Barth is the Godfather of Postmodern fiction, having been doing it longer and better than almost anyone else in the genre. Without him we would have no Wallace, no Eggers. Personally, he ranks at or near the top of favorite writers, a Zeusian skyfather of meta-fictional narrative who doles his mightiness out to use Mere Readers from his spot on his Authorial Olympus. I remember being assigned his short story “Night Sea Journey” from
Lost in the Funhouse when I was a lowly undergrad. I puzzled over the piece for the better part of a day until I realized I was reading a story about Sperm. The hero is a single sperm cell, taking his own mythic quest to that place where All Stories End. I was hooked. He’s been one of my favorite authors ever since.
Like all good postmodernists Barth writes meta-fiction or fiction about fiction. His protagonists tend to be writers, molecularly thinly veiled caricatures of himself and they tend to be in the process of writing. The story itself usually becomes the story of its own creation. It can get a little confusing, but the books are enjoyable enough to be more than worth the effort it takes to get through. He also tends to play with mythological themes by bringing Joseph Campbell to places he thought he would never go. Barth gives us the Hero’s Journey in a number of different forms, and plays it out different ways.
For someone who talked at great length about the “Literature of Exhaustion” and the Death of the Novel, Barth seems to be having fun. A great deal of it. His prose is energetic, and full of rollicking wordplay. He’s always nudging and winking at the Reader, but the sheer exuberance with which he does so belies any pretension and keeps me from getting annoyed with him. He’s like a really smart, slightly off-kilter Grandpa who’s trying to entertain a truly precocious grandkid.
Where Three Roads Meet is his newest work, thought it’s been out for a while. It consists of three interlinked novellas. (At least I assume it does. I have only read the first two and cannot say for sure how the third ties in.)
In the first we find a triad of grad students, a dramatic tripod with a Barth stand-in and engaged couple as legs. Complications ensue, and a love triangle develops that threatens both their habitation arrangement and the jazz trio they comprise.
In the second, a tale is waiting to be told. The story is a first-person narration from a Story, a Heroic Myth to be precise. This Story has been told many times, a Story with a Thousand Places. As the Story is sitting by the side of the road waiting for the action to begin, it is picked up by a Storyteller. This older man of Barthian bent gives the untold tale a ride in his Dramatic Vehicle. When a Reader shows up, Complications ensue.
If that sort of thing doesn’t sound appealing, there’s not much I can say. John Barth is not for you. Go read some Hemingway or something a little more grounded in reality and straightforward in its lack of irony. But if you can accept a certain degree of postmodern gamesmanship and can appreciate the mastery of craft it takes to be so cheekily self-aware and not devolve into cutesy, clever-for-cleverness’-sake-itude you should give Barth a try.
Where Three Roads Meet is not as bad place to start, although it does reflect his age (he’s getting on in years) and while still full of exuberance, Barth is thinking more and more about final things and the way stories end. As he approaches his own closing sentence, this is understandable.
You might want use this as a barometer to measure the your stomach for Barth: “Click” is a story he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in December 1997.
See Also: A Paper on Freud and Barth, Written By Me.