John Barth

On about page 475 of an edition of Giles Goat Boy that runs to 650 pages, I have thrown in the towel.  I read the full novel back in graduate school (circa 1975), at a time when I took John Barth and his work very seriously indeed.  In 1975, I would have listed Barth along with Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and E. L. Doctorow as just about the only American novelists whose publication of a new work was an “event,”one that gave me something that I needed to read.  At that same time, Derrida, Foucault, and Habermas were the three thinkers whose work had a similar status for me (although it is also true that I read just about everything Ricoeur published because he was my real guide to the thickets of “theory”).

When did Barth fall off this pedestal, become just another writer who had written too much and whose work could be safely ignored?  Around 1980 in my case, when I tried to make my way through Sabbatical and felt I knew everything that was coming twenty pages before its arrival.  By 1995, the same was true of Derrida and Habermas.  They repeated themselves ad nauseum and all their tricks, all their insights, all the ways that their unique takes on the world had proved illuminating, were now all too familiar territory.  There was no need to keep reading them.

We readers are very cruel.  We crave novelty and praise extravagantly the writers who deliver it.  Then we grow jaded and move on.  A writer’s stock falls precipitously.  Just look at the Wikipedia page for John Barth and you will see how precipitously.  He has barely half a page and the novels after Lost in the Funhouse (1973) are not even discussed, although they are listed.  He’s yesterday’s news.

But having just tried and failed to get all of Giles down the hatch, I have to say that Barth has not aged well.  True, I do still teach The End of the Road from time to time–and students still enjoy its hip knowingness.  But what Giles makes clear is how sophomoric Barth’s humor is, and how thin his Camus inspired insistence that whether or not to commit suicide is the overwhelming question of one’s existence.  Hard to tangle with the details of life when it is seen from the height of such an abstraction.

Of course, Mailer and Bellow haven’t aged well either.  I recently re-read Herzog (Bellows’ 1964 National Book award winner) and it’s simply a bad novel.  It’s not just Bellow’s ante-deluvian attitude toward women, or the unreflective whining of his hero; it’s also that the philosophical musings are jejune.  All this might be somewhat OK if there was a sense that Moses Herzog was a self-pitying sap whose moanings told us something about contemporary culture.  But there’s no indication of a distance between Moses’s self-image and Bellow’s assessment of his response to his misfortunes or his belief in the perfidy of those around him.  At least the similar paranoias of Philip Roth’s characters are entertaining in their wild exuberance, not just the mid-level pissing and moaning of Bellow’s hero.  Here I was just amazed that people even found Herzog good or important.

At any rate, I do think we readers are cruel to our writers.  But there is also the question of what writers manage to fulfill Ezra Pound’s famous injunction to “be news that remains news.”  How not to age out, if not so quickly as today’s newspaper, still just as inexorably?

And how do we readers keep from playing the game of ranking?  Of saying these are the writers who still count for something?  And how do writers age graciously, keep reinventing themselves instead of repeating themselves?

Anyway, I am not saying the Derrida and Habermas are worthless–only that a little of them goes a long way.  You hardly need to keep up with everything that poured from their pens.  Foucault and Barthes seem to me a different case.  Perhaps it’s because Foucault was always grounded in historical particulars instead of airy theorizing.  But it’s also because he was always striving to find a way to explain those particulars without ever really quite nailing an overarching explanation down.  In any case, I feel a need to read all of Foucault.  And Barthes just kept reinventing himself.  He is always surprising, so I have never gotten tired of him.

How about the novelists?  Who do I feel a need to keep reading?  Roth probably comes closest–as many people have noted.  He certainly has had the best old age of any American novelist of the past fifty years.  For a while (longer than for most authors), I felt moved to read everything new from Rushdie.  But now he has fallen off that list.  Pynchon and Delillo I find hopeless.  Doctorow is spotty; The March is a terrific novel and I think Ragtime has aged well.  His seems to me a rather unique case; he kept trying new things all the way to the end, and sometimes he pulled it off and other times he did not.

Right now, I look forward to anything new from Julia Glass.  But I can’t think of anyone else besides her.

I do want to praise more than disparage.  So future posts will concentrate on novels I have found deeply satisfying.  There are plenty of them, even if there are many more mediocre novels, the ones that I start to read, but then put aside.  And usually in those cases I do not get anywhere near as far as page 475.  So Barth can’t be all that terrible.

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