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Barth, John

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1930-    ) US author, one of the central fabulists (see Fabulation) of his generation of writers, noted for a sometimes relentless experimentalism; he is probably best known for his epic mock-picaresque The Sot-Weed Factor (1960; rev 1967) which, though not literally fantastic, hovers at the edge of the impossible whenever its protagonist's "tutor" Henry Burlingame – a secretive, sometimes invisible, Shapeshifting Mysterious Stranger directly descended from the Secret Master-like protagonist of Herman Melville's The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857) – exposes colonial America as a proto Comic Inferno. Giles Goat-Boy, or The Revised New Syllabus (1966), which derives its language in part from Vladimir Nabokov and its central metaphor of the university as the world in part from Jorge Luis Borges, can be read as sf, given the literalness of its presentation of its venue and characters. The novel itself is a complex Satire on education, human nature and knowledge, and also a remarkable Bildungsroman. Some of Barth's later short fiction, as assembled in Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (coll 1968; exp 1969), contains some intensely academic Fantasy; Chimera (coll of linked stories 1972) hovers at the edge of the fantastic in its literalization in narrative form of the powers of mythopoeisis; LETTERS: An Old Time Epistolary Novel by Seven Fictitious Drolls and Dreamers, Each of Which Imagines Himself Actual (1979) uses Oulipo techniques to generate collisions between Modernism (James Joyce almost appears) and Postmodernism (Barth himself is a character), as well as some sustained jokes (one of the correspondents is a Computer who thinks it is a writer who thinks he is a large insect); The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991) ricochets its Near Future journalist from Sri Lanka to medieval Baghdad, and back; and On With The Story: Stories (coll 1996), The Book of Ten Nights and a Night: Eleven Stories (coll 2004), told within a Club Story frame, and Where Three Roads Meet: Novellas (coll 2005) argue – jokingly and exaggeratedly but with very serious intent – that the narrative of Story is, as Barth suggests in "I've Been Told: A Story's Story" from the third volume, "not only its principal character, but It: the Story itself, telling us itself itself". [JC]

John Simmons Barth

born Cambridge, Maryland: 27 May 1930




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