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Barth, John

(1930-2024) US academic and author, one of the central fabulists (see Fabulation) of his generation of writers, noted for a sometimes relentless experimentalism, an inability or disinclination to cease upon the moment of story he famously articulated in "The Literature of Exhaustion" (August 1967 The Atlantic), where postmodern (see Postmodernism and SF) writers are presented as miming the genuine stories before they all got "used up". His inhabitation of the figure of Scheherazade may seen as a magicking contradiction of this thesis, as in Chimera (coll of linked stories 1972), which hovers at the edge of the fantastic in its literalization in narrative form of the powers of mythopoeisis, and includes an intense reverie on Flying in "Bellerophoniad", the volume's long closing section.

Barth is probably best known for his epic mock-picaresque The Sot-Weed Factor (1960; rev 1967), based on a genuine mock-epic, The Sot-weed Factor: Or, a Voyage to Maryland: A Satyr (1708 chap) by the minor poet Ebenezer Cooke (1667-1732), a narrative set at the very end of the seventeenth century. Though the novel is not literally fantastic, it 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. Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon (1997), which is also told in an inspired mock-up of eighteenth century diction, shares some of the outrageousness of Factor, as illuminated by Edward Gorey's cover for the first edition, which verges on the terpsichorean [see Picture Gallery under links below].

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 the Cold War as conducted like a game between two Computers; it can also be thought of as 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; 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". Barth's nonfiction, much of it pertinent to his writerly experiments, appears in The Friday Book (coll 1984) and its successors. [JC]

John Simmons Barth

born Cambridge, Maryland: 27 May 1930

died Bonita Springs, Florida: 2 April 2024

works (selected)




Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011-current) edited by John Clute and David Langford.
Accessed 04:08 am on 22 June 2024.