JOHN BARTH, ARGUABLY AMERICA'S greatest living writer (references provided on request), has written a new novel. Not that you'd know it from the thunderclap of silence that has greeted Every Third Thought since its publication in October 2011. The reviewers that be have not thus far deemed Barth's newest worthy of even passing notice — good, bad, or middling — preferring instead to concentrate their powers of analysis on younger and stupider subjects.
When Barth began his career some fifty-plus years ago, earnest, badly-bearded young men and confidently dogmatic young women were trying to change the order of things in the name of social justice. In 2012... well, everything's pretty much the same. John Barth has spent most of his allotted era watching our wheels spin with a coolly detached, not unamused gaze. He doesn't ignore or eschew change, but he takes a wider view. He is Heraclitean to the core. Everything changes, always. There is nothing special about this period in human history, or in any other. You could sum up his guiding precept as Moriae Encomium — in praise of folly (Erasmus' triply-layered title could hardly fail to appeal to the author of a book called Every Third Thought). As another earnest young man once noted, "I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused." JB's earlier works, the ones that fixed his place in the firmament (The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy in particular), expressed both amusement and disgust in equal measure. Yet as scarifying as Barth's wit could be and still is, he was rarely cruel. If, as Nabokov wrote in the Afterword to Lolita, art is kindness, then John Barth embodies art every bit as much as anyone ever has.
I am biased. I've spent an inordinate amount of time with John Barth's writing over the past two years, having been hired to adapt The Sot-Weed Factor — Barth's labyrinthine historical parody set in 18th century Colonial Maryland — into a full length filmic extravaganza, consisting of eleven one-hour episodes and one feature length finale. Kind of like Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, but with pirates and whores and venereal disease and bumptious alcoholics and someone in almost every episode soiling his or her (usually his) pants. In other words, almost exactly like Berlin Alexanderplatz.
I ended up with a script longer even than the book, because the adaptation required certain additions, rather than subtractions (for instance, a voice-over to take the place of the omniscient narrator in the novel). The Sot-Weed Factor is entirely constructed of plot: you can't remove any of its many threads without unraveling the whole thing. It's a marvel of construction, as intricate as a rainforest ecosystem — but, you know, funny.
Suffice to say that I was daunted at the prospect of taking on (and more importantly, taking apart) Barth's gargantuan opus. By the time I was done it took me quite a while to filter its cock-eared Elizabethan dialect from my brain pan. Therefore, I was secretly pleased to discover that Every Third Thought clocks in at a mere 170 pages, and that although it is set in pretty much the same Maryland backwater as The Sot-Weed Factor, its various regressions only go as far back as the 1940s. Most of its action unfolds in what Barth takes pains to identify as 2008, keeping the reader apprised of the course of the Democ...read more