Friday, September 21, 2007

The Barthathon: "LETTERS"

Did you notice? The Barthathon has expanded to include "The Friday Book" and "Where Three Roads Meet." Once "Further Fridays" arrives, they'll be one impenetrable (and complete) happy family!

Okay. "LETTERS."

Where do I begin?

Somewhere in this massive book, one of the Barth-surrogate characters (Ambrose Mensch AKA "Arthur Morton King") ponders people who love and enjoy life. Then he ponders people who enjoy writing about life, and people who love the WORDS they write with, and then -- finally -- the people who are absolutely, painfully, totally in love with the structure BEHIND the words, the writing, the "LETTERS" (1979).

This novel marks the high-point of Barth's letter-love, his massive statement about structure, formalism, words, meanings. His later books also explore these themes, but always in a much more gentle way, as though the author were gently prodding the reader through the story's funhouse. In this book (and "Chimera" (1972), its predecessor and soulmate), the author just kicks you roughly through the funhouse doors, switches off the lights, and leaves you to your own fumbling incomprehension.

Unlike "Chimera," however, "LETTERS" is massive. It took me two weeks to read it but I feel like I've been lost in it for years. Now that I've stumbled out the other end, I think I can say a few words about what it is and how it works, but NO review could even GLOSS the details, so I won't even try. This will be a confused review, because "LETTERS" is a confused book.

This novel is much maligned (as Barth himself says in the foreword), described as notoriously "unreadable." I disagree; "LETTERS" is AT TIMES difficult to read, but it has enough mystery and beauty to keep a competent (and not-too-jaded) reader going.

First off, a word about the structure: "LETTERS" is Barth's seventh novel, with a title of seven words, consisting of seven months of letters written by (and for) seven different different characters, each of whom writes on a particular day of the week...you know there are seven of those, right? And you also know what you're in for.

Five of the letter-writers are characters from his first six novels, now in the "second half" of their lives (ala the heroes in "Chimera"). The sixth character is "The Author," who solicits the other characters for permission to use their subsequent lives as part of an upcoming book (guess which one). In addition, he plans to combine the properties of all of their plots and themes into this book...which he certainly does, creating a mish-mash of styles that only Barth could try to hold together.

These are not throw-away characters, invented just to serve a wanky point; each is fully realized and is given enough "letter-time" to establish a book's-worth of plot. Writing on Fridays, Todd Andrews (the once-suicidal lawyer from "The Floating Opera") is elderly, sweet, and increasingly obsessed with what appears to be a repetition of his first story...he causes himself no end of grief (Bellerophon-style) trying to fit current events into a nebulous pattern that doesn't QUITE work. With him, we receive the themes of repetition, sailing, and old age. He also gives us "the tragic view of history."

Jacob Horner (anti-hero of "The End of the Road") is the Thursday writer. He has, since the tragic death of his mistress, become increasingly immobile. He spends his days in a southern Ontario "remobilization farm," soon joined by his dead mistress' tripped-out husband, who wants to "resurrect" the dead by reenacting the past. Horner's thematic contribution is "the anniversary view of history," an obsession with dates that is annoying at the beginning of the book and EXTREMELY annoying by the end (when EVERYBODY'S doing it). The writers tend to digress into half-page lists of date-specific birthdays, deaths, and events, none of which are related to the plot (and when they are, they aren't important).

This sort of device would have been awe-inspiring in the pre-Wikipedia days, but now we can get that information with a simple search query. If anything has aged poorly in "LETTERS," it's this obsession with dates...but since each letter IS written on a specific date, and since the plots DO hinge on anniversaries, the technique is an important one...just underwhelming nowadays.

Wednesday's authors are a selection of ancestral Burlingames and Cooks (from "The Sot-Weed Factor"), who alternate their surnames -- and their potency -- with each generation. The Cook letters take up the bulk of the novel, and they are of such dense historical material that you need a machete and a bottle of Tylenol to get through them. The Cooks have two main goals: bringing about a "second revolution" (vaguely associated with restoring the rights of slaves and Native Indians), and either thwarting the aims of their fathers (in the first half of their lives) or advancing those same aims (when they realize that the aims were not what they seemed...maybe).

The various Cooks tell us mainly about the war of 1812, and subsequent attempts to rescue Napoleon. Each family member has become deeply involved in both subverting and advancing historical events in North America...but their efforts cancel each other out so often (and tend to produce such negligable and unverifiable results) that none of them ever seem to ACHIEVE anything...and this is MADDENING. It's one thing to read fifty-page chunks of tangled historical conniving as long as there is a CONCLUSION, but all the Cooks can say in the end is "eh, maybe it worked, I dunno, but I'll keep trying."

The Cooks bring us "the tragic view of history," revolution, political intrigue, and multiple viewpoints. They also bring the OVERRIDING theme of multiple identities and disguises...and this, coupled with the endless historical data, FRUSTRATED ME.

You've got Andrew Cook VI, who may also be André Castine, or Monsieur Casteene (one of whom may also be "Lord Baltimore.") You've also got extremely complicated love septagons consisting of people who have multiple names; Jeannine Mack is "Bea Golden," "Bibi," "Peggy Rankin," and "Regina de Nominatrix." Marsha Blank is "Pocahontas" and other people that I forget. Merope Bernstein is "Rennie Morgan" and "Margana y Fael." Add to this a bunch of maiden names and you'll understand why the characters tend to blur together.

Anyway, Jerome Bray writes on Fridays. A descendent of Harold Bray (false Grand Tutor of "Giles Goat-Boy"), Bray is even more disturbing than his ancestor. He's building a biomechanical novel-writing machine called "LILYVAC II," meanwhile "seeding" the novel's seven primary females. Bray, with his half-revealed motivations and impossible history is John Barth's first and only foray into outright horror, and it's a shock to read such perverse and awful sidetracks in his fiction. Naturally, I wish he'd given Bray a bit more time.

LILYVAC II is being programmed to write a revolutionary novel, and it is apparently writing Bray's letters as well. If you've read "Chimera," you'll finally understand those disconnected bottled-messages that Bellerophon received, full of ominous accusations and RESETs. They come directly from "LETTERS"...which was published seven years AFTER "Chimera."

This is because Monday's writer is Ambrose Mensch, protagonist (and "author") of the more readable stories in "Lost in the Funhouse." Ambrose is the obsessive structuralist side of John Barth, who helps Barth himself (Sunday's letter-writer) develop the crazy, nit-picky, mathematical backbone of..."Chimera." This is possible because "LETTERS" is set in 1969. Even though "Chimera" came out in 1972, the plot of "LETTERS" occurs before "Chimera" was released. If you think that's confusing, try dealing with Mensch's thematic contribution: mathematics, spirals, the alphabet, writing, and letters themselves...it's Mensch who is so hung up on those bottled "water messages" that are such a Barth staple.

Here's a particularly fun brain-teaser bonus: Mensch is writing the screenplay for a film adaptatio of all of John Barth's novels. The director (Reg Prinz) starts by filming recreations of familiar scenes from Barth's books, but soon becomes totally focussed on the war of 1812. Lady Amherst (Saturday's author and the only new primary character) is confused, because none of Barth's books have ever DEALT with the war of 1812.

Are you with me here? "LETTERS" IS about the war of 1812, so it makes perfect sense for Prinz to focus on it. But the film is adapting material from the book that the film is in. This would make no sense to characters who are actually in the book (like Lady Amherst), but to the rest of us, fortunately outside the hell that is "LETTERS," this gradual revelation is simultaneously wonderful and sort of nauseating.

It is that sort of book. Cryptic computer print-outs. The struggle between film and pen. The sources of inspiration. The structure of the story. Each month's letters read in "author order" instead of "by date" (because of the tilted-calendar formula, which must be seen to be believed).

What else is there, though? I'll tell you what: deep, archetypal characters struggling to get through life, discover themselves, and understand the crazy world around them. The Mensch/Amherst plot is a gorgeous and bittersweet family drama which expands upon the tantalizing details of "Lost in the Funhouse." There are ACTUAL STORIES in here, and you can CARE about them.

Most significant and heart-rending, however, is the tale of Todd Andrews, the solitary lawyer who sets out on his last sailing trip, saying goodbye to the land and the people that he loves. Andrews is the book's stand-out character. His letters should have been the last ones, but the "calendar" structure would not have allowed it. "Ambrose Mensch" trumps "John Barth" again.

I liked "LETTERS." I think I "understood" a bit chunk of it, but if any book needed a companion volume (especially one that outlines events in chronological order), this is one. I think it suffers a bit too much digression, and the Cook sections are horribly tedious, but somehow it all fits together, and somehow it's wonderful.

And no, you don't need to read his first six novels before reading this one, just in case you're looking for an autumn hobby.

Rather than list the Barth themes in "LETTERS," you'd do better to say which ones AREN'T here: none. But it does introduce the first really anatomical description of Maryland sailing, and I suspect that some of these events are echoed in the much maligned "Coming Soon!!!", a review of which is...coming soon.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100% about everything you say about LETTERS...and that's why I list it as my favorite novel of all time (right after Ulysses). But how the hell did you finish it in 2 weeks?! I wish I had that kind of time nowadays.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

How did I finish it in two weeks? I can't figure that out myself! Like I said, it felt like years, but when I looked back at the blog I realized it had only been fourteen days.

I was determined to finish it because it's incredibly heavy, and I was tired of carting it around to the exclusion of other things I like to carry. And I found that the Cook letters were best read all-at-once (to keep everything in mind), so I'd speed through those, and I devoured the rest because I liked it.

I haven't gotten much else done these last few weeks, that's for sure.

I'm glad that you like the review...and the book! I don't know anybody else who has read it.