More than five decades ago, John Barth published The Floating Opera (1957), the first of the fictions through which he would weave the narrative spell that has enchanted, challenged, and amused readers ever since, in works as acclaimed and variegated as The End of the Road (1958), The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), Giles Goat-Boy (1966), Lost in the Funhouse (1968), Chimera (1972), Sabbatical (1982), The Tidewater Tales (1987), and Where Three Roads Meet (2005). His newest book, The Development, is a comic concert of linked stories set in a gated community in the author's native Chesapeake Bay country, an enclave inhabited, by and large, by a cast of comfortably well-off -- but not, alas, untroubled -- retirees. With characteristic playfulness and profound attention to age's vagaries and vicissitudes, Barth's tales open a Pandora's Box of wayward passions, mortal worries, and apocalyptic weather.
In early September, with publication of The Development imminent and Tropical Storm Hannah threatening his Maryland tidewater home, I talked with Barth by telephone about his new book and his long career. What follows in an edited transcript of our conversation. -- James Mustich
James Mustich: As I was doing some preparatory reading for this interview, I came across a statement that, I imagine, is a decade-and-a-half old by now. . . .
John Barth: Some of them are a half-century old.
JM: Well, I'm not going to mention the year I first read one of your books, because that's going to make me feel old and you feel even older! In any case, in the statement that caught my attention, you remark that the protagonists of your books tend to be about your own age at the time you are writing them; and you go on: "When you reach age sixty, you have a feeling perhaps that your readers might not really be so interested any more." But you've been undaunted: your new book, The Development, appears as you advance into the further reaches of your septuagenarian decade, and its cycle of stories is set in a gated community that, if not entirely a retirement community, is largely inhabited by retirees.
JB: Right. And let me add, quickly, that the Development community is completely hypothetical -- as far as I know, there is no such community anywhere hereabouts on the eastern shore of Maryland. I should add further that there are exceptions to that generalization of mine about protagonists' ages: I wrote my first novel, The Floating Opera, when I was 24, and its protagonist is in his mid-fifties.
JM: Such a setting, hypothetical or not, is one that hasn't been prominent in American fiction, and I wonder what the first whisper of your muse was on this book.
JB: As it happens, my wife and I spend about half the year here on Maryland's Eastern Shore -- the Chesapeake Bay country where I grew up and where we enjoyed living while we were both on the academic calendar over in Baltimore (myself at Johns Hopkins and she at St. Timothy's School). We still spend our summers here; but we're fortunate enough to be able to shift in the winter season, like many another east coast snowbird, down to Florida, where we live, in fact, in a very pleasant gated community along the Gulf Coast. So I have some experience of that.
It struck my muse's fancy to imagine, first (with the initial short story, "Peeping Tom"), a couple in a comparable sort of community transmogrified to tidewater Maryland. And, although in my recent decades I've taken a renewed interest in the shorter forms of fiction -- the novella and the short story -- I'm a novelist by temperament, Jim, a narrative marathoner rather than a sprinter. So it is my habit -- I guess it's just a reflex from my essential metabolism as a novelist -- that after I write one story, the muse scratches my head again, and I write another story, maybe sharing some of the same locale or thematic elements; then, like any old novelist, I begin to see connections and start to imagine perhaps a series of stories -- not a novel, but something that would be a whole larger than the mere sum of its parts. That was the case with my first story series, Lost in the Funhouse, and even more so with the second one, The Book of Ten Nights and a Night; it is here, too. Some of the characters reappear in the different tales, and, as you suggested in your question, they share the life of a gated community, which includes being more or less of an age, being more or less empty-nesters, et cetera.
JM: You've said somewhere that, "Every story is a way of getting to the end while postponing the end."
JB: Did I say that? I rather like that.
JM: Yes, it's very good! That came back to me while reading this book -- because all of your books, going back to your very first The Floating Opera have been concerned with endings -- suicide, apocalyptic imaginings, and so on.
JM: But with The Development, the sense of ultimacy that has pervaded your narratives takes on a new and more poignant meaning, because the ends of the characters are palpably "coming soon," if I may allude to a title of yours. They're approaching -- I can't help mentioning another -- "the end of the road," which casts a different glow on these themes that you've engaged for so long.
JB: Right. Not surprisingly, some critics, and my wife, and myself, and my muse, have all remarked on what they kindly call an increasing vein of autumnality, as we would kindly put it, which perhaps shades towards, how would we say, winterality -- or something like that!
However, going back to what you said earlier, I hope you would agree that most of the stories, even from the beginning, while they often have to do with the END, always, I hope, leave a door open for the next story. On with the story! That's the end of that: on with the story.
That comes in part from my natural disposition and temperament; but it also comes from the example of my favorite navigation star, Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights, who for me, ever since college days, has been the most poignant emblem for the storyteller's situation. That is, her life is always on the line from story to story, just as, metaphorically speaking, every writer's life is on the line from book to book. Scheherazade is only as good as her next piece, the next story that she tells both to save her life and to go on with the larger story -- to help save the kingdom. I have no such aspirations as that -- only to go on with the story.
I keep reminding people who bring up this subject of my personal mileage getting rather high that I remember my late, lamented friend John Hawkes telling me once a couple of decades ago (we were all about 60 then), "Jack, I have this feeling that I may have passed my peak." To tease him, I said, "Well, you know, Jack, my plan is to reach my peak at around age 80 or so, and then go into a very slow decline." I would remind him that, among other examples that might be quoted, it's said that Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus, which is one of his best plays, at age 90, and that was back in those days when life expectancy was probably about 45. So we'll just see.
JM: Readers who haven't yet read The Development will be delighted to know that the door is held open yet again at the end of this one.
JB: They might even want to know that, before I picked up the phone for you this morning, I had put down the Parker 51 pen with which I first-draft all of my manuscripts, having completed the day's output on yet another work in progress, though it's much too early in its gestation to talk about it.
JM: How long have you had that Parker pen?
JB: That Parker pen has an interesting history. I think I've talked about it somewhere in one of those memoir books that I published some decades ago. I bought it round about 1963 in Rochester, England, in a stationery shop that was reportedly the original Mr. Pumblechook's premises as described in the Dickens novel Great Expectations. It's a British Parker 51 that I bought in honor of Pumblechook's creator, having just cracked its predecessor -- an American Schaeffer pen, I think it was, a fountain pen that I carried in my shirt pocket -- on the battlements of Hamlet's Castle in Elsinore. It was my first European tour. I was traveling with my then little kids in a camper bus in Europe on ten dollars a day, or whatever it was back then. I leaned against the battlement of Hamlet's Castle to look out over the coast of Denmark, cracked my fountain pen, and ruined my shirt. The next stop was England, and I went to Rochester and bought this one. That was 1963, and forty-five years later I'm still scribbling my first drafts with that same Parker. It will outlive its owner, I'm sure, and though I don't like to think in these terms, it may outlive anything he's written with it.
JM: I've been interested to learn that before your literary career, you were a jazz musician.
JB: I sure was. My first ambition in high school was to be an arranger. I'd been playing drums in a swing band down in Cambridge, Maryland, through high school, and my plan was to go up to Juilliard to study orchestration, or, as the big band jazz players call it, arranging. I could never have been admitted to the regular Juilliard program, but I did go up to study in their summer program. I was going to be an arranger as well as a drummer.
I found out very quickly in New York that the young man to my right and the young woman to my left were going to be the real professional musicians of their generation, and that what I had hoped was a pre-professional talent was really just an amateur flair. In those days, you didn't prepare to go to college from the time of conception, so I came back home at summer's end to see what I was going to do next -- probably go to work in my father's soda fountain-lunchroom in town -- and found that I had won a scholarship to Johns Hopkins, a school which, I swear, I'd forgotten I'd applied to. Probably that's improving on the facts, but it's what I felt at the time.
Faute de mieux, I went over to Hopkins, and since you had to major in something, I thought I might try my hand at journalism (I'd written a humor column for the high school paper). But I found out that they didn't really have a journalism program, although they did have a brand-new Department of Writing. So I signed up to be a creative writer, and had, first of all, to read everything, because I hadn't read very widely, and I had to get some sense of what Umberto Eco calls "the already said" -- those millennia of writers that had gone before me -- and then to find out whether I had any kind of voice of my own. That took a lot of trial and error.
JM: Do you think that whatever creative impulse led you to conceive of a musical career in terms of arranging carried over to the page? There seems to be a lot of orchestrating -- and re-orchestrating -- of themes through the books, and even of actual material.
JB: Very keen-eyed of you to point that out. Once I was over at Hopkins as an undergraduate, and later as a graduate student, I had a wonderful job to help pay my tuition: filing books in the library. The area where I worked happened to be the stacks of the Classics Department and what was then called the Oriental Seminary, where all the old Arabic and Sanskrit and other tale collections were shelved. I was soon very much immersed in the old tradition of the frame tale, in which somebody tells stories within a story, as immortalized in Boccaccio's Decameron, The Thousand and One Nights, and others. Under that influence, I suppose, I found that when I began to write my own books, I was happiest when I could take a received, venerable form or idea or theme and re-orchestrate it to my present purposes. I've certainly done that in books like The Sot-Weed Factor, which re-orchestrated, if you will, documentation of life in colonial Maryland as well as Ebenezer Cooke's original satirical poem, which was the first piece of satirical literature about the colonies written over here. I've done that to other material in a number of books since then, and that, no doubt, continues. At heart I'm still an arranger -- though not the failed arranger, I hope, that I turned out to be as an aspiring professional musician.
JM: Certainly not! You mentioned story cycles. Most of us are familiar, at least in a cursory fashion, with The Thousand and One Nights. But I am intrigued by another work you've written about, The Ocean of the Streams of Story.
JB: Yes, I think in Sanskrit it's called Katha Sarit Sagara -- and that exhausts my knowledge of Sanskrit right there. Conventionally, it's translated as The Ocean of Story, but Salman Rushdie, when he spoke of it . . .
JM: In Haroun and the Sea of Stories?
JB: Yes -- Haroun and the Sea of Stories plays on the same thing. The literal translation is just what you've said, The Ocean of Streams of Story. It imagines a narrative ocean into which all the little creeks, streams, tributaries, and rivers of narrative from all sources finally flow. I love that metaphor, and since I happen to live on a tidal creek here on the Chesapeake Bay, off the Chester River, I watch a literal stream flow in twice a day, as well as ebb out. I never fail to be reminded that the creek in front of our house comes and goes from the river, which comes and goes from Chesapeake Bay, which comes and goes from the Atlantic Ocean, which intermingles with all the other oceans in the world. So I literally live on the tidal verge of the ocean of streams of story -- which I hope won't overflow its banks tomorrow when Tropical Storm Hannah muscles through!
JM: Now, The Ocean of the Streams of Story is enormous, isn't it?
JB: It really is. And it's a story about an even longer, never-finished story. In the English translation it runs to seventeen folio volumes, yet this is supposed to be only the remaining one-seventh of the original work, which, for reasons that are explained by the playful anonymous authors in the frame tale, was destroyed at the command of the gods or whatever. What we have left is only the remaining seventh that was rescued before the whole thing was burned. So this Ocean of the Streams of Story is a very considerable body of water. Years ago I published an essay about it, called "It's a Long Story."
JM: If I recall correctly, you've written about having swum this ocean while working the night shift in a Baltimore Chevy factory. Is that true?
JB: Yes. I did read a great amount of it that way. I also swam another ocean there -- that was a very useful night shift. I read the Harvard Classics on that job: most of Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf, starting with Volume One and going more or less through to the end. And then I dived into the story ocean. I was no Michael Phelps, but I managed to at least get myself wet in the sea of narrative before that summer ran out.
JM: In these tales, and those told by Scheherazade, you've recognized what you call the expansiveness, the inexhaustibility, of narration. Would you talk a bit about the idea of narration as a central component of consciousness?
JB: I'm sure it is central to consciousness. Daniel Dennett, the "neuro-philosopher" at Tufts University, puts it very succinctly in one of his books -- and I happen to have a neuroscientist son out in Colorado who I think would second this notion. In a very real sense, says Dennett, we are the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are: One's ongoing self-awareness is the antecedent of the pronoun "I." Now, I'm neither a philosopher nor a neuroscientist, but I agree that the narrative of our ongoing consciousness -- our sense of our biography, and so forth -- is central to our identity. Since we're conscious of time and our existence in time, our life is a kind of ongoing story. For better or worse, it doesn't have the kind of edited narrative functionality that a well-written piece of fiction does, but we surely do edit it as we go along, in retrospect.
JM: We certainly edit it in retrospect. But just as stories are the realm of memory, they are also the province of simulation -- of the what-if.
JB: Exactly -- because they involve both memory and projected imagination in the everyday affairs of life, not to mention the everyday affairs of writers at their writing desks.
JM: In reading The Development, and then returning to some of your earlier books, it has struck me that it's not invention per se, but narration itself that's the engine of your works, in a way that it is not for most other writers.
JB: I don't know whether it's not the same for most other writers, but I'll grant that it may be true to a conspicuous degree of my writing. For better or worse, this narrative awareness has gotten to be seen as one of the trademarks of what came to be called "postmodernism." I'm uncomfortable with all such labels. Since we can't talk without labels and categories, they have their usefulness, but it's at least as important to recognize the differences between, say, writers who might be labeled as postmodernist or whatever as it is to speak of their similarities. Certainly, when I was in the company of writers grouped together with me as postmodernist by critics and reviewers -- late comrades like Donald Barthelme and John Hawkes and Kurt Vonnegut and William Gaddis -- we were all much more impressed, I think, by the differences between what we were separately up to than by any similarities.
It certainly is an aspect of what people like to think of as postmodernism that the author is aware, and makes the reader aware, that what he is in the presence of is a fiction. But I would like to remind anybody who cares about it that such literary self-reflexivity has a long and honorable history, going all the way back to the Greek playwrights; their plays were performed outdoors in a theater during the daytime, and they would often have their actors refer to a single circuit of the sun -- "And now the sun sets" -- just as the sun was really setting. Or think of Shakespeare having his actors say, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players..." That is playing for fictive purposes with the idea that life itself is a kind of fiction. Okay, end of sermon.
JM: Let's circle back to the idea of the frame tale. You once wrote, "I must add, though, that except for such famous stories as "Ali Baba" and "Aladdin" and the great Sinbad cycle, I ultimately found the tales in The Thousand and One Nights less interesting than the frame tale. Even more so in The Ocean of Story. The frame's the thing, I suppose." With regard to narration's relation to consciousness, I'm wondering where the frame tale fits in. Is it beyond or outside of the narrative in some way, and thereby outside of the self?
JB: You're talking now about Life and Art. Is that right?
JM: Well, yes. Where does the frame tale live?
JB: The frame of the tale, you mean.
JB: Mind you, I'm treading on very amateur ground here, but I would guess -- extrapolating from the position that I've attributed to Daniel Dennett earlier in our conversation -- that the frame for that ongoing story is, of course, our capital-S Self, and our sense of our ongoing capital-L Life, with its successive episodes. We may be more or less conscious of thinking of it as a story. We may only now and then, if ever, in the case of ordinary non-writer types, think of it as a story (although I don't think it's all that unusual, even among non-writerly types). But I guess that would be it.
Let me say, by the way, that I would still second what I said then about the stories in The Thousand and One Nights, and particularly those of The Ocean of Story, very few of which I now remember. It is the frame that sticks in one's mind. I would have to add quickly, though, that I would hope that that wouldn't be the case with the frame to my series of stories, because to me, as no doubt was the case with the anonymous authors of The Thousand and One Nights and of The Ocean of Story, the individual tales are important, too.
JM: Much of your work to me poses questions about the freedoms and constraints of the book as an object. You've explored the future of stories, and the new life technology might give them, in Lost in the Funhouse, and in a story I remember called "Click," with a web of faux-hyperlinks in it.
JM: But even without resorting to technological metaphors, your sense of story has always striven to make the margins of your pages malleable, to transform the book into a kind of inexhaustible cycle.
JB: Sounds like something I would have to plead guilty to. Mind you, I used to be more interested in the edges of the envelope, so to speak, than I am now. Back in the days when tape recorders were something new, for example, it intrigued me that they offered an interesting avenue back to the oral narrative tradition, which by centuries precedes any written storytelling tradition. It amuses me now to look at the jacket photograph on the back of the first edition of Lost in the Funhouse, because it's so dated in so many ways, as I hope the stories are not; there I sit, in the high 1960s, in front of an old reel-to-reel Ampex tape recorder of the sort they used to have in recording studios. I'm smoking a cigarette and have my '60s sideburns half down my chin. So it reminds me of how dated that particular kind of experimentation is already. Obviously, the Electronic Literature Organization and other outfits like that continue to explore alternatives to the page and the line, but I myself am less interested than I used to be in those alternatives. I still have a kind of perfunctory, almost dutiful curiosity about things like digital books and so forth. But as fiction in its printed form threatens to become more and more of an endangered species, my long-standing appreciation for the feel and the look and the texture of the bound book and the printed page grows greater and greater. Things like digital readers don't appeal to me at all. A screen that I have to read off of is an office tool that I value, but not something I want to engage with for pleasure and instruction.
JM: Speaking of the pleasure of books as objects, you mentioned when you first picked
Please sign in to add a comment on this article.
- Luddites, Innuendo, and the Solar Plexus: An Inter...
- James Braly: "If you can’t tell the truth, you can...
- When Do You Know a Novel Will Be a Novel?
- Voyage to the Underworld: An Interview with Dan Br...
- The Mind of a Different Era: Naomi Alderman
- Curious and Hopeful: A Conversation with Tournamen...
- Discard Studies: Robin Nagle on Garbage, Sanitatio...
- Silent Epidemic: An Interview with Katherine Bouto...
- Talking Tournament: Rosecrans Baldwin, Andrew Woma...
- Working Woman: An Interview with Marisa Silver
This emotionally taut novel of family dynamics and the limits of sacrifice presents a woman on the verge of giving up everything -- including her marriage -- to help her impassive brother fight his obesity.
A newly fired 20-something becomes an assistant to a filmmaker chronicling people’s failed ambitions in Alina Simone's sharp meditation on internet addiction, celebrity worship, and digital narcissism.
This new collection of some of the best of overseas reportage includes articles from Joan Didion, Tim Judah and Susan Sontag, with topics ranging from impromptu theater in conflict-ridden Sarajevo to a gravediggers’ strike in Liverpool.