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The End of the World as He Knows It

John Barth, Literary Comic Master, Grapples With Life and Literature After Sept. 11 in his New Collection, The Book of Ten Nights and a Night

Brian Taylor

By John Barry | Posted 4/7/2004

Since the early 1960s, John Barth has earned a reputation as one of America's funniest, and most prolific, postmodern writers. His kooky, metafictional plots have featured characters on riverboats (The Floating Opera) and in Ocean City (Lost in the Funhouse), as minor deities (Chimera) and as aging writers in bed with Scheherazade (Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor). So after 40 years and 17 books, Barth's latest work of fiction, The Book of Ten Nights and a Night, may seem like it has broken some kind of mold. The writer who took us to ancient Baghdad and back has suddenly plunged his characters into the 21st century, to the days following Sept. 11, 2001.

In Times Like These, has reality finally gotten the best of John Barth? Is he trying to be Relevant? Not exactly, he tells us, in an e-mail interview from Bonita Springs, Fla., where he lives when he's not at his main base in Chestertown, on the Eastern Shore, and serving as professor emeritus in Johns Hopkins University's writing program. For four decades he's been writing about characters who seem to have reached literary and personal cul-de-sacs. And if he hasn't always rescued them, he's made their plights more bearable, or at least he has distracted them. And one woman has helped him in this task from day one, someone he discovered as an undergraduate working in the stacks of the Johns Hopkins Library. Her name is Scheherazade, and he found her in the centuries-old collection of Persian tales, The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night.

Scheherazade is a young Persian virgin, who, after being called to her king's chambers, is doomed to deflowering that night and then death the following morning. But she finds a way out of her spot by telling one story a night, intriguing the king, and getting him to wait until the next evening to finish it. As a struggling young writer, Barth says he identified with that predicament. If she's an inspiration to Barth after Sept. 11, it's because she's a storyteller who can operate with the knife at her throat.

The partnership has inspired 17 books--all, as Barth notes, currently in print--including Giles Goat-Boy, The Sot-Weed Factor, Chimera, and, most recently, Coming Soon . . . ! Now, in his latest collection of stories, she is guiding him through his first post-Sept. 11 book. And it has proved a unique challenge: Confronted with events that have brought about what Barth calls TEOTWAW(A)KI--the End of the World as We (America) Knows It--how does a writer known for his gently comic, irreverent, and playful storytelling keep working?

Ten Nights takes that predicament head-on, from a writer's point of view. A late-middle-aged writer, Graybard, and a "nymphomaniac muse-nymph" named Wysiwyg (shorthand for What You See Is What You Get) spend 11 nights drinking wine, making love, retelling Graybard's 11 stories to each other--and commenting on them--interspersing their anecdotes with discussions on the relevance of art in Times Like These.

All but one of the stories included in the book have been previously published in magazines, and, as Barth explains, when Sept. 11 came, he already had plans for compiling them. But the events of that day provided him with a new framework for collecting them. The resulting stories are comic, but marked by an autumnal tone, gently humorous with an occasional note of desperation.

The first chapter is brazenly experimental: a one-page "stereophonic narrative for authorial voice" from 1969, titled "Help!" It's set to a musical score and takes us through dozens of variations on the word "help," in different languages and inflections. The first full story, "Landscape: The Eastern Shore," originally published in 1960, shows us an evening on the Chesapeake Bay through the eyes of a certain Captain Morgan, a salt in his 80s who has gained an almost Buddhist clarity of vision. Barth was in his late 20s when he wrote it, and his writing lacks the lighter touch of his later works, but the descriptive power on display here is remarkable.

Several of the remaining stories--published in literary journals and magazines over the last decade or so--involve couples confronting the trials of middle- and late-middle age. Among the most striking is "Big Shrink," in which a couple makes the apparently casual decision to cut back a planned addition to their house. The decision suddenly turns out to be a major turning point in their life, though, as the narrator reflects that in old age the horizons are shrinking. "Extension," which follows, approaches the theme from a different angle, as a couple realizes that the universe outside their lives is expanding. In between story discussions, Wysiwyg begs the aging writer to move on: "Enough Shrinkage already! Enough contraction!"

The last four stories involve weird extrapolations of modern technology, existential angst, and compulsive mind games. In "The Rest of Your Life," an old couple looks back 40 years, after a word processor's calendar comes up with the date July 27, 1956. In "And Then There's the One," a late-middle-aged man tries to contend with his own granddaughter's refusal to bear children by constructing a massive family tree. In "9999" an 85-year-old man recalls an odometer switching to zeroes, which precipitates an extended meditation on choosing the right date for committing suicide (should it be 9/7/97, with its alternating digits, or 9/9/99, with its four repeats?). "Click," meanwhile, is a dazzling display of storytelling acrobatics, as a Bolton Hill man drives himself nuts by trying to narrate his daily life using hypertext.

But what does any of this have to do with Sept. 11? Barth says he hopes that the background of Sept. 11 and discussions between the narrator and his muse give the stories resonance, but the stories themselves are frankly irrelevant to the catastrophe. And that's the point, he says.

In the fall of 2001, he writes in an e-mail, "I was more than once asked by interviewers or audience members whether I didn't feel that irony, even comedy in general, was perhaps inappropriate, to put it mildly, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent national emergency. Less in my own defense than in defense of artistic liberty I found myself invoking [The Book of A Thousand Nights and a Night and Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century 10-story cycle The Decameron], in both of which classics the frame situation is grim indeed, but the stories thus framed are often scandalously comic or otherwise 'inappropriate' to that situation--which seemed to me to be precisely apropos. In short, I was defending the relevance of irrelevance."

Barth is reluctant to characterize Ten Nights as a major departure from his style. It may involve a new narrative approach, he says, but its two main characters are fighting an old battle. For most of his literary life, his characters have been confronting dead ends: writer's block, suicide, the end of modernism, the end of literature, Y2K. And by hook or by crook, digression, disguise, or transformation, they've kept telling their stories.

But through it all, Barth's scandalously comic, even bawdy, narrative tone has always been shadowed by its own vaguely apocalyptic outlook. His last comic novel, Coming Soon . . . !, for instance, was punctuated with several nightmarish litanies of things to keep you awake at night: cultural decline, global warming, Y2K, new and incurable diseases. So after 40 years of writing, Barth isn't inclined to change this outlook dramatically. When asked if Sept. 11 has affected him any differently than, say, the Cold War, Barth answers firmly.

"No," he writes. "In both cases, Apocalypse waits in the wings. But on the personal level, that's true for everybody everywhere all the time. So what else is new?"

In the interest of preventing large numbers of young writers from hanging themselves, it seems worthy to ask if a more positive spin were possible. Barth obliges, but his response doesn't exactly amount to a pep talk.

"My muse is indeed the one with the grin instead of the grimace," he writes. "But behind her loopy mask I incline to the Tragic View of nearly everything . . . always mindful (I would remind my students) that the Tragic View is not to be mistaken for Despair. All centuries are more or less disastrous; no reason to imagine that the 21st will be spared. Meanwhile, on with the story! As Wysiwig's pogrom-survivor grandma says, 'If we didn't laugh, we'd hang ourselves.'"

It's an approach that's been a fall-back for artists and writers for centuries. Barth says that, for his part, he finds particular comfort in Boccaccio's Decameron, in which characters respond to the Black Death by holing themselves up in a castle and holding storytelling contests, "making the best of a horror show they can do nothing about." For him, it's a running theme: people surviving cataclysms by telling stories. But Barth cautions that telling tales doesn't mean being oblivious.

"Indeed, Boccaccio's lords and ladies get criticized, not for fleeing a catastrophe that they can do nothing about, or for amusing themselves with the ribald stories while it runs its course, but [for] not acknowledging the dreadful context of their tale telling, even upon their return to plague-devastated Florence."

That's where a fine line is drawn: Storytelling may be a distraction from Ground Zero, but it's not an escape. It's not high drama, and it doesn't result in belly laughs or black humor, and sometimes it can get downright boring, but it's Barth's raison d'être: what he calls the "low-grade suspense" of waiting to see where it all ends.

And as for Barth himself, he hints that there's a series of novellas or works of fiction in the works that are "too long to sell to a magazine and too short to sell to a book publisher." As he notes, it's a form that he hasn't worked with since he included three novellas in Chimera, his National Book Award Winner from 1973. It worked then, he says, so he thinks it will now. And that seems to be his spin on the inauspicious first years of the new century: The world's going to hell, but it's always been headed in that direction. Meanwhile, on with the story.

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