This essay originally appeared in The Quarterly Conversation
The four books of short fiction that John Barth has published (all now reprinted by Dalkey Archive as Collected Stories) offer a usefully synoptic view of Barth’s most signature moves as a writer of fiction—or at least those moves with which he is likely to remain most identified. Although Barth advises the reader in his brief introduction to Collected Stories that his “authorial inclination” has always been “toward books rather than discreet, stand-alone short stories,” the very ways in which he endeavors in each of these collected books to unify the series of “discreet” stories are revealing of Barth’s fundamental assumptions and ambitions. Thus, while it may be true that “short fiction is not my long suit,” as Barth puts it, these collected stories do reveal the ultimate purposes of Barth’s literary art.
Clarity about Barth’s artistic principles is necessary because his fiction is often mischaracterized, sometimes deliberately caricatured, and readers are still likely to be familiar with his reputation as a “difficult” writer given to “playing games,” obsessed with his own narrative tricks rather than telling a story about “life.” Certainly books like Lost in the Funhouse and On With the Story, both appearing here in full, are among the most comprehensively self-reflexive works of fiction published by an American writer (or any writer). Both as individual stories and as a whole, such books readily acknowledge the artifice of their own making, but if this is to be regarded as playing a “game” with the reader, it is a game that transcends frivolity, serving aesthetically serious and thematically consequential goals. If the prevailing tone in these books is playfulness, this should not be mistaken for whimsicality, for arbitrary (or even contemptuous) humor to no justifiable artistic effect.
Barth’s earliest novels, The Floating Opera and End of the Road, offer a certain conviviality of tone (if more muted), but they are also fundamentally serious books. Both take on the weightiest of topics—the nature of human values, the meaning of existence itself—in a mode that critics at the time associated with the then-notorious existentialist philosophy proclaimed by Jean-Paul Sartre. Indeed, Barth himself has referred to the novels as explorations of nihilism, hardly a subject to be taken lightly, which Barth treats with all due sobriety and without resort to narrative “trickery” (although neither could really be called works of conventional realism of the kind that had come to dominate American fiction in the immediate postwar period).
The Sot-Weed Factor was intended to be the final installment of a “nihilist trilogy,” as Barth himself has called it, but while this novel does have some thematic affinities with The Floating Opera and End of the Road, it instead became the first of Barth’s truly “experimental” works, arguably the first recognizably “postmodern” novel by an American writer. (Barth would later duly cite the importance of such predecessors as Borges and Beckett in pushing him in this new direction.) A “self-conscious” novel, it doesn’t so much call attention to the process of its own creation as make the reader aware of its status as an anachronistic work, a pastiche of an 18th-century novel in the mold of Fielding and Smollett. It is as if Barth is attempting to move the novel as a form forward by taking it backward, reminding us of its roots. The 18th-century English novel is indeed notable for a high degree of authorial self-consciousness (Tristram Shandy being the most radical example), an additional sign that Barth is working toward a complete break with the conventional realist novel and its transparent narrative in favor of a kind of storytelling (Barth never abandons story) that is unafraid to acknowledge its inherent artifice.
Barth’s follow-up to The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, similarly foregrounds its artifice, but in this case it is not the artifice of storytelling that is most emphasized, although there is some metafictional maneuvering in the story’s setup. Barth creates an artificial, alternative reality, a fictional world depicted as a University Campus that marks the limit of the characters’ awareness. In this world, it is possible for a boy to grow up with goats only to discover he is a boy, then go on a heroic quest to free his world from an autocratic computer that rules the Campus and to achieve spiritual enlightenment. The novel’s allegory—essentially a restaging of the Cold War as a contest between “East Campus” and “West Campus”—is not subtle, and much of the novel’s humor comes from the overstated parallels between conditions on Campus and the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, juxtaposed with the modes and conventions of the mythic quest as described by Joseph Campbell and others.
Barth has judged Giles Goat-Boy his least favorite among his novels “because the overstatement is overdone—the novel itself is too long, the subject is inevitably dated, the setting borders on the jejune.” Whether or not Barth had reservations at the time about his turn, in both The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, to this large-canvas, Rabelaisian satire (what at the time was called “black humor”), his next book would nevertheless be very different, conspicuously reduced in size. Lost in the Funhouse distills the essential elements in Barth’s shift to more experimental work—heightened awareness of fiction as a literary form, preoccupation with the process of writing, an interest in the source and structure of storytelling—and refashions them as shorter, more concentrated stories that challenge the conventions of the short story as much as Sot-Weed and Giles challenge those of the novel. The result is a book that, more than any other, defines “metafiction” as a distinctive variant of literary postmodernism, a book that is certainly one of the most important of the 1960s, arguably one of the most important produced by a postwar American writer.
While numerous works prior to Lost in the Funhouse clearly enough now seem classifiable as postmodern (including Barth’s own previous two novels), it also now seems clear that this book is most responsible for clarifying (and raising) the stakes involved in what by the time it appeared was obviously among younger, more adventurous writers a rejection of the reigning practices of the immediate postwar years in favor of a more formally audacious kind of fiction. Barth, along with such generational colleagues as Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and William Gass, no longer took for granted a definition of fiction that ties it to traditional conceptions of narrative and its fixed elements (“character development,” “point of view,” etc.). Of course, most readers still take such a definition for granted, and so, although Giles Goat-Boy had achieved surprising popularity for a book of its heft and eccentricities, Barth’s reputation as a difficult writer whose work disrupts our customary reading habits would only expand after the publication of Lost in the Funhouse.
Here Barth challenges the reader to accept that ultimately fiction is something made, a construction of language. A “story” is just that, an ordered contrivance that is not a direct reflection of “reality” but an alteration of it, its transformation by art. By calling attention to his narrators narrating, to the “storyness” of stories, or to seemingly more straightforward narratives as allegories of storytelling (“Night-Sea Journey,” “Lost in the Funhouse”), Barth implicitly asks readers to reconsider their expectations of a work of fiction, to acknowledge that the writer might use the form in a different way, might in fact abandon the form in its traditional guise altogether. Does fiction as literary art consist only of the skill with which the writer carries out the familiar narrative strategies, or can the writer achieve other kinds of aesthetic effects, arising from alternative arrangements of form and language?
Lost in the Funhouse is anchored by three stories (including the title story) that feature the character named Ambrose Mensch, narratives that are actually somewhat conventional in that they tell discernible stories about a recognizable type of fictional character (a young boy on the verge of maturity), related more or less transparently from an unbroken point of view. Taken together, they make the book’s preoccupation with the nature of literary creation visible in the most accessible way, by making it the “theme” of the stories’ depiction of Ambrose’s realization that authoring fictions will be his ambition (“he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator”). On the other hand, stories like “Echo,” “Title,” “Life-Story,” and “Menelaiad” are the most explicitly self-reflexive, and can stand as the archetypal works of metafiction, a term first used in 1970 by William Gass (who mentions Barth specifically as an example). Although this term has come to designate any work of fiction that even vaguely calls attention to itself or the situation of the writer writing, Gass used it to draw an analogy between “meta” procedures in other disciplines, such as mathematics and ethics (as Gass puts it, “lingos to converse about lingos”), and the rise of self-aware, formally intricate fiction. In such fiction, “the forms of fiction serve as the material upon which further forms can be imposed” (“Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”).
The self-reflexivity of metafiction, in Gass’s conception, mirrors a previous act of reflection on the writer’s part, reflection about “the forms of fiction” and their suitability to the needs of the modern writer. Metafiction is not mere gesture, the superficial kind of game-playing for which too many works of pseudo-metafiction are indeed blameworthy. John Barth’s form of game-playing is more ambitious, and its ambition is ultimately quite considerable: to give fiction the same sort of grounding as these other disciplines. If abstraction in painting and serialism in music had freed those arts them from rigid canons of practice, metafiction attempts the same sort of liberation for narrative practice, at once both exposing all fiction as the artificial ordering of language and making possible the further advancement of fiction through embracing this fact. Metafiction helps us see works of fiction not as a means of accessing reality, but, in Gass’s words as “additions to it.”
In his essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” Barth himself explains the motive of metafiction as the attempt to confront “the used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities” by turning this exhaustion “into material and means for [the writer’s] work.” As the narrator of “Title” puts it:
Plot and theme: notions vitiated by this hour of the world but as yet not successfully succeeded. Conflict, complication, no climax. The worst is to come. Everything leads to nothing: future tense, past tense, present tense. Perfect. The final question is, Can nothing be made meaningful?. . . .
The narrator’s question, which he asks as he is trying to write a story after realizing “everything’s been said already over and over,” is actually “yes,” if we accept that indeed “Everything leads to nothing.” A story doesn’t “lead” to anything beyond itself. To think otherwise is to believe that a work of fiction has value only in the external meaning to which it points us. The work itself—the work as embodied language—disappears, something that metafiction does not allow to happen. Nothing can indeed be made meaningful if what fiction does lead to—its own verbal texture, the formal structures language builds—is the “meaning.” As Barth puts it in the later Chimera, “the key to the treasure is the treasure.”
Not all of the stories in Lost in the Funhouse are as purely metafictional as “Title” or “Life-Story” but are more generally “experimental.” “Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction” is a process-oriented story that narrates its own coming-into-being; it is most noteworthy for appropriating the tape recorder as a literary stratagem, presenting itself as the transcription of an audio recording. The story thus cleverly foregrounds the role of “voice” in fiction. “Glossolalia” is also meant to be heard aloud—only in this way can the underlying rhythms of the Lord’s Prayer that unite the six otherwise unrelated spoken fragments, including one literally spoken in tongues, really be detected. Perhaps the most infamous experimental “story” in the book (experimental in asking for the reader’s active participation and attempting to expand our conception of what properly constitutes “writing”) is the first one, “Frame-Tale,” in which the reader is instructed to take a pair of scissors to the page: “Cut on the dotted line. Twist end once and fasten AB to ab, CD to cd.” The result is a Mobius strip forming an endless loop of “Once upon a time there was a story that began.”
Barth would not return to the short story (at least in book form) until 1996’s On With the Story. In the meantime, he had written several very long novels demonstrating that Barth, however much he calls into question many axiomatic storytelling conventions, by no means abandoned storytelling. These books are stuffed full of story, although they also concern themselves directly with the purpose and effects of stories, continuing in the metafictional mode introduced by Lost in the Funhouse but in a more fully elaborated, structurally consistent way. If Lost in the Funhouse is more purely experimental, the novels that follow it both further explore the use to which self-reflexivity might be put in replenishing the resources of narrative and establish a signature type of narrative practice that can be seen as identifiably “Barthian.”
This signature is fully evident in On With the Story, even if the book doesn’t have the heft of the novels preceding it. It most immediately differs from Lost in the Funhouse in being not merely a series of stories but an integrated series, a book in which the whole is meant to be more than the sum of its parts. On With the Story is unified in several ways, both formally and thematically, beginning with the frame-tale Barth has interpolated throughout the text: an unnamed man and woman, the former the teller of the tales, the latter their audience and critic, discuss the quality and implications of the tales, providing the book its self-reflexive commentary. Although the writer figure in these scenes is pretty clearly a version of John Barth (as are the protagonists of many of Barth’s later novels), he is presented as a character in the larger fiction that incorporates the individual fictions the character relates. We could call this larger fiction the story of a storyteller.
The narrative structure is metaphorically reinforced by a motif that recurs throughout the book, a motif drawn from quantum physics. It is made most explicit at the beginning of the story, “Waves, by Amien Richard,” one of whose characters asks, “Are we particles . . . or waves?” At first the preoccupation with the “particle wave duality”—whereby a particle of matter sometimes manifests as a wave, depending on how it is observed—might seem curious, but ultimately we can see it is a conceit that reflects the book’s own status: We could regard each story individually, as if it were a particle, or we can consider it in its entirety, as a wave proceeding with its own forward momentum.
Barth further extends this metaphor to apply as well to another theme expressed in several of the stories, the relationship of “story” to “life,” a question, embodied in the title, first raised by “Life-Story,” one of the central stories in Lost in the Funhouse. If life is a wave, then a story is particle, momentarily anchoring the life in a “fixed position,” altering it in the process. The hyphen in the title “Life-Story” enforces a separation between the two, and in On With the Story Barth reaffirms that this separation is necessary if we are to properly take the measure of each. “Our lives are not our stories,” concludes one of the tales. “Life” may ultimately and inevitably retain dominion over “story,” but stories allow us to put life on pause, to arrest time in its onward course:
The middle of the story nears its end, but has not reached it, not yet. There’s time still, still world enough and time. There are narrative possibilities still unforeclosed. If our lives are stories, and if this story is three-fourths told, it is not yet four-fifths told; if four-fifths, not yet five-sixths, et cetera, et cetera. . . .
Indeed, the story in which this passage appears, “Ad Infinitum: A Short Story,” doesn’t quite come to narrative closure itself; its twin characters remain suspended between the wife’s task of informing the husband about a phone call that has clearly related bad news and its actual completion, the wife grimly advancing toward the husband blithely tending his garden, unaware of the probably life-changing information he’s about to receive. We may be tempted to conclude that we nevertheless “know” that the news will be delivered and the couple will endure their hour of suffering, except that this would be the case only if we were witnessing such a scene in life, or, as the narrator has it, “non-narrated life.” In a story, the dreaded moment doesn’t have to arrive. The narrative moment can be deferred, in effect, forever.
The Book of Ten Nights and a Night (2004), like On With the Story, also acts as a kind of anatomy of storytelling, although in this case the self-reflexive gestures are more circumscribed, on display most prominently in the framing story with which Barth has again surrounded a collection of otherwise unconnected stories. Although the use of this device in both books is of course in homage to One Thousand and One Nights (one of Barth’s persistent influences), The Book of Ten Nights signals the allusion most explicitly. Barth’s frame tale reverses the situation we find in the narrative of Scheherazade regaling the King with stories: Barth (lightly fictionalized as “Graybard”) relates his stories to a nymph-like Muse with whom Graybard has “congress” during the interludes between the tales. All in all, the conceit is very similar to that used in the meta-narrative of On With the Story, and, by this stage in Barth’s career, the reiteration of his debt to the metafictional strategies of One Thousand and One Nights has perhaps begun to wear thin.
Not only is the device repetitious, but the interactions between writer and muse are extended (one might say labored) enough that they overwhelm what are finally rather marginal stories. Only “Click,” Barth’s first attempt to reckon with the online medium as competitor with print, could be considered a significant addition to Barth’s larger body of work. The author has further burdened Book of Ten Nights and a Night with the weight of topicality. A book that began as a more “sportive” affair, Graybard informs us in the “Invocation,” was altered when he realized 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.”
Barth seems to have bought into the notion, perpetrated by some after the events of 9/11/01 that this day entailed a loss of credibility for the sort of postmodern fiction Barth’s work prominently exemplified. But the charge made against postmodern irony was certainly not that it was “innocent”; rather, it was all too knowing, too detached and clever by half in its preference for stylistic and formal displays over engagement with reality. The call for writers to awaken from their postmodern-induced slumber and acknowledge that reality is itself actually a bid to return fiction to a state of literary innocence, to the belief that reality can be directly represented in a work of fiction that sticks to the narrative basics. Book of Ten Nights and a Night winds up mildly reaffirming the value of “irrelevant” stories in the face of real-world trouble, but a better way to assert that value may have been to present these stories according to the original, less fretfully earnest plan, the state of the “real world” outside the text notwithstanding.
The Development (2008) as well suggests a retreat from the most overt displays of postmodern artifice and metafictional trickery. The book can be read as a more or less conventional series of linked stories about a retirement community, Heron Bay Estates, that houses its share of “autumnal resignation and quiet turmoil, although Heron Bay’s ultimate demise is far from quiet, as it is ravaged by a tornado spun off from a late-season tropical storm moving up Barth’s cherished Chesapeake Bay. While the stories are not completely free of passages meditating on the act of storytelling (it is still Barth, after all), The Development is otherwise entirely accessible to most readers as a kind of slice-of-life realism depicting American life as lived by those nearing its conclusion. Even the at times fustian mannerisms of Barth’s late style, which particularly encumber Book of Ten Nights and a Night, is here toned down to something closer to a conventional expository style.
The Development succeeds relatively well in what it sets out to do, although it is inevitably disappointing that it sets out to do so little. It is of course not surprising that a writer now in his mid-80s would turn to themes of aging and taking stock, but one might wish that Barth had done so without defaulting to such conventional methods of presenting these themes. (Barth’s follow-up to The Development, the novel Every Third Thought, is a return to the fustian style, but unfortunately it also doesn’t show him discovering freshly innovative strategies for realizing the themes.) Collected Stories thus allows us to see the arc of Barth’s career, from vanguard experimental writer to one less-inspired but still dedicated to his ideal of storytelling. Collected Stories provides valuable testimony to the shape of this career, but finally it will be most valuable if it brings new readers to Lost in the Funhouse and On With the Story.