Saturday, September 02, 2017

John Barth, LETTERS (1979)

Aargh, you want me to summarize LETTERS? Okay, but this is going to be the most ungainly thing possible. I'm not convinced there's an elegant way to do it.

So. The book consists of letters written by seven characters: five characters from, or related to characters from, Barth's previous books, one new character, and the author. The action takes place from March through September, 1969. Barth wrote it in part in response to the tumultuous late-sixties situation, and in part in response to turning forty and wanting to take stock of his career thusfar and going forward. Thus, expect a lot of stuff about revolutions and second halves/repetitions. The first mention of each letter-writing character will be in all caps.

(Incidental question that one might wonder: is it actually necessary to read Barth's previous output prior to this?  I know it's pretty much incidental, given that you're rather unlikely to want to read it without having, but still: is it?  Barth SEZ no, but for commercial reasons, that was pretty inevitable.  But no, it's not exactly necessary.  Might be desirable, though, and not just because--if you're me--you'd feel a sense of nagging doubt, like you were missing something.  There's a bit of a sliding scale here: The Floating Opera and The End of the Road would certainly be the most desirable to have read, whereas the plots of The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy are largely irrelevant--as are the short-story collections, though at the very least, it wouldn't hurt to read Mensch's stories in Lost in the Funhouse.  And THAT IS ALL.)

Okay, so there's a new school in the Maryland state system, Marshyhope State University. The acting provost as the book opens is one GERMAINE PITT/LADY AMHERST (our All! New! Character!), an older middle-aged woman who was involved with various prominent writers in her colorful youth. The main thing she's doing now is embarking on an intense romance with AMBROSE MENSCH (child protagonist of three stories in Lost in the Funhouse, now in his forties). Her letters are addressed in confessional fashion to The Author. Ambrose is a writer who used to write realistic narratives and is now more concerned with structure (seem familiar?). He writes his letters to the anonymous sender of the blank message-in-a-bottle that he had found as a child in "Water-message." He has a complicated family drama going on, and is also in the midst of writing a screenplay for an avant-garde director, Reg Prinz. It's supposed to be based on one of Barth's novels, but which one? Not clear, as the action keeps getting pushed up to the present, until suddenly we have a film based around the War of 1812. Why the War of 1812? Well, because that's what a good portion of THIS book is about (revolutions reflecting one another), you see. Another of the letter writers is one ANDREW BURLINGAME COOK VI, descendent of the mingled bloodlines of Ebenezer Cook and Henry Burlingame (respectively the virgin-poet protagonist of The Sot-Weed Factor and his protean mentor), poetaster and one of several candidates for an honorary doctorate at MSU. Cook presents and summarizes a series of letters written by his ancestor, A.B. Cook IV, concerning the events surrounding the war and the family's skullduggery as they attempt to influence events by playing the British, French, and Americans off one another in the name of...well, it's a little vague, but mainly in favor of emancipating the American Indians. His letters are written to his mysteriously absent son. Also involved with MSU: TODD ANDREWS, protagonist of The Floating Opera, now seventyish and working as legal counsel for the school. He's preoccupied with the idea that the second half of his life is recapitulating the first, and looking for signs of the latest step in this process. His letters are written to his late father (a suicide prior to the events of the previous novel). Then we move over to the "Remobilization Farm," various denizens of which are also involved with the film in question. This is a sort-of sanitarium run by a (nameless) mad doctor where JACOB HORNER (anti-hero of The End of the Road) had gone to try to get help. Now in his fifties, he's still there. He writes letters--predictably--to himself, from his solipsistic hell, about the events going on around him. He has this view of history that hinges on dates, and is constantly letting us know what happened and who was born on such-and-such a day. Also at the Remobilization Farm: JEROME BRAY, descendant of Harold Bray, the sinister, enigmatic false prophet in Giles Goat-Boy. Bray is pissed off at the author for allegedly having stolen his manuscript for that novel and taken credit for it (if you go back and look at Giles, you'll see that the author's note in the beginning, allegedly explaining where the novel came from, is simply signed "JB;" at the time you would've just assumed that was for John Barth, but it could be for someone else!). Note also that Bray--through one of the weirder bits of "Bellerephoniad"--also serves as the representative of Chimera (a bit of a cheat, maybe, but there's plenty of Chimera in here--also note that in the weird Q&A section of that book--published seven years before this one--Barth mentions his planned LETTERS by name. The man's nothing if not disciplined). Bray has a baroque revenge scheme that involves a computer that creates automatic literature. Also, insects. It's really weird. Oh yeah, and finally, there's THE AUTHOR, who writes letters to these characters asking for their help with his in-progress novel. The idea is that Barth's other books exist in this one, and the characters mostly accept them as being based on--though not perfectly accurate representations of--their own lives. Anyway! That's LETTERS. Things happen, conclusions are reached, &c.

One thing you could do is take a 1969 calendar and rotate it forty-five degrees counterclockwise. Then, you could look at the letters in this novel and note that they each are marked with their own (alphabetical) letter (except for one which is an ampersand). Then, If you wrote each letter's letter in the box for the day it's dated, you would spell one of the letters in LETTERS on each of seven calendar pages, and the letters that spelt out these letters would also spell out the book's subtitle, "AN OLD TIME EPISTOLARY NOVEL BY SEVEN FICTITIOUS DROLLS & DREAMERS EACH OF WHOM IMAGINES HIMSELF FACTUAL."* If that sounds a little confusing, don't worry. I'm not saying there's any actual call to do it; indeed, the book does it for you. The subtitle isn't meant to be a secret. I only mention it because it's indicative of the rigor that went into the novel's construction. It's very, very easy to dismiss something like this--a book populated by characters from the author's previous books? Come on--as massively self-indulgent, but to do so would require a very broad definition of "self-indulgent." It's massive, but it's not really unwieldy. And, you know, it's a work of genius and exactly the kind of thick, postmodern novel I thrill to.

*question from the peanut gallery: isn't "imagining themselves factual" pretty much the default state of fictional characters? Don't you only find characters who consider themselves fictional in a certain kind of metafiction? I mean, yeah, I get the distinction--they think that Barth's novels are novels whereas they, the putative inspirations for these novels, are real--but hmm.

The thing about LETTERS is, it feels like everything is in there. Within the postmodern, metafictional penumbra, we have basically realistic narratives coexisting comfortably with totally whacked-out ones. My two favorite letter-writers, Todd Andrews and Jerome Bray, are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Andrews comes across as just incredibly sweet, and his narrative is beautiful and heartbreaking. I may not share his passion for sailing in Maryland's coastal waters (which is also Barth's own), but I can really, really feel and understand it, and it's beautifully described. Then you have Bray, whose narrative is as surreal and ferociously fractured as you can get. His letters are evidently being written by this computer, LILIVAC, and they're filled with symbols and frequent RESETs and his narrative is unnerving in a way I haven't previously encountered in Barth. And it's amazing that--for instance--these two separate narratives can exist in this novel without feeling notably jarring or disjointed.

Basically, I love this. I think, however, it was also the moment that Barth's critical star fell. It's hard to remember now (especially if, like me, you didn't live through it--what a weird way to phrase that thought that was), but Barth really was hot shit in the sixties and seventies. But then you have this--exactly the kind of postmodernism that was going out of fashion at the time, and really, when you have this massive, dense, imposing tome, seemingly hella self-indulgent...well, it's gonna be a dubious proposition for most people, and you're gonna hear the term "unreadable," which is rarely if ever used accurately, and certainly not in this case. I do not think this would be in print if not for Dalkey, and I'd be extremely curious to hear how many copies of this (as well as book by other marginal novelists--Gilbert Sorrentino, say) they actually sell on a yearly basis. Three? At the risk of sounding as solipsistic as Horner, it's difficult to imagine anyone other than me reading this in 2017 ("yes, yes, you're so awesome and quirky in your literary tastes, just shut the hell up, okay?"). I'm glad I did, though. I believe this is the zenith of Barth's ambition and experimentalism, but I do plan at some point to read some of his later novels, which in spite of his unfashionableness are generally well-reviewed to the extent that they are.

However, CAVEAT. There must be caveats, and the caveat is this: you don't see people mentioning this in reviews, but it seems a disservice not to warn people, so let me note that even though most of this is enthralling reading, then there are A.B. Cook's historical accounts, which take up more than a quarter of the novel, and HOLY SHIT are they ever coma-inducingly boring. I fucking get how they deepen the themes Barth wants to work with, but they were a real endurance test to get through. Did they really have to be that minutely detailed? Condemning the book based on them would probably be like dismissing Moby-Dick for its preponderance of Fun Facts About Whales, but boy.


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