MUCH OF JOHN BARTH'S fiction arises out of his scrupulous, exacting, sometimes excruciating, consideration of his own position as a Novelist writing Now. The state of fiction is as much on his mind, if not more, than the state of America or the world; indeed he would probably argue that to be deeply concerned with the former is only another way of being deeply concerned about the latter.
The genre of fiction today, according to one of the characters in Barth's new novel and his best book in a long time, is "fallen into obscure pretension on the one hand and cynical commercialism on the other." It is not a final verdict -- for there are no real last words in such a polyvocal work as Letters -- but it does point to a problem which is crucial to the conception of this novel. For, as usual, there is some extremism around in American fiction today. As the greatly underrated, novelist Don DeLillo has written: "There's a whole class of writers who don't want their books to be read. This to some extent explains their crazed prose . . . What you want to express is the violence of your desire not to be read . . . If you're in this class, what you have to do is either not publish or make absolutely sure your work leaves readers strewn along the margins."
John Barth is emphatically not one of these writers, though my guess is that he has left a few readers "strewn along the margins" in his time. On the other hand, he has always manifested ambiguous feelings about all those forms of fiction, which may roughly be collected together under the title of realism, that can often make reading as simple as eating pie, but not always as wholesome. As he writes in Letter: "I am by temperament a fabricator, not a drawer-from-life." This, of course, begs all kinds of big questions, and Barth is very adept at teasing and drawing fiction, or fabrication, out of just such begged-questions. But it does pose a problem. If Barth wants to avoid "obscure pretension" and "cynical commercialism" what, if I may pose so old or bold a question, is he to write about? And in what way?
In Letters we have the answer. He will write about all his own novels and the characters therein; he will bring those characters together in bizarre, unexpected and complex -- not to say ambiguous -- relationships; he will intertwine the plots of their lives with amazing dexterity (and at times almost perverse obliquity); mixed in with those plots he will introduce many of the plots which were involved in the history of the first 40-odd years of the American republic and in turn intertwine those with some of the plots -- emanating from young anarchists, black power groups, fanatical reactionaries, the CIA, and narcotics rings -- which are active in contemporary America. "Revolution," in every sense, is a theme of the book, along with the question of whether America needs, will have, or even permit, a "second revolution," and what form it might or could take. He will write this in the form of an epistolary novel, with more than one eye on the early years of the English novel when Richardson's epistolary fictions seemed to initiate and then (almost) exhaust the genre; and he, John Barth, will be one of the correspondents, though to be sure he answers very few of his letters, and writes mainly to us, his readers, wherever and whenever we are.
Thus we have Letters, subtitled "An old time episotolary novel by seven fictitious drolls & dreamers each of which imagines himself factual." Among the characters he has summoned back are Todd Andrews (from The Floating Opera ) still decent, humane, suicidal, literal and still writing to his father, and Jacob Horner (from The End of the Road ) still involved in treatment for recurrent paralysis, still involved with Joseph Morgan, and also into "scriptotherapy" and an interesting and amusing "anniversary view of history." Andrew Burlingame Cook IV (descended from The Sot-Weed Factor character) is just as involved in plotting and counterplotting, metamorphoses and disguises, codes and cons, as his ancestors. Through the account of these we get Barth's own particular version of American history.
Jerome Bray (from Giles Goat-Boy ) is present, but it is hard to say what he is: there are intimations that he may be some kind of insect working with computers and drugs, vengefully disposed towards John Barth a propos of the material used in Giles Goat-Boy . (I must confess that his letters left me pretty baffled since they seem to be strewn with bits of computer language and artificial intelligence stuff -- but then I also have to confess that Giles Goat-Boy was the one Barth novel that very nearly left me strewn along the margins.) Ambrose Mensch (who was lost in Lost in the Funhouse and still partly is) suffers from "ontological ambiquity" -- as who would not if he found himself in a Barth novel -- but, with the help of a British "gentlewoman," is getting it all together, writing what sound remarkably like parts of Barth's own Chimera. (The themes and preoccupations of that novel are very much in evidence throughout Letters .)
That gentlewoman is the one new arrival -- Lady Amherst, (Germaine G. Pitt), ex-mistress, apparently, of Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley and James Joyce, who, for complicated reasons of plot finds herself reduced to working for a small college in Maryland called Marshyhope State University, around which a good deal of the action takes place. "The Author" himself makes up the seventh correspondent, to whom the various drolls and dreamers write out their various, well, souls. Not to mention their bodies -- there's a good deal of the "physical" as well as the theroretical in the book.
But what! let us imagine some churlish non-dreamer exclaiming, is Mr. Barth so low on imagination that he has to bring out of retirement and dust off his old creations (with an aging British broad thrown in to up the sexual ante) and go on about his old obsessions with history, fiction, fabrication, fabulation, narrative, heroic patterns, Lord Raglan and Joseph Campbell, etc.? The answer to that is -- no, there is much more to the book than that. And as always John Barth knows exactly what he is doing.
Let us take a formulation from Ambrose Mensch: "My hero Perseus . . . like a good navigator, will decide where to go by determining where he is by reviewing where he's been." That's part, but only part, of what Barth is doing. As Todd Andrews further explains: "This project struck me as the sort conceived by an imagination overinclined to retracing its steps before moving on." Barth knows exactly the kind of risk he is taking in "hazarding . . . the famous limitations both of the Novel-in-Letters and of the Sequel, most fallible of genres." But while, as he very well shows. the present is of course the product of the past, it is not merely the product": the parents, to a certain extent, impress a pattern as they produce the child, but "the delivered child must breathe for itself."
John Barth has taken on his imaginative past (as well as that of America) to see whether the past can be, not just a marsh forever sucking the present backwards into its own entropic determinisms, but a fecundating and fertilizing material that can promote the issue and growth of something new. This is why, I think, there is a recurring preoccupation with all forms of recyclings, re-presentations, computer RESETs, the redreaming and rewriting of history, and reenactment. This last, for instance, is an obsession with Ambrose Mensch who seems determined to try and repeat his earlier life according to a complex numerological pattern -- but who finally seeks to escape from it and "be done with this obsession for reenactment." As he writes at the end, "I have commenced the second cycle of my life; I am striving through, in order to reach beyond, such games."
As, I think, is Barth. The problem is "How transcend mere reenactment?" In other terms, familiar to readers of Chimera , it is a matter of breaking out of circles and moving into a spiral motion. "Closed-circuit history is for compulsives; Perseus and I are into spirals, presumably outbound." Thus Ambrose Mensch and, presumably John Barth who, in one of his letters about his own book, agress that "the ground theme be not so much revolution or recycling as reenactments" -- and how to move beyond it by going through it.
This also, I think, accounts for Barth's interest, diversely manifested, in coincidences, "calendric resonances" and "crazy calendrics" by which not only life seems to imitate art, but fiction turn into history, history violently repeat itself on fiction, and fact and fiction form an almost incestuous, endlessly echoic, relationship. Ontogeny not only recapitulates phylogeny -- one of Barth's favorite "laws" -- but "Genesis foreshadows Revelations: gynecology echoes epistemology." The definitive warning against the limitations of this kind of game comes from Lady Amherst -- "That's a game anyone can play who knows a tad of history: the game of Portentous Coincidences, or Arresting But Meaningless Patterns." Coincidences, or Arresting But Meaningless Patterns." Barth also knows the game, and he can play it -- brilliantly as this book reveals. But he knows its a game to play in order to go beyond it.
So, what, after all, kind of novel do we have here? Groping for words, let's call it an example of reluctant-sceptical-nostalgic-exuberant realism. Yes, that is the genre that Barth has, waywardly, idiosyncratically, marvellously, made his way back to. "Tranquilly I turned my back on Realism, having perhaps long since turned it on reality," says Ambrose Mensch, who then confesses (is that you, John Barth?) to having become "reenamored" with that most happily contaiminated literary genre; the Novel, the Novel, with its great galumphing grace, amazing as a whale!
As John Barth, as author, admits: "To be a novelist in 1969 is, I agree, a bit like being in the passenger-railway business in the age of the jumbo jet." He also confesses, "I approach reality these days with more respect." So, this too, about his work: "I know so far that it will be regressively traditional in manner; that it will not be obscure, difficult, or dense in the Modernist fashion," oblingingly giving an outline of what he is doing. The question, writes Lady Amherst, is "Can a played-out old bag of a medium be fertilised one last time by a played-out Author in a played-out tradition?" She is also talking about herself and Ambrose, but if we regard the question in a larger context the answer is "yes" on all counts, none of the three (including John Barth) being remotely played-out.
I am not about to attempt to summarize the multiple "plots" of this book; it would take as much space as Barth's own novel which, as Huck Finn Might have said, is "considerable." The book is full of wonderful things (as well as some longueurs and some hair-tugging complexifications of intrigue and plot). It is a very remarkable work, which not only dramatizes, but analyses, plays and works with, and moves towards moving beyond what Barth himself defines in the following:
"Conflict : last-ditch provincial Modernist wishes neither to repeat nor to repudiate career thus far; wants the century under his belt but not upon his back. Complication : he becomes infatuated with, enamored of, obsessed by a fancied embodiment . . . of the Great Tradition and puts her -- and himself -- through sundry more or less degrading trials, which she suffers with imperfect love and patience, she being a far from passive lady, until he loses his cynicism and his heart to her spirited dignity and, at the climax , endeavors desperately, hopefully, perhaps vainly, to get her one final time with child."
Well he did, he has. And in language and narrative which "like an icebreaker, like spawning salmon, incoming tide, or wandering hero, springs forward, falls back, gathers strength, springs farther forward, falls less far back, and at length arrives -- but does not remain at -- its high-water mark." Letters is a prodigous and quite remarkable achievement -- a landmark, if indeed not a high-water mark. But perhaps it must be the only one of its kind -- that "final" fling with Dame Realism.
As you move into your spiral, where next, John Barth? Presumably outbound. We all hope so. And with thanks --