John Barth is among a group of American authors devoted to developing a fiction-tradition that has its antecedents among the dominant figures of modernism. The issues raised by Joyce or Kafka or Proust are not, for a writer like Barth, issues which can be overlooked, and for any serious, contemporary author to write as if they could be demonstrates shallowness and aesthetic irresponsibility. ‘I deplore,’ Barth says in an article just published in Atlantic Magazine, ‘the artistic and critical cast of mind that repudiates the whole modernist enterprise as an aberration, and sets to work as if it hadn’t happened; that rushes back into the arms of nineteenth century middle-class realism as if the first half of the twentieth century hadn’t happened.’
Thirteen years ago John Barth wrote ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, an article which served almost as a manifest for a number of writers in the sixties and early seventies who faced, in Barth’s words, ‘the real technical question’ of ‘how to succeed not even Joyce and Kafka, but those who’ve succeeded Joyce and Kafka.’ The Exhaustion of the article’s title refers to the exhaustion or ‘used-upness’ of the forms and possibilities of fiction. The victory of the writer of ‘exhaustion’ is that he can confront an apparent intellectual dead end, and employ it against itself to accomplish new work. Barth is not glibly dismissing the novel as dead; rather, he is celebrating those writers like Beckett, Nabokov, Borges and more recently Italo Calvino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez who can use the occasion of that perceived death as an occasion, or at least the starting point, for artistic invention. Borges is, in this respect, exemplary, as he can, for Barth, ‘paradoxically turn the felt ultimacies of our time into material and means for his work – paradoxically because by doing so he transcends what had appeared to be its refutation.’
Like the ficciones of Borges, Barth’s novels are remarkable and remarkably vital for their determination to use established conventions for the purpose of transcending them. The Sot Weed Factor, written in 1960, is formally based on the eighteenth century picaresque novel, but, with a mad, modern crowding of sub-plots, digressions, and exhilarating pastiche, the novel does far more within that form than the form would seem able to admit, using its structure to change our perceptions of not just it but all conventions. Giles Goat Boy – an assemblage of letters, forewords, and disclaimers which enclose the main narrative in equivocal frames – is informed by an insistent succession of literary references – to figures as diverse as Moses, Odysseus, and Don Quixote – all apparently distributed through the text by an out-of-control computer which, Barth hints, may be the true author of the book. Chimera reuses and newly develops elements from Greek mythology and its assumptions of heroism. Much of Lost in the Funhouse is likewise an extended improvisation on classical themes. Barth’s greatest, or at least most complete, achievement, however, is his most recent. LETTERS employs not only a past available through ostensibly exhausted conventions – it is, for instance, written in the style of the epistolary novel – but a past which is explicitly the product of the mind which invented it: LETTERS depicts the developing relationship of a set of characters already created by Barth – most are from his previous novels – writing letters to Barth, their author.
Barth is the comedian of forms, the controlled anarchist who deals realities, roles and fictions like playing cards, inventing – as in a game – an endless succession of names for the world. ‘A certain kind of sensibility,’ Barth observed several years ago, ‘can be made very uncomfortable by the recognition of the arbitrariness of physical facts and the inability to accept their finality.’ The material for Barth’s fiction is the fictions we occupy; his aspiration is to transcend – to encourage us to transcend – the limiting confines we create for ourselves: ‘Ontology and cosmology are funny subjects to improvise. But if you are a novelist of a certain type of temperament, then what you really want to do is re-invent the world. God wasn’t too bad a novelist, except he was a realist.’