by Robert WeibezahlDecember, 2005
John Barth's literary legerdemain
<b>John Barth's literary legerdemain</b>John Barth was a big deal in the '60s. One of the most celebrated and widely read of a new generation of postmodern or metafiction writers, he was nominated for the National Book Award three times, winning for <i>Chimera</i> in 1973. But for whatever reason, Barth has fallen out of fashion, and while he is still writing at age 75, his recent books for the most part seem to have slipped beneath the literary radar.
Widely popular or not, Barth remains a dazzling wordsmith, and his new book, a deceptively slender collection of thematically interrelated novellas called <b>Where Three Roads Meet</b>, is characteristic of his work elliptical, irreverent and challenging. The book takes its name from the convergence of three roads where Oedipus learns of his fate, and in each of the stories, the symbol of three roads, or intersecting lines, plays out in numerous ways. The novellas are as much about storytelling as they are about the stories themselves. It is sometimes impossible to separate narrator from narrative, which is Barth's intention. But a game reader should not be put off by Barth's convolutions, because once you get into the rhythm of the narratives, there are many rewards to be found in these three infectious tales, with their arresting, offbeat characters.
Tell Me unfolds as an American <i>Jules and Jim</i>, wherein three college students in the 1950s two men and a woman form a mÅ½nage ˆ trois as intellectual and emotional as it is sexual. Each is named Fred (Alfred, Wilfred, and Winifred), so they form a jazz combo called The Three Freds. It is Will, the drummer and aspiring writer (Barth himself is a drummer who dropped out of Juilliard), who recalls the events years later, coerced and corrected by the spirit of the long-dead Al. Tell Me beautifully captures the esprit de corps of this congenial young trio, making the tragic ending all the more heartbreaking.
The middle novella, I've Been Told: A Story's Story, begins as a bantering dialogue between two characters Fred I've Been Told Story and Self-Appointed Sidekick Izzy-the-Teller before settling into a straightforward account of the life of one Philip Blank. Philip, as his surname implies, is a cipher to both himself and the world at large. He lives an ordinary, uneventful life, marked by an aversion to making decisions or commitment, and it is a testament to Barth's narrative skills that we not only care about this lackluster fellow, but will wonder what comes of him at story's end.
As I Was Saying is told by three interlocking voices elderly sisters recounting how they worked their way through college as call girls. During one gig at a frat house, the Mason sisters meet a young man, Manfred F. Dickson, who will become a Joycean writer of some repute before lapsing into literary obscurity. The Mason sisters, to whom his masterwork, <i>The Fates</i>, was cryptically dedicated, are taping their freewheeling recollections for Manfred Jr., who is at work on a critical biography. Whether the women are telling the truth or not is a point of contention, left unresolved.
Part of the fun in reading these novellas is charting Barth's manipulation of ideas and devices: the predominance of the name Fred, notions of story as embodied in the convergence (literal and figurative) of three roads, the unmistakable importance of the number three. Knowledge of Barth's own life conjures further interesting confluences of time and place (the college in the first story is most certainly Barth's alma mater, Johns Hopkins; Philip Blank attends Penn State, where Barth taught; the author is himself a twin, like two of the Mason sisters.) But autobiography hardly seems the point. This is merely raw material with which a devilishly clever writer toys with the reader, stripping storytelling to its bare-bones archetypes, before rebuilding the story in a different way, forcing us to consider it anew. In our age of disposal, predictable pop literature and reality television, reading John Barth offers a welcome reawakening to the possibilities of the art of narrative. <i>Robert Weibezahl is author of the novel</i> The Wicked and the Dead.