I fear that John Barth is a literary Nehru jacket: once the darling of Academe, now just another cis het white male. His work could profit from the kind of extensive and intensive study Brian Boyd gave Vladimir Nabokov, but I fear that will not happen. I, however, am loyal to many of the dead fads I once followed (General Semantics, Games People Play), and so I reread perhaps his crowning work, The Tidewater Tales, and loved it again.
Peter Sagamore and Katherine Sherritt Sagamore sail the rivers and estuaries of Barth’s native Maryland (his Yoknapatawpha) whilst awaiting the birth of twins (several hundred sets of paired names are suggested) and interacting with many friends and relatives, including the apparent author of Sabbatical, Barth’s previous novel, who fills us in on the facts (in this reality) behind the fictions of that second-order one. We also meet versions of four of the Sagamores’ predecessors in the ocean of Story: Odysseus, Don Quixote, Scheherazade, and Huckleberry Finn. (The last of these gets rather short shrift, appearing only as a similarly named childhood crony Peter recalls and suspects of latent homosexual tendencies, as Leslie Fiedler suspected the original.)
It is a huge book. If the world is divided on the question of who is in the details, God or the Devil, Barth, like James Joyce, is on God’s side. (I myself am of the Devil’s party.) There is more nautical detail than in Moby Dick, and I must admit my eyes glazed over from time to time. But there are also many intriguing characters (some literally so), verbal ballets, and swift, sly references. (When we hear of a “Doomsday factor,” we are informed that the latter word is used in an archaic sense, as in colonial times a tobacco merchant was called a sot-weed factor.) And there is the continuing fascination of his shortest/longest story, “Once upon a time, there was a story that began…,” written on a Möbius strip, and his mantra, “The key to the treasure is the treasure.” All in all, I had a delightful time.
Let me say a couple of things in Barth’s defense. He is thought of as an apolitical aesthete, but much of the book is concerned with the CIA’s dirty doings abroad and perhaps within our shores. One plot element taken from consensus reality is the apparent death (I said it was the CIA) of an operative named John Paisley. (Barth later learned that Paisley was a fan of his writing, particularly liking The Sot-Weed Factor.) Another thing I like about him is that he has been multicultural all along, having been seduced at a tender age by Alf-Laylah-Wa-Laylah and Kathasaritsagara.
Like fellow metafictionist Philip Roth, Barth has decided that he’s written enough and says farewell in his third nonfiction collection, Final Fridays, which I also enjoyed.