LETTERS by John Barth
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Straight from the ivory tower--here's the ultimate, unreadable academic novel, and, sadly, the fiercest ammunition imaginable for John Gardner's self-righteous "moral fiction" crusade. In a grand gesture of self-advertisement and apparent desperation, Barth has taken characters from five of his six previous books--Todd Andrews from The Floating Opera, Jacob Homer from The End of the Road, Adolph Mensch from Lost in the Funhouse, Jerome (Harold) Bray from Giles Goat-Boy, various descendants of Ebenezer Cooke (The Sot-Weed Factor)--and he has them all writing letters in 1969: aging Todd writes to his dead father about the recurring patterns of his life and his rediscovery of sex with old flame Jane Mack and (probably incest) Jane's daughter Jeannine; Jacob Homer writes to himself in the loony bin, obsessed with numbers, anniversaries, and his tragic past; Bray and his LILYVAC II continue to pursue fiction-by-computer and write John Barth to threaten him with a plagiarism suit over Giles Goat-Boy; Adolph Mensch outlines his plan for a Perseus fiction; and the various Cookes chronicle the family history from about 1750 to 1820, which takes in Teeumseh, Byron, Madame de Stael, Fulton, the Burning of Washington, the Battle of New Orleans, and a plan to rescue Napoleon from Elba. But the biggest letter-writer of all is a new character, 50-year-old Germaine G. Pitt (Lady Amherst)--acting provost of Marshyhope State University, long-ago mistress to Joyce, Huxley, and Hesse ("he liked me to dress in lederhosen"), now the lustily Joycean mistress of Adolph Mensch, and related in one precious way or another to all the other characters. Plus: Barth himself writes to all these folks, asking their permission to put them in his new book, promising that, through these 88 letters and 864 pages, "Their several narratives will become one; like waves of a rising tide, the plot will surge forward. . . ." Unfortunately, that's not what happens, despite a highly contrived effort to connect these characters and bring them together for some campus/radical/terrorist hoopla. Nor do Barth's much-proclaimed themes here--life's second cycles, history's "reenactments"--hold things together; and the comedy/parody is more often strained than wild, especially since such literary gamesplaying is by now old stuff (Borges, Nabokov) that's been improved upon by Barthelme, Sorrentino, and even Woody Allen. What remains is a self-indulgent mishmash that not only fails but also puts an odd retroactive taint on the earlier novels: by shoving his past conceits up against each other, Barth reveals just how frail they all are--and that his various voices, whatever the ornate embellishments, are essentially just one wordy, arch, allusive voice. For Barth's fellow academics, then: an elaborate playpen to crawl around in. For those who know and love all of the earlier novels--some possible amusement. For most everyone else--a sorry spectacle, baroque and listless, noisy and busy and smug and empty.
Pub Date: Oct. 8th, 1979
ISBN: 1564780619
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1979


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