A Bye to Barth by George Yatchisin

The easy joke would be to say that since I wrote a novel last November it killed off John Barth, but that’s too glib a line to honor a preternatural postmodernist who helped give contemporary fiction a big slap upside its lazy head in the late 20th century (along with others, sure, and I will get to one of them in a bit). But that photo above is the actual copy of Lost in the Funhouse I still own, the ninth printing of the paperback (as of 1980). One of the back cover quotes enthuses: “The reader has to dig. But the digging produces ore from one of the richest veins in American literature.” Turns out that was a review in Playboy. Yeah, times have changed.

But Barth certainly helped change them. He even asked you to cut up the book, so you could make a Möbius strip out of the opening story “Frame-Tale” (hint hint) that goes, and goes, and goes, “Once upon a time/there was a story that began.” I couldn’t take scissors to it, books being precious objects and all to those of us born before computers took over our pockets and thus the world, but I appreciated the simple, infinite wisdom. He might be best known for his essay “The Literature Exhaustion,” ever since declared a manifesto for its age, but I still think it’s mostly a sly joke to convince more people to read Borges. If nothing else, the essay is a learned labyrinth all on its own, suggesting the best way out of an ending is confronting it with mirrors, or at least metaphors, mirror enough, no?

I was a know-nothing 18-year-old when I sat in a seminar room in Johns Hopkins’ Gilman Hall taking Rudiments of Fiction with Barth. You bet it petrified me a bit, and I wasn’t alone–one day when we were supposed to be discussing some Beckett he had assigned, we all looked at his questions dumb-faced, and we weren’t doing it as Beckettian commentary. We had no idea what was up. I remember him tossing his copy of the story to the table and muttering, “Oh, fuck it,” and then deciding to discuss something else. Or maybe he dismissively dismissed us to teach us a lesson, I don’t quite recall. So I do know the line where chagrin burns into shame, I do. It was the first time a celebrated cerebral famous person was ever mad at me.

Despite so much still at the core of my writing brain that came from that Rudiments of Fiction class–my eternal love of Joyce’s “Araby,” which Barth deconstructed practically line-by-line to show how a classic short story was built, my fascination with machinations of language, the way Freytag’s Pyramid charted the rising and falling action of narrative, the beauty of the word denouement upon my tongue–I was a bumbling fiction writer myself, with not enough writing or reading, or, simply, time on earth, to yet claw my way to brilliance in a single semester. I got a B, which I want to say is for Barth. It was one of two I ever got in my life–yep, I was that grade-worrying, over-achieving child–so it stung all the more. And from then on I focused on poetry, journalism, eventually discovering there was a welcoming home in the world of creative nonfiction before it even had a marketing name. My life-story joke became, “I don’t do fiction because John Barth told me I couldn’t.” (Hence my novel, not even published but just existing, as possible assassin’s bullet.)

Still, he was always kind and gracious whenever I ran into him the rest of my time at JHU, even was considerate enough to write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school. That grade-worrying me was, of course, always one to volunteer for things, so I ended up co-running the undergraduate reading series, helping out as a student rep when visiting writer’s came to town, etc. You know, the stuff that’s about both learning the ropes of the world and just enough brown-nosing. That meant I was one of a handful of students invited to a Faculty Club dinner when Donald Barthelme came to campus. The evening proceeded with the famous authors sat next to each other’s wives at the center of the table, and us students mostly looking on, hoping not to misuse a salad fork or fling anything indecorously from our plates. We probably said as little as those of us in that class on Beckett, but in this company, our silence was not just allowed but blessed.

So the famous men drank a bit more, and their eyes twinkled, and they got no less brilliant if slightly soused, perhaps falling a tad into their fiction-writing selves: Barth the more extravagant and loquacious, Barthelme, cutting and quick. Bon mots were these two Bs bread and butter. While I don’t remember the context, I still remember Barth expounding, “That’s why Baltimore has always been down to price instead of up to quality,” and that sealed my impression of that dear, dirty town (at least in the early ’80s, not too far removed from Randy Newman’s incisive lament). Of course Bartheleme went on to wow us all at his reading, too, as if I even had to write that.

What a glimpse of an aspirational world. Writers live in our heads, they do, but teachers, the ones we most admire we strive to become. I can only hope a bit of Barth lives on in me–especially those days back when, as he put it in an essay, “There [was] chalk dust on the sleeve of my soul.” As for thoughts that hum, for words well-wrought, here’s to all the funhouses, all the secret operators, all the lovers for whom the funhouses are designed.