Houghton Mifflin ($24)
by Alicia L. Conroy
The world of letters would be noticeably more tame without John Barth—erudite, playful, enamored of adolescent sexual punning, foot soldier in the vanguard of postmodernism. We have come to expect that he will tilt at windmills for us, wake us from complacency with a cold splash to the face. Said Barth's appeal is both limited by and centered in his practice of metafiction, in which the puppet-master is part of the performance and the show celebrates artifice. For this, writers often love to read Barth, while readers who prefer the captivating dream of verisimilitude run screaming.
Barth's new collection of short stories is likely to ruffle feathers, and for all the wrong reasons. What will unnerve some is the author's attempt to recognize and react to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Barth doesn't provide a catharsis of the kind that many readers will demand—especially in response to events whose very date has become a code-word for atrocity—yet his approach is as honest as any anguished outcry because it is so characteristically his.
The tales in Barth's first fiction collection, the brilliant Lost in the Funhouse (1968), offered a range of positions on the experimental spectrum. The superb formal structure of the collection enriched the stories and delivered that holy grail of overall unity; moreover, Funhouse asserted that the need to tell stories, and the mode of their telling, were subjects as valid as the mimicry of life. Barth's most recent novel, Coming Soon!!! (2002) continued to mine the vein of metafiction with its tale of an aging novelist and his protégé, a showboat, Edna Ferber's Showboat, and . . . well, it's Barth. One mere linear sentence won't carry it off.
The title of Barth's new collection, The Book of Ten Nights and a Night, showboats a reference to mythic yarn-spinner Scheherazade for a reason. Like the classical Thousand and One Nights, these stories are framed within the time-honored narrative basket that characterizes the tellers—pilgrims en route to Canterbury, captive Arabian sex slave, etc. With typical Barthian complexity, there's an unnamed Original Author; his narrator, Graybard; and the muse of imagination, classically female and Barthically tagged WYSIWYG (i.e., what you see is what you get). The September 11 attacks interrupt the Author's progress, thus permitting Barth to involve those tragedies in his character-author's life through the frame-episodes.
The stories themselves are "vintage" Barth, both in the sense of a distinctive voice and approach, and in the sense of invoking age and its perspectives as a subject. Characters in these mostly metafictional tales, many of them "seniors" sandwiched between middle age and deathbed, are wistful and sometimes feisty. No rage against the dying of the light—just harmless fantasies of sexual infidelity and other might-have-beens. Barth has never been a writer of passion; rather, a restless intellect pondering passion and other curiosities. Highlights include the imagined-infidelity tale "The Ring," which expostulates on narrative structure and free-associates on the theme of rings in literature. "Click" is another fun foray attempting to replicate in linear text the fronded structure of hypertext, while gently lampooning electronic addictions. The story "9999" somehow turns mere numerals into poignant vocabulary through a math-obsessed couple who measure life events around numerically interesting dates.
The stories fit firmly within Barth's playful, thought-provoking catalog, but it's the ambitious frame-episodes that carry the emotional and philosophical freight of the book. Here, the character of the Original Author reflects the shock of a nation and the dilemma of the artist in the wake of 9/11/01. He is overwhelmed by a sense of irrelevance: "Impossible to concentrate in those circumstances: people doubtless still dying at Ground Zero with his every vainly scribbled word." When he's able to reenter his fictive world, his narrator Graybard and the personified muse carry out the Original Author's internal debate: Is it irrelevant or even sacrilegious to carry on with his project—with heedless life—in the wake of disaster? The dialogue of muse and narrator develops a defense of art as a necessity, not a luxury nor mere escapism.
The touchstone is the image of Scheherazade "telling marvelous stories with the ax virtually at her neck and the kingdom on the brink of collapse," a feeling shared by many in the terrorist age. But, as WYSIWYG asserts, "to tell irrelevant stories in grim circumstances is not only permissible but sometimes therapeutic. That their very irrelevance to the frame-situation may be what matters, whether the frame's grim and the tales are frisky or vice versa." At first, this sounds like a flip endorsement for escapism. But Barth doesn't provide blissful forgetting for long, nor does he makes terrorism's threat his sole subject, and for this, some readers will toss his work aside.
The frame is meant to be a jarring juxtaposition of two realities—continuance and loss. During these debates between storyteller and muse, Barth reminds readers of the attacks explicitly or through the subtle device of a blinking clock that repeats "9:11." The events won't be forgotten, but Graybard, like Scheherazade, must go "on with the story" (to quote the title of Barth's second collection), whether in denial or bravado. The first mentions of "9:11" prompt a reader's indignant thought that catastrophe deserves more airplay—something to vent sorrow, rage, and fear. This plaint is answered by the continuing narrative, which asserts there is another story beyond the searing national epic of loss.
How to enjoy the normalcy of life when terrorism has taken aim at one's home? "On the other hand, how not proceed with such innocent, pleasurable, irrelevant routine, savoring it all the more for its very irrelevance?" asks the Original Author. As the book's ending illustrates, it's a question that can't be completely answered, because the characters (and readers) are unsure—we don't know where the end is. We, like they, fear a chapter has been opened, not closed, and we're unsure whether perseverance is defiant or escapist.
It's hard to find peace with a book that leaves a bruise, insisting on remembrance without breast-beating catharsis. But the very gap between the dream of "irrelevant" stories and the world in which they are told has resounding realism. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need ringmasters like Barth. His stories remind us to examine the conveyance, wrapping paper, and price tag as part of the parcel of message. Ultimately, The Book of Ten Nights and a Night doesn't achieve the elegance of the earlier Funhouse; at the same time, its effort and concerns seem more vitally important.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004