever a case could be made for the return of postmodern subtext, Barth, one of its beloved grandfathers, is it. While other authors have tried to wrestle with how consciousness has changed since “Black Tuesday,” Barth gets at the dilemma quicker than anyone:

Their quandary (Graybard’s and Wysiwig’s) is that for him to re-render now, in these so radically altered circumstances, Author’s eleven mostly Autumnal and impossibly innocent stories, strikes him as bizarre, to put it mildly indeed — as if Nine Eleven O One hadn’t changed the neighborhood (including connotations of the number eleven), if not forever, at least for what remains of Teller’s lifetime. And yet not to go on with the stories, so to speak, would be in effect to give the mass-murderous fanatics what they’re after: a world in which what they’ve done already and might do next dominates our every thought and deed.

While there’s little doubt that these words were written closer to what Barth styles TEOTWAW(A)KI — The End of the World As We (Americans) Knew It, it still suggests that American fiction is playing it safe. The situation is compounded by how previous creative efforts have now forever had their meaning altered since that moment. To demonstrate this, Barth includes his famous “Help!” chart early on, a musical notation which displays an audio track split into Left, Right and Center, with assorted helps and variations of distress. Looking at the chart, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this could be interpreted to represent the cries of the victims, or the cries of civil liberties being stripped away, or the general sense of helplessness a lot of Americans feel about the actions of Our Current Government. Certainly the chart was funny, but it was more disturbing this time around.

It’s also worth noting that the chart originally appeared in a 1969 issue of Esquire, and I wondered how much the poltiically charged events of that time influenced its making.

What’s further amazing to me is that The Floating Opera is now nearly fifty years old. Yet this new collection of stories, with the uncompromising tying thread of “Greybard” and WYSIWYG, demonstrates that Barth, now close to eighty, is as much of a giddy deviant as he was in 1956, perhaps more important than we ever expected.

(Further note: If you’re new to Barth, I recommend Dave Edelman’s John Barth Information Center, which lives up to its name and is a grand diversion for any literary person with a dreary day job.)

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