Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Barthathon "Where Three Roads Meet"

Okay, the Barthathon is finished. I'll wrap it up at the end of this post, but I've already said pretty much everything that I have to say about John Barth and his writing.

I'm glad that I won't need to read anymore of his books, and perhaps you're glad that you won't need to read my reviews of them.

I'll admit up-front that I couldn't wait to FINISH "Where Three Roads Meet" (2005) before I'd even STARTED it. What began as a joy back in July -- reading all of Barths books in chronological order -- had become a painful chore, and one that I wasn't getting anything out of except lessons in what NOT to do when writing fiction, and also shooting pains in my esophagus.

So I am totally unable to view "Where Three Roads Meet" in any sort of objective fashion, other than to snarkily tell you about the game I invented.

I call this game "What Sort of Crap Will John Barth Throw At Me This Time?" To play it, write a list of all the stereotypically overdone Barthian themes you can think of (excluding ones explicitly stated on the jacket write-up, like the "Ur-Myth" in this case), and then jot down when each theme appears. When you have discovered all but ten themes, rip the book in half.

Feel free to play this game yourself. Here's my tally, with the page numbers they first appear on:
  • The Chesapeake: 3
  • A muse is invoked: 3
  • The fiction is ABOUT fiction: 3
  • Narrator is also the protagonist: 3 (the book starts on page 3, after all).
  • Telling stories: 3
  • Impossibly long infodump: 4-25 (merely the FIRST part of the FIRST infodump; of the three novellas in the book, the first and third are ENTIRELY infodumps. Barth, YOU SUCK).
  • Protagonist is a teacher: 4
  • A character's parents are both well-off professional types (teachers, lawyers): 5
  • A character's infodump includes a detailed history of their education: 5
  • Scheherazade: 7
  • Narrator says "et cetera": 9
  • Descriptions of the alcohol that everybody is drinking: 13
  • Narrator says "anon": 15
  • A parent goes crazy, ends up in an institution, dies: 15
  • Somebody says "faut de mieux": 15
  • Inappropriate use of prefix "afore-": 19.
  • Twins: 22
  • A character peppers their speech with Yiddishisms, and then clarifies that they aren't actually Jewish but, you know, they like the words: 23
  • Somebody makes an obvious pun, and then the narrator explicitly points the pun out to the reader ("so to speak," "sorry for that," etc): 31
  • A character is, fortunately, old enough to avoid WWI but too young for WWII: 32
  • Inappropriate use of suffix "-eth": 35
  • A character wonders "who ARE we?": 44
  • Sodomy: 45 (not as pronounced as in most of his books, but it's still there, of course).
  • Abortion: 47
  • A list of "current events" appear in order to supposedly flesh out an infodump's time period: 49
  • Narrator mixes metaphors and then says "pardon the mixed metaphor": 51
  • Menstruation: 52
  • Character has multiple names: 64
  • Narrator describes self as "Yours Truly": 64
  • Somebody says "tant pis": 67
  • Another painful explanation of "ground situation" and "dramatic vehicle": 70 (of all Barth's themes, this one is the most inexcusably repeated during his "late period")
  • "The story of our lives is not our lives": 80
  • Musings about the world perhaps ending soon, usually following one of those "current events" lists: 81
  • The inability to inject the necessary conflict into a story turns out to actually BE a necessary conflict: 99
  • Young woman, older man: 107 (though not REALLY; the young/old connection is not so pronounced here)
  • The "Barth Female," that is, a woman who is achingly beautiful, highly sexed, and so intelligent and well-read that she even says "tant pis" occasionally: 113 (All three characters in the final story are bonafide "Barth Females").
  • A woman has an experimental lesbian affair: 155
I admit that thirteen of those themes are ones that I hadn't thought about beforehand, and only noticed when I came across them. I include them in exchange for all the other themes I DIDN'T include, basically because my writing hand was getting tired.

Did I rip the book in half? No, because it didn't contain sailing, a trip to Spain, a youthful tragic sexual experience, a declaration that "we're fortunate to be this age, in these circumstances, in this country", any of Barth's Chesapeake scenery (loblolly pines, Canadian geese, spartina), a water message, a detailed list of a character's prior residences, cute pillow-talk, meditations on The End of Literature, an increasingly impotent older male, a character who is obviously Shelly, Zeno's paradox, the "coastline measurement" stuff, or a time paradox involving writing.

Which means that, wow, this book is BREAKING NEW GROUND!

So, should you read John Barth? Yes, you certainly should. Ping-pong back and forth between his works, making sure not to read any that were published consecutively (with the exception of "Sabbatical" and "Tidewater Tales," which should be read "as a whole).

Also, perhaps, find it in your heart to love the old guy a bit. Someday I'll be able to do that...but not now.

On with the (different) story!


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your Barthathon. I've become very enamored of John Barth, but then again I'm not reading his books in order and as of yet I've only read 4 of his novels plus his 2 essay collections (with all of the fiction being from the earlier, and apparently more celebrated, portion of his career). I have identified some of the same things, that you mentioned, which could becoming irritating if one were to do nothing but read his books...

Would you agree that there's some sort of midpoint in his career where quality drops of (say, after Letters), or is that not necessarily a fair assessment?

Anonymous said...

*which could becoming

**quality drops off

Anonymous said...

That's odd, I still wrote "which could becoming" instead of "which could become." Silly brain.

Adam Thornton said...

Enjoy the books! Hopefully my expose won't colour your opinion much.

I wouldn't say that the QUALITY drops off so much as the VARIETY. There comes a time (circa "Sabbatical") when he just stops writing about new things. What's worse is that he stops writing about new CHARACTERS. The books are great individually, but they're all the same: same tone, same obsessions, same digressions, same setting, same people.

My recommendation is to ping-pong back and forth between pre- and post-Sabbatical works to make the lack of variety less noticeable, and to read other things in between. I'd say all the books are worthwhile in their own right (with the exception of "Coming Soon!")