ON WITH THE STORY
A collection of 12 linked and also discrete stories--Barth's first since Chimera (1972)--that may also be a speculative autobiographical novel, from the reigning master of postmodernist metafiction (Once Upon a time, 1994, etc.). Its framework is a vacation trip taken by a middle-age married couple who, we soon realize, are fictionalizing their life together and shared (and differing) ideas about the fiction-making process itself, exchanging stories that are punctuated by their delighted "pillow talk," along with other digressions and interruptions. The stories are often brilliant, invariably quirky riffs on the previously recycled matter of Barth's life, literary vocation, and noodling with various literary-theoretical concepts. Academe looms large, as do the pleasures of life in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay region and the dependable company of a sensitive soulmate acquired in a happy second marriage. The pieces are, more often than not, forbiddingly intricate, festooned not just with digressive tomfoolery but with flash-forwards and alternative twistings and turnings. "And Then One Day . . .," for instance, moves from the picture of a moribund old man keeping himself briefly alive by telling stories to a recounting of the possible futures endured by his daughter, a writer who may or may not end up winning a Nobel Prize. The clever title story employs Zeno's Paradox and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to characterize the happenstance relationship between its author, reading his work in an airline magazine, while in flight next to a woman who's also reading his story, and seeing in its heroine's experiences the pattern of her own life. It goes like that: one demonstration after another that "in physics and fiction alike . . . alternative worldlines are not only imaginable but . . . quite possible." The theoretical stuffiness is, thankfully, modified by precision of statement and appealingly comic invention. Alternately, as it were, cloyingly self-absorbed and uniquely inventive--and very much the same kind of thing Barth has been doing for what seems like decades.