7.08.2015

THE LITERATURE OF EXHAUSTION: ON JOHN BARTH'S LAST NOVEL

first published in

           I’m tempted to start by calling John Barth literature’s professor emeritus. He does resemble the appropriate sort of professor, benevolent and a little mad, and it’s preferable to his usual topic sentence positioning as a “Master of Post-Modernism.” Yes, Barth is best known for his heavily thesised ‘70s novels: the talk-like-a-pirate Sot-Weed Factor; the deconstructive Giles Goat BoyLetters, that utter shitshow. But me? I like Barth’s gentler brand. I like Chimera’s wonderful corkscrews and On With The Story, the cascading novel disguised as short story collection.
          In fact, my late-aughts PhD Lit application essay was about On With The Story. I didn’t get in. Looking back, there was a problem beyond over-reliance on the rule of threes and applying to grad school during a financial crisis: it’s too easy to write superficially about John Barth. The mad professor always takes care to cite his sources, his characters praising their muse Scheherazade, his metaphors stretching into mythology, his leads meta-grumbling about their own plots. But despite sabotaging my would-have-been life in academia, On With the Story remains a fresh examination of contemporary reading habits.
        It was also the beginning of the end. Barth’s readership and fiction have steadily dwindled in the 20 years since On With the Story and I think that the main operative factor is that, like Tithonus, he got old. That might sound crass. I only say it because Barth has spent the last half-century making the case himself.

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