In his review of John Barth's Where 3 Roads Meet, Traver Kauffman maintains that the book consists of a "trio of loosely connected novellas" (Rocky Mountain News). I have to disagree. That the book is a "trio" is true enough (and the word itself highlights the book's central conceit), but the three novellas it includes are actually very tightly connected, although not through overlapping characters or setting or some other superficial element of continuity. Where 3 Roads Meet is very much a composed book, and anyone who reads it as merely a conveniently collected group of fictions somewhat longer than short stories but too short to be called novels will be missing out on the features of the book most relevant to Barth's purpose.
The book is unified, first and foremost, through the motif named in its title. It acts as both a structural and a thematic device, at the same time foregrounding the image of three roads meeting (for Barth a symbol of fertility, both physical and artistic) and providing a rich source of cross-textual echoes and recurrences that substitute for the narrative momentum that, in typical Barthian fashion, is constantly interrupted and redoubled, seemingly always about to move dramatically forward but never quite doing so. Thus there are corresponding situations/groups of characters: three college students (who also play together in a jazz trio) in the first novella, Tell Me; the three elements in the literary interchange, Tale, Teller, Reader, embodied as characters in the unabashedly metafictional I've Been Told; three sisters (symbolically representing the Three Graces) in the final novella, As I Was Saying.
In Tell Me, the three students are engaged in a love triangle, in I've Been Told (the "story of the Story"), tale and reader are carried successfully by their Dramatic Vehicle (driven by the teller) away from the place where three roads meet to a narrative climax of sorts, while the three sisters tell (in a series of three tapes) how they came to inspire a celebrated writer to compose his trilogy of novels, The Fates. And, of course, Where 3 Roads Meet is itself a more modest reduction of this imaginary trilogy, a triumvirate of fictions that presents to its own readers a place where three roads meet--three ways of exploring the sources and the fascinations of storytelling. (There are even more instances of such tripling, as readers of W3RM will discover.)
These days Barth is most often criticized for failing to "move past" the metafictional game-playing for which he has become perhaps the emblematic figure. But where, exactly, is he to go? Toward some more conventional kind of narrative strategy? Presumably he determined long ago that this was not the direction in which his talents would take him or he would never have abandoned conventional techniques in the first place. Moreover, to call self-reflexivity in fiction a matter of "game-playing" is to undervalue what metafiction is ultimately all about. There is an element of game-playing in John Barth's work--he wants his fiction to be entertaining, if not in the way stories are expected to entertain--but the self-reflexive gesture ("baring the device") is also the first and necessary step in establishing fiction as an aesthetic form whose limits are only the limits of language itself. Once we've acknowledged that a work of fiction does not require a suspension of disbelief, that its possibilities are not exhausted by the orthodox telling of tales, fiction as a literary form becomes that much more malleable, more open to other kinds of formal patterning.
Where 3 Roads Meet participates in this project in its modest way, allowing Barth to reinforce, through the cross-referential scheme I've described, more familiar metafictional devices with an intricate aesthetic design that balances the deconstruction of conventional narrative strategies and a simultaneous construction of alternative structures (much as Barth himself once posed the "literature of replenishment" against his previously elucidated notion of the "literature of exhaustion"). I would not claim that this is one of Barth's best books, although it might provide uninitiated readers with a pretty good introduction to his approach and assumptions. I would even agree with criticisms of Barth's late, mock-heroic style as a bit too mock- and more than a bit too mannered, as exemplified in a passage like this: "An upbeat, firm-willed, independent-spirited lass, be it said, who welcomed [her grandparents'] monitoring, took the loss of her not-much-of-a-mother in stride, comforted he not-all-that-bereft father as best a third- or fourth-grader can, and threw herself into her schoolwork, music lessons, team sports, and bosom-buddyhood with young Al Baumann. To whom she enjoyed mischievously displaying and even offering to his touch the not-yet-budding bosoms that anon would blossom into adolescent splendor."
No one will ever claim John Barth as either a plain stylist or a spinner of conventional yarns (although he does like to spin versions of yarns already spun). But that he is less than a conscientious writer concerned to enhance readers' appreciation of the art of fiction is an unsustainable argument.