The storytelling urge, in old age and under duress, as seen in the veteran postmodernist’s latest collection.
The framework of these variously related tales consists of ongoing playfully erotic conversations (and conjoinings) shared by an aging writer (“Graybard”) and his lissome body-painted “Muse,” rather archly named WYSIWYG (meaning “What you see is what you get”). The setting is (Barth’s usual) Maryland’s Eastern shore, during the 11 days that follow the bombing of the World Trade Center. Graybard wonders whether stories still matter in a world so ruthlessly destructive. And WYSIWYG affably deconstructs and disses the “Hendecameron” (so named in homage to Boccaccio) he nevertheless assembles, rudely questioning his metafictional toying with variant versions of “a non-story that becomes a Story by acknowledging that it isn’t one.” Undeterred, Graybard offers “stories” about narrative possibility (inspired by a recovered wedding ring, the near-convergence of a cat struck and killed by a car and a missing autistic boy found in a remote marshland). Noodling about writers’ dreams (“A Detective and a Turtle”) and the notion that both the physical universe and human possibility are contracting (“The Big Shrink,” “Extension”) yield mixed results—as do “9999,” in which confluences of numbers have possibly “causative” characteristics, and “Click,” which laboriously riffs on contrasts and linkages between virtual and “real” reality. Barth (Coming Soon!!!, 2001, etc.) does better with a sly science-fiction premise in “The Rest of Your Life,” and a retired teacher’s intuition that the declining birth rate presages a rejection of human “continuity” in “And Then There’s the One.” But the volume relapses into coy self-reflexiveness, and the reader nods. Barth’s conviction that characters and plots, beginnings and endings aren’t stories’ central concerns becomes, once again, initially stimulating, increasingly puzzling, ultimately dissatisfying.
Best for those who consider Barth an essential contemporary writer—whose numbers may be, well, “contracting.”