The Book of Ten Nights and a Night
by John Barth (Houghton Mifflin) $24
"To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," wrote Theodor Adorno in 1949, anticipating the problem for the artist after WWII; after Vietnam; and now, after 9/11. Or: How can human hands tell the tale of what they've brought to ruin? How can words on paper about made-up things possibly begin to approach such horror?
This is the question that troubles John Barth in his new collection of stories, The Book of Ten Nights and a Night. Not nine, not eleven, but ten-plus-one; or as Barth's narrator "Graybard" refers to it, a "hendecameron." Graybard is the avatar of a frustrated writer (Barth?) who, via his saucy muse Wysiwyg (as computer-types know, the acronym for What You See Is What You Get), manages to un-stick enough to bring eleven stories back to the CNG, or Center of Narrative Gravity, to borrow a Barthism. Along the way, Wysiwyg imposes certain rules on Graybard's stories when she sees them growing tiresome or repetitive; but most importantly, she forces him to tell the stories, despite Graybard's reluctance to engage in such a fanciful pursuit as frolicking with his muse while the world itself crumbles, as well as his growing fear that he has no stories left to tell.
This leads the suspicious-minded reader to wonder if, perhaps, the 9/11 concern is just a smokescreen and the problem troubling old Graybard is nothing more than simple writer's block. To project some (and perhaps unfairly), one gets the sense of an aging John Barth--darling of the postmodernist movement, author of 15 books, institution at the Johns Hopkins writing program--anguishing not only over the question of how writing is relevant in the post post-lapsarian age (as if when the towers fell they took out the New York publishing houses with them, leaving us only good-natured Brits like Harry Potter), but also over how his specific kind of writing, grounded as it is in the work of the postmodernists, is relevant at a time when the American public seems hungry for less narrative trickery and convoluted guessing games, not more. How, he seems to be asking, is John Barth relevant?
Another question: Is postmodernism dead? Harry Potter aside, Americans have over recent years exhibited a mania for realism in the novels of Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, and the burgeoning non-genre of (shudder) creative nonfiction. Barth's own press release prominently features a quote from Newsday--Newsday!--that places Barth as the progenitor of authors such as David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers; whether this is an attempt to reintroduce Barth to a younger generation or prematurely eulogize him, it has an undeniable frisson of admitted obsolescence. And there is enough Classic Barth in this new book--literary allusions run wild, portmanteau words, annoying French phrases, metaphysical musings, and self-referential or pseudo-biographical detail in both the stories themselves and the makings of them, now laid bare--that it would seem Barth has reason for concern over his modern-day relevance. As one of his characters, who is not so coincidentally a frustrated writer himself, thinks: Is this how Chekhov went about his art? Has any storyteller, from Homer to Hemingway, Poe to Pasternak, attempted to fabricate a narrative something out of so nearly nothing? Nothing, Barth is the first to admit, is what he's got; conversations between Graybard and Wysiwyg take place in her entirely transparent studio located on a "saltyfresh" creek, where everything--the bed, the walls, the shower towels--is see-through. This is the literature of exhaustion, taken to an extreme.
And yet out of this nothing, Barth makes something. As the stories progress, under the eye of watchful Wysiwyg, they become less tattered recollection and more story-like, in the traditional sense; they become less self-conscious and more of what John Gardner calls "the continuous dream of fiction." They are the same old stories, sure: dinner parties, marital difficulties, infidelities, and strange fixations. And Barth's narrator is never able to completely get away from the idea of storytelling, post 9/11, as "barbaric"--but, as Wysiwyg asserts, there is a certain relevance to their irrelevance. At the end, the frame story between Wysiwyg and Graybard, formerly a lark, becomes the story itself, and the irrelevant suddenly becomes not only relevant, but the very center of the story. In this way, Barth seems to purge himself of the question of relevance simply by writing through his concern, so that the work itself becomes an answer to the questions it poses. Past the death of post- modernism, creeping toward the death of the author (not in the theoretical sense of Barthes, but the actual death of Barth), John Barth, master of postmodernism and progenitor of today's brightest stars, echoes no one more than Samuel Beckett's Molloy: "I can't go on--I must go on--I will go on."