I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

John Barth: 1930-2024


Kevin Power writes: It was John Barth’s achievement to become a significant figure without ever becoming a major, or even really a popular novelist. It was as if he decided, early in his career, that somebody had to be American Literature’s representative postmodernist, and that that somebody might as well be him. He filled the role superbly, even if it left him, finally, with a coterie reputation and with the uncertain immortality bestowed by a place on the syllabus. Which is to say that even if Barth isn’t always much fun to read, you can’t really tell the story of post-1945 American fiction without him. He is, or was, American metafiction, and for a while he was a looming presence in the work of his ambitious juniors – David Foster Wallace out-metafictioned Barth in his early novella ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’, which rewrites, virtuosically, what is probably Barth’s best short story, ‘Lost in the Funhouse’ (1966).

Barth’s first two novels were ‘traditional’; the tradition they inhabited was slangy American naturalism, though even here rococo elements obtruded. His debut, The Floating Opera (1956), metaphorised life as an opera performed on a moving riverboat and viewed from the river’s banks: a passing spectacle, soon gone. True ambition arrived with The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), a pastiche of eighteenth century picaresque that it is safe to say very few people have ever managed to get all the way through; you could say the same about Giles Goat-Boy (1966), which famously imagines all life as an enormous university. It was a recurring criticism of Barth that he wrote in and for universities – he was, if anyone was, the Creative Writing Professor’s Novelist – and Gore Vidal, in a 1974 survey of the American postmodernists for the New York Review of Books, wrote with an audible sneer when he suggested that ‘[Giles Goat-Boy] will prove to be one of the essential American university novels and to dismiss it is to dismiss those departments of English that have made such a book possible.’

Chimera (1972) was Barth’s last brush with the mainstream. It mingled high modernism – adapting The Thousand and One Nights, the myth of Perseus and the myth of Bellerophon – with metafictional jive; if it feels old-hat now that is perhaps because artists have since tended to respond to the challenges of modernism not by borrowing its mythic structures but by resuming its assault on questions of language and representation. Is any of Barth still worth reading? His manifesto, ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, remains the definitive statement of the postmodern artist’s predicament: ‘Our century is more than two-thirds done; it is dismaying to see so many of our writers following Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy or Balzac, when the question seems to me to be how to succeed not even Joyce and Kafka, but those who succeeded Joyce and Kafka and are now in the evenings of our own careers.’ Gore Vidal was not the only critic to point out that underlying this understanding of literary development is a buried scientism, the idea that the arts progress via experimentation; but the call to Make It New is itself always news, and important news at that. Why do what’s been done before? Barth will stand, in his semi-neglected corner of the canon, as another of Modernism’s underheeded heralds: far from the worst possible fate for a writer.

He could also write beautifully. From ‘Lost in the Funhouse’: ‘This can’t go on much longer; it can go on forever. He died telling stories to himself in the dark; years later, when that vast unsuspected area of the funhouse came to light, the first expedition found his skeleton in one of its labyrinthine corridors and mistook it for part of the entertainment.’ Thus all writers; thus all people. ‘For whom is the funhouse fun?’ goes the first line of the story. The funhouse is life. It’s fun. And it’s everything else as well.


Previous article
Next article