Return To Sender
Letters By John Barth G.P. Putnam's Sons, $16.95
LIKE A LITERARY KRONOS, John Barth has stuffed each of his fictional offspring down his maw and let forth an echoing belch of a novel. The noise deafens; Barth blushes. With reason--many an atrocity litters Letters's past, including the authorial analogues of incest, cannibalism and flagellation. But what Barth does in the privacy of his own imagination is his own business; the worst atrocity he reserves for the hapless reader. The siren call of Barth's in-souciance, his cleverness, his recklessness, beckons you towards a grinding crash on the rocks surrounding these 750 pages, and a lonely death at sea.
Barth knows. No novel has displayed such an elaborate Maginot Line of prepared defenses since Joyce had Stuart Gilbert write a whole book under his "supervision" to explicate Ulysses. Barth demands that Joycean parallel. You could spend a month, a year, maybe a life detecting patterns within patterns in Ulysses; at the end you might look back and wonder why you bothered, but at least you'd have met thousands of smart people along the way. You can spend the same time with Letters and find equally pleasing patterns, but then look over your shoulder and your only company's the reeling silence.
Letters asks to be encapsulated, begs you for a precis on hind paws. Better, though, to let Barth himself summarize his beast:
Currently I find myself involved in a longish epistolary novel, of which I know so far only that it will be regressively traditionalist in manner; it will not be obscure, difficult, or dense in the Modernist fashion...
This assault on mechanical modernism--one of Barth's correspondents describes "those symbol-fraught Swiss watches and Schwarzwald cuckoo clocks of Modernism"--hardly fits a novel that follows a schematic masterplan. You see, if you take the seven letters of the title-word "letters," superimpose them on a seven-month calendar using a quaint motto, so that the letters of the motto form the letters of "letters," then each letter of the motto will fall neatly onto a date in the calendar, one for each of the letters in the book.
It makes more sense visually than verbally--vide: Wheels within wheels--but why bother? Barth, officious, is at your shoulder with an answer before you can ask the question.
If one imagines an artist less enamored of the world than of the language we signify it with, yet less enamored of the language than of the signifying narration, and yet less enamored of the narration than of its formal arrangement, one need not necessarily imagine that artist therefore forsaking the world for language, language for the processes of narration, and those processes for the abstract possibilities of form. Might he/she not as readily, at least as possibly, be imagined as thereby (if only thereby) enabled to love the narrative through the form, the language through the narrative, even the world through the language?
Perhaps; but such an author wastes little of that love on his reader.
The guiding patterns of Letters are like those abstract coffee-table sculptures that come apart into little pieces, then stand whole again only as a testimony to the dogged persistence of the party guest who sat there all night putting the damn thing back together again. You can play that game if you want to; stand in line for your Ph.D in Contemporary Lit.
If you still want to assay the bulk of Letters--out of a sentimental attachment to Barth's brilliant earlier epic-length efforts, Giles Goat-Boy and The Sot-Weed Factor, or out of sheer quixotic nerve--you could take the advice of Jacob Horner, formerly the protagonist of The End of the Road and now a pawn wandering Barth's checkerboard:
But never mind the Big Picture, which you will likely Never See; or which, if it exists at all, may be like those messages spelled out at halftime in U.S. college football matches by marching undergraduates: less intelligent, valuable, and significant than its constituent units.
Removing the mystique of a meaningful, message-laden blueprint leaves a mere bunch of letters--letters as alphabetical characters, letters as missives; Barth gleefully invests his puns with more significance than they deserve.
REGURGITATIVELY, Barth lifts his characters, these war correspondents of the literary battlefield, from each of his past books. The one new creation, Lady Amherst, is also the best. Her sequence of letters to the author describes the progress of her affair with Ambrose Mensch, a dilettante writer late of Lose in the Funhouse. Barth makes a feeble effort to set her up as an allegorical representation of "Belles Lettres," on which her--or Ambrose--hopes to father forth a new novel, but she balks, her past liaisons with famous men of letters notwithstanding.
The affair of Lady Amherst and Mensch holds the reader's chief interest and sympathy because it's the most coherent and human part of Letters; the other characters dance a contorted jig about it, A. B. Cook III and his descendant A. B. Cook VI send their unborn children endless genealogical accounts of the family's intrigues, centering around the War of 1812. Jerome Bonaparte Bray, part dictator, part human fly, part servant of a computer, plots a Second American Revolution. Todd Andrews--still alive, despite The Floating Opera's denouement--writes to his dead father contemplating a second suicide. And Horner sends letters to himself, listing events that occurred on the day of posting as part of his "anniversary theory of history" and trying to make sense of his immobility in the madness around him.
You might notice that these characters don't write to each other at all. At different times their stories overlap, and by the end of Letters they're all related by marriage or adultery. But Barth's assumption of the epistolary novelist's cloak is a fiction: Letters shares nothing with models like Richardson's Clarissa.
The weaving of different stories occurs more through curious echoes and cross-references than through comprehensible relations. Barth once again has his own defense ready in the words of Lady Amherst:
The world is richer in associations than in meanings, and it is the part of wisdom to distinguish between the two.
The associations in Letters, however, come too thick, and it's a matter of chance which one your brain happens to pick out at any moment. As sheaves of pages pass by, Barth concentrates these associations in several arbitrary subjects: the War of 1812, which somehow prefigures a Second American Revolution; the decline of the profession of letters; the Maryland shore, scene of most of the action; the waning of the Indian tribes; others too numerous to mention. Except for the fleeting pleasure of realizing Barth is up to something, these associations offer the attentive reader nothing but work, and the lazy, nothing at all.
The real promise Barth holds for the patient reader is not this lie about meaningful associations but the endless cleverness he applies to the stuff of language, his individual words and sentences. At times this connoisseur of puns and multiple entendres can be seen doing proud headstands behind his latest verbal tricks. Without straining too hard or setting his sights on the outrageous, he usually finds just the odd phrasing, the curious reference to spark laughter. He describes Reg Prinz, a movie director filming one of Barth's novels during Letters:
(He) is at the end of his twenties, lean, slight, light-skinned, freckled, pale-eyed, sharp-faced. He wears round wire-rimmed spectacles like Bertolt Brecht's and a bush of red hair teased out as if in ongoing electrocution. His chin and lips are hairless. No hippie he, his clothes are rumpled but clean, plain, even severe: in Ambrose's phrase, he dresses like a minor member of the North Korean U.N. delegation...
More often than not, however, these nuggets of well-proportioned wit are isolated, self-contained, and have no need for the monstrous superstructure around them. Barth could have--and has--written wonderful short stories or brief novels with such material.
He didn't, though; he wrote this bloat, and he tells us why over and over again in the course of it. (In fact, if you cut out all the self-conscious justifications for the denseness and length of Letters, it would probably become both readable and manageable.)
To be a novelist in 1969 is, I agree, a bit like being in the passenger railway business in the age of the jumbo jet: our dilapidated rolling stock creaks over the weed-grown right-of-ways, carrying four winos, six Viet Nam draftees, three black welfare families, two nuns, and one incorrigible railway buff, ever less conveniently, between the crumbling Art Deco cathedrals where once paused the gleaming Twentieth Century Limited.
You might have trouble filling out the whole of this miniature allegory, but that's undoubtedly Barth in the corner, playing with his toy trains. The great conservative, the practitioner of a lost art, the bearer of the torch--so Barth justifies his extravagances.
IF YOU LOOK only at the large strokes in Letters, however, another explanation for its size emerges, one more believable, more acceptable, though less flattering to Barth. Each of his correspondents either relives or believes he is reliving a portion of his past life. Lady Amherst echoing Samuel Johnson, calls it "an epidemic rage for reenactment." Andrews draws up a detailed schedule of the events that led up to his first decision to commit suicide, and realizes he's reliving it all, and heading in the same direction. Each generation in the exhaustive family history of the Cook/Burlingame clan spends the first half of its life undoing its parents' work and the second half undoing its parents' work and the second half undoing its own. Jacob Horner is either performing in or direction (it's unclear) a play called Der Wiedertraum ("the Repeat Dream"), which reenacts his adulterous affair with the wife of a fellow inmate of the Remobilization Clinic. And so it goes, over and over again.
Barth is least of all an idiot, and this schema for each of his characters obviously governs his own writing of Letters--this novel that incorporates each of his past protagonists, that takes every one of his old plots and recycles it, that is engaged in eternal omphaloskepsis, a sort of literary autism. That's it--the burden of the past: not a roster of great literary forebears but the author's own bibliography. Barth is getting older, and he hasn't found his Theme. Letters is his middle-age-crisis objectified into a monstrosity. No one can fault Barth for wasting a decade of his life on it, if he just had to get it off his chest. But it's the kind of book a more discreet author would bury in his basement, for posthumous publication alone.