Mon March 20, 2006
Where Three Roads Meet: Novellas
In the nineteen sixties, a group of American writers staged a kind of literary revolution and took fiction in a new direction. In his new book, Where Three Roads Meet--you will recall that the word "trivia" refers in Latin to notes posted where three roads meet--Barth has three novellas.
By Don Noble
In the nineteen sixties, a group of American writers staged a kind of literary revolution and took fiction in a new direction.
John Barth was one of the most famous of this gang who became known as the metafictionists or fabulists. Barth, in an essay entitled "The Literature of Exhaustion," declared, to put it over-simply, that the possibilities of realistic fiction were exhausted. We had had the gritty realism of the thirties, like The Grapes of Wrath, and then the realistic war novels like The Naked and the Dead, and then the realistic social fiction of the fifties like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
Imagine, the metafictionists said, all the hundreds and hundreds of characters in every book and story and poem and play in every language, all the plots, all the twists and turns that have been used for three thousand years. What makes you think you can devise a new plot or a new kind of character? It's all been done.
So two options opened up. One was a highly self-conscious narrative with no suspension of disbelief. The other was to retell the old stories in a new way. John Gardner retold Beowulf from Grendel's point of view. Donald Barthelme wrote a novel about a girl who lived in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village with seven dwarves.
Barth himself won the National Book Award for Chimera, a retelling of three old stories, one of which was the Scheherezade story of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights from the point of view of Dunyazad, Scheherezade's younger sister. It was all lots of fun, but, like most artistic movements, metafiction went out of vogue.
John Gardner later said to John Barth that they had made a big mistake and wasted their careers. Barth disagreed and still writes metafiction and, although it is not for every taste, those who like intellectual, playful, indeed brilliant writing still enjoy it.
In his new book, Where Three Roads Meet--you will recall that the word "trivia" refers in Latin to notes posted where three roads meet--Barth has three novellas. The first of these is "Tell Me," in which three young people meet mainly to play music but become involved in a love triangle. The girl sleeps with both the boys, and the older boy dies while the younger goes on to be a writer.
The middle story is "I've Been Told: A Story's Story" and is the least successful. This novella is a conversation between the story itself and the Teller. Barth remarks here, "what kind of loser would invent a brand new story and so distract the house with What'll Happen Next that they miss Teller's cool new riffs on the classic tune?" That is his theory.
He also says, however, "Who wouldn't rather read a straight-on-story-story, involving colorful characters doing interesting things in a 'dramatic' situation, instead of yet another peekaboo-story-about-storying?" Who indeed?
In the third novella, "As I Was Saying," Barth has three old ladies record their memories for a young scholar named Manfred Dickson, Jr., who wants to know what part those Three Graces played in the youth of his novelist father, a largely ignored erotic fiction writer of the Henry Miller variety. It turns out that the Three Graces were Daddy's muses. They inspired Daddy quite a lot, especially since they had worked their way through college right after WWII as campus prostitutes in Annapolis, Baltimore, and College Park.
They were "Delphic orifices." Barth is not only wicked smart, he is wicked playful and erotic, bawdy, risque, sexy--insert your own adjective here--but never "dirty" or pornographic. Where Three Roads Meet will not be a best-seller, but Barth's fans will love it, and so will any others who may have grown tired again of the realistic narratives of newly divorced women, supported by their plucky friends, or mysteries involving the whereabouts of the Holy Grail.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.