It wasn’t until I listened to this week’s Book Fight that I realized other people actually still read John Barth. Lost in the Funhouse was a collection that showed me what metafiction is, and how it works. I didn’t finish The Sot-Weed Factor, but I liked where it was going even if I couldn’t accompany it. The Floating Opera never grabbed my attention. I read Giles Goat-Boy and wondered why, even as I was exhilarated by its wanton weirdness, its fearlessness in taking itself seriously.
And then I read this piece arguing that Barth’s real peak was later, that I needed to check out Tidewater Tales. I bought a copy, but that’s not the book I just abandoned.
No, that was Sabbatical. I liked it at first: the first person plural narration, recounting a married couple’s trip back home through Chesapeake Bay on a yacht, the shifts in perspective from the husband, who we find out is a retired CIA operative of some kind, and the wife, who has a complicated backstory and an English degree. But… somewhere around page 60 I’d had enough and put it down.
The thing it this: this happens to me with Barth more often than not. I’ve now started five of his books (four novels) and only finished two of them. At the point that I put down Sabbatical, I couldn’t reconcile two conflicting forces in the book: the playfulness of the voice, the willingness to pun around (with descendants of Edgar Allen Poe and Francis Scott Key tooling around on a yacht called the Pokey, for starters) and pull out Pynchon-lite dumb tricks in the naming of things (although Pynchon’s puns are funnier, because he’s usually not overly proud of himself while making them), and a constant need to reinforce that Bad Things had happened to one of the main characters’ twin sister, who we need to be told several times was subjected to horrible sexual violence—some of which was politically motivated and/or related to Iran, because why not pile a few more layers of intrigue on without explaining them yet, and some of which wasn’t.
There was a profound cognitive dissonance for me in reading this thing, winking at me the whole time with its typical Barth metafictional flair, stopping to tell me THE STORY OF FENWICK’S BOINA when one of the characters loses his hat in the water, and then either expecting me to feel something at the horrors to which Miriam a.k.a Mims has been subjected, or expecting me not to feel anything, which is worse.
Is Barth too “playful” for me? Maybe. I’d like to think I enjoy “fun” reads. But the cleverness of this narrator made for a hopeless impedance mismatch with the actual subject matter at hand. I don’t think an extended description of a gang rape goes down smoother if the narrator’s tone is light and breezy, and I don’t think the author should think that either, and the delivery here is just all wrong.
“Lost in the Funhouse” takes itself seriously when it needs to and doesn’t when it shouldn’t. Sabbatical isn’t sure what it wants you to do, so it plays around in all the wrong places, and I quickly reached my limit. Someday I’ll find a John Barth novel that thrums for me the way “Funhouse” does, but alas: not this book, not today.