ONCE UPON A TIME by John Barth


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In a reprise of old themes, haunts, and ideas, metafiction master Barth (The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, 1991) returns to himself and his native Chesapeake Bay in this fictional memoir of a middle-aged writer embarked on an autumnal cruise. The story is told in the Barthian way, within a frame of another story -- in this case, the voyage of the writer's sloop, US, south into the "Chesapeake Triangle" on the Columbus Day weekend of October 1992. And the chosen form in which the author revisits his past and his vocation, writing, is no less structured -- an opera in three acts with an overture to set the scene, arias for explication, and a concluding "episong." The author/Barth is accompanied by his beloved second wife, his "Reality Principle," as he sets sail on the fine Saturday afternoon, but as the cruise continues, the writer accidentally loses his beloved pen, "Pumblechook," bought years ago in Charles Dickens's birthplace. Then the weather deteriorates, moods darken, and the US runs aground in an unfamiliar marsh. Seeking help, Barth comes across his twin sister, Jill; his lost pen; and his "counterself," invented guide, and childhood friend, Jerry Schreiber, aka Jay Wordsworth Scribner, who's there to "goose things along and frame and distance the whole show." Virtual reality takes over as the writer, claiming not to be writing an autobiography, but "a kind of ship's log of the Inside Passage," revisits his childhood in Cambridge, Maryland; his first marriage; his college teaching; his writing successes, beginning with The Floating Opera; and his encounter with the woman who became his second wife. What's fiction and perhaps what's not is as tangled as the marsh grasses of Barth's native Dorchester County -- and that's part of the fun, but the heavily schematic form, as well as the frequent literary one-upmanship, is more threatening to the venture than any fall storm. Very vintage Barth, and disappointingly so, despite the occasional reminders of a talent once new and stunningly inventive.
Pub Date: May 4th, 1994
ISBN: 0316082589
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1994


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