A Cloth Woven of Stories Told: John Barth and the Literature of Rectification

Zach Gibson reflects on the late-career achievement of the late novelist John Barth.

By Zach GibsonJune 23, 2024

A Cloth Woven of Stories Told: John Barth and the Literature of Rectification

Under history, memory and forgetting.
Under memory and forgetting, life.
But writing a life is another story.
—Paul Ricœur, Memory, History, Forgetting

—John Barth, The Tidewater Tales

JOHN BARTH DIED on April 2. He would have been 94 in May.

Following Barth’s passing, The New York Times published an obituary by Michael T. Kaufman and Dwight Garner, accompanied by a footnote informing readers that Kaufman, a frequent contributor to the Times, had died in 2010. Kaufman, who contributed slice-of-life profiles to the paper’s About New York section between 1988 and 1995, began writing obituaries for the Times in the late 1990s. His death notices included figures like civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, publishing giant J. Gordon Lippincott, and former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Barth was Kaufman’s ninth subject to outlive him—a distinction he now shares with New Yorker writer Lillian Ross, Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, and Osama bin Laden.

The “advance obituary” is by no means a new practice. New York Times reporter Alden Whitman conducted “obituary interviews” with subjects as early as the 1960s, and The Washington Post, as of 2021, holds around 900 such articles on file. It’s not a secret—the Post’s obituaries editor spoke candidly to the Poynter Institute about his outlet’s coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s death in 2022 (the WaPo obituary for the Queen went live one minute after she died). And it’s not unusual for a subject to outlive their obituarist—Gregory Katz and Robert Barr, who contributed to the Associated Press’s article on Queen Elizabeth, both died before their work saw publication.

To anyone with even a passing familiarity with Barth’s work, there’s an obvious irony in the fact that he outlived his own obituarist by more than a decade. His fiction was notoriously averse to closure. Several of his shorter pieces feature epilogues to the lives of mythic heroes who peaked in their youth. Bored by a sense of aimless ennui, the reimagined, middle-aged Perseus and Bellerophon of Chimera (1972) grapple with the fact that their lives have continued long past their stories’ end. The framed follow-up to Odysseus’s return to Ithaca, nested within the main narrative of The Tidewater Tales (1987), plays with the hero’s uneasy return to domestic life after 20 years abroad. The Tidewater Tales itself, which follows Pete and Kathy Sagamore, a middle-aged writer and a librarian, through the last two weeks of Kathy’s pregnancy, ending on the day of her delivery, suggests that the close of the novel also marks a new beginning for the Sagamores: it concludes with an open colon.

Though the footnote to the Times obituary reads like an inciting incident from a Barth short story, the article itself is mostly unobjectionable. The piece itself is not the main issue. Nor is the practice of advance obituary writing in general—although it has led to many more situations that sound like they were poached from Barth’s fiction. For example, when Bette Davis realized that Albin Krebs, a reporter for the Times, was conducting an interview for her obituary under a false pretext, she exchanged her cup of tea for a martini and continued the conversation, and opera singer Kitty Carlisle Hart kept up a regular telephone correspondence with a reporter who was working on an advance article on her death. On November 16, 2020, Radio France Internationale added 100 new entries to Wikipedia’s “List of premature obituaries” when they dumped a store of prewritten obits onto their website by mistake.

Kaufman and Garner’s article, for its part, points toward a much more complex question about Barth’s place in the popular literary imagination. Nearly every obituary of Barth’s that I’ve read takes care to point out his old age. Few, however, would look substantially different if he had died sometime around the end of the Carter presidency. An additional piece in the Times prominently references his 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” his obit in Fortune cites his 1966 novel Giles Goat-Boy, and The Telegraph’s headline mentions that novel and its 1960 precursor, The Sot-Weed Factor. Though they all make conciliatory nods toward his subsequent writing, they relegate it to the hinterland of a weird, footnoted afterlife. As John Domini rightly remarked in 2020, long before he died, Barth was, in a sense, “already a ghost.”

Domini was also right that “the peak isn’t the one most people point to.”


The obituaries tend to repeat what Domini calls a “misbegotten consensus” that dismisses Barth as “someone who shot his bolt” around the time of his 1973 National Book Award win for Chimera. This view places far too much weight on Barth’s youthful iconoclasm at the expense of ignoring the mature cultivation that followed.

Barth, who loved graphic representations of plot structure, would likely see in this consensus narrative a reversed Freytag’s triangle: an accelerated “rising action,” followed by a limp anticlimax, a gradual “fading” rather than “falling action,” a ghostly nonresolution, and an invisible denouement apparent only after Barth’s death. It was not unusual for playfully reworked versions of this schema to appear in his novels. This timeline might look like this:

In brief, the story runs as follows. In the 1950s, Barth publishes The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958), a pair of well-wrought, if slightly juvenile, examinations of existential angst and paralytic indecision. In the 1960s, he begins a meteoric rise after completing The Sot-Weed Factor at 30; completes Giles Goat-Boy, a counterculture landmark, in the mid-1960s; and pushes narrative structure to its breaking point in his 1968 collection of short stories, Lost in the Funhouse. In 1973, he reaches an early zenith after winning the National Book Award for his collection of novellas, Chimera. In 1979, he wears out his public welcome by demanding too much from readers with his bulky 1979 novel LETTERS, which is brutally torn apart by high-profile critics such as The New Yorker’s George Steiner.

In the 1980s, Barth reorients. He releases the twinned novels Sabbatical (1982) and The Tidewater Tales to little fanfare, his expansive metafictional approach having been supplanted by the minimalist realism made popular by writers such as his former student Fredrick Barthelme. In the early 1990s, he retires from his teaching position at Johns Hopkins and releases two major novels, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991) and Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera (1994). Despite high praise from the likes of Angela Carter and R. H. W. Dillard, both books are harshly criticized for falling short of previous achievements: Jonathan Raban in The New York Times dismisses the former novel as reading “like an interim postscript to the corpus of John Barth,” while Kirkus describes the latter as “very vintage Barth, and disappointingly so.”

Thereafter, until his death, Barth fades into autumnal irrelevance. Critics continue to draw invidious comparisons between his latest work and “vintage Barth”: Coming Soon!!! (2001), we are told, is mere “showboating,” and The Book of Ten Nights and a Night (2004) “doesn’t achieve the elegance of the earlier Funhouse.” The author’s final novel, Every Third Thought: A Novel in Five Seasons (2011), slides under the radar, despite warm notices from James Greer (in this publication), Adam Dalva, and even the consistently critical Kirkus.


As far as the facts go, it’s an accurate picture. But it’s also not the whole story.

In his final book, Memory, History, Forgetting (2004), the philosopher Paul Ricœur writes that, left uncorrected, the lopsided presence of “too much memory here, not enough memory there” inevitably summons misuses and abuses of memory. On the one hand, too much memory suggests a Freudian “compulsion to repeat,” which eclipses “the true recollection by which the present would be reconciled with the past.” Reduced to rote repetition, memory becomes a passively uncritical, nostalgic “delectation” of a rose-tinted past. On the other hand, too little memory is a similarly uncritical, a “bad conscience” flight from history. Those who remember too much, writes Ricœur, “love to lose themselves” in the past,” while those who remember too little “are afraid of being engulfed by it.” Both, he writes, “suffer from the same lack of criticism”: they fail to complete what Ricœur, borrowing from Freud, calls “the work of remembering.”

In short, we remember far too much of Barth’s early work; we do not remember enough of what followed.

Ricœur was careful to remind readers that the abuse of memory is not so much a failure of the individual as of the collective work of memory. This is certainly true in Barth’s case. It’s hard to lay the charge of abuse at the feet of his obituarists; they are, after all, reporters, not literary scholars, and the pieces themselves accurately report what is in fact an inaccurate caricature. They enshrine the “misbegotten consensus” of the reviewers, the slow but steady accretion of uncritical reflection that reduces Barth to a quirky byproduct of the 1960s. The mystique that Giles Goat-Boy carries as a counterculture relic, coupled with Funhouse’s early canonization, leaves Barth’s early experimental work susceptible to the “delectation” that accompanies over-remembrance.

One of the longest-running points of confusion, Barth’s overzealous self-identification as a “postmodernist,” is itself an outgrowth of insufficient memory. Though it’s hard to approach his adoption of the label as anything short of self-sabotage, it’s all too easy to forget that he also proudly flew the banners of “existentialism,” “black humor,” and “fabulism” when those terms where in vogue. Po-mo just happened to stick. The label was controversial at the time, but Barth’s adoption antedated the baggage it came to carry in the wake of Jean-François Lyotard’s and Fredric Jameson’s interventions. Barth first publicly invoked the term during in a 1975 symposium lecture on regional writing, where he provided an idiosyncratically modest definition: “If the term ‘postmodern’ describes anything worthwhile,” he asserted, it describes a freedom from the paradigms of both 19th-century bourgeois realism and the 20th-century modernist avant-garde.

Barth’s allowance, in postmodernist writing, for “the realistic, even tender evocation of place” stands at odds with the representational nihilism that John Gardner, Christopher Lasch, and Gerald Graff attribute to him (and to postmodernism generally). That this tenderness is blindingly apparent even in his most apparently anti-representational fiction speaks to the distorted expectations that decades of misremembering have imposed on his work. Though an affinity for Maryland, and an unflagging devotion to the Chesapeake Bay’s ecology, are synonymous with his name, the depth of his unconcealed affection for the Eastern Shore, beyond the mid-Atlantic, almost always takes a back seat to his reputation for flashy innovation. Yet this love of place was something Barth never bothered to hide behind a veil of irony.

A strikingly consistent feature of his work is the omnipresence of “Goose Art,” eelgrass, and oysters. Sot-Weed Factor, which toys with the political machinations of Charles Calvert, the 3rd Baron Baltimore, reimagines the life of Maryland’s first poet, Ebenezer Cooke. LETTERS explores Maryland’s history of tobacco speculation, colonial incursions onto Indigenous land, political infighting between Catholic and Protestant settlements, and conspiratorial British loyalism during the War of 1812. Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales, both set on the contemporary Eastern Shore, include gut-wrenching subplots about the gradual destruction of the bay’s ecosystem by gaudy housing developments and feckless waste disposal. Even amid Chimera’s vertiginous mythic involutions, Barth returns to the bay’s estuarine system: Bellerophon and Pegasus crash-land in a tidewater marsh.

The Chesapeake Bay’s ecology also proved to be fertile ground for shaping the eccentric paths that Barth’s novels took in his later career. The nooks and crannies of its tributaries make an apt backdrop for the many branching forks of memory, especially in his memoir-novel Once Upon a Time. Kathy Sagamore, the female lead in The Tidewater Tales, suggests to her husband Pete that they pattern their stock-taking exchange of life stories upon the ebb and flow of the bay’s brackish tides, “washing a little farther up the beach of Where We’re Going” and then “rolling back to pick up Where We’ve Been.” The bay’s waters, “so rich in suspended matter of every imaginable sort, from turds and topsoil to blue crabs and heavy metal,” justified his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to content.

In 2010, Barth’s hometown library built a historic marker that includes a map of sites that appeared in his novels, including his father’s candy shop, the arcade theater where his high school jazz band performed, and the wharf where Adams Floating Theatre, the inspiration for The Floating Opera, docked. Peter Davison, editor of the journalist William Warner’s portrait of Maryland crabbers, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay (1976), solicited Barth’s opinion on the book before its publication (Barth would later write an introduction for the book’s reissue by Penguin in 1987). In one of the rare obits that bucks the “misbegotten consensus” narrative, novelist Christopher Tilghman writes that “with John Barth’s death, the Chesapeake has lost its poet.” Thomas Pynchon reportedly mailed Barth a signed copy of his 1997 novel Mason & Dixon, his personal rendition of Maryland’s revolutionary history, inscribed with a message that read “To John Barth: Been there, done that.”

Read in this light, it’s difficult to take charges of “triviality” (from John Gardner) or “solipsism” (from David Foster Wallace) seriously. Indeed, the misbegotten consensus narrative, in its overemphasis on how Barth used “fiction to dissect itself,” misses the forest for the trees. Lee Lemon, writing in a 1990 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, warned that “in our zeal to explain he more esoteric elements of Barth’s fictions,” we forget that he “does the commonplace things of fiction quite well.” Three further decades of critical inertia that continued to insist on Barth’s reputation as a “writer’s writer” has borne out Lemon’s concerns about misremembrance.


In 1979, the year of Barth’s “anticlimax,” the misbegotten consensus narrative began to go off the rails.

The year 1979 was, in fact, a major hinge point in Barth’s career. A pronounced ebb in his popularity followed the release of LETTERS, whose perceived hostility to readers is well documented. While several academics, such as Tom LeClair and Frederick Karl, later included LETTERS in their studies of landmark 20th-century fiction, the scant praise it received from major outlets came with strict qualifications. Thomas R. Edwards of The New York Times was “convinced that it is a work of genius whether one likes it or not.” The general tenor of the critical coverage, however, tracked Michael Irwin’s London Review of Books teardown, which bluntly writes the novel off as a work of hostile, antagonistic “drudgery.”

LETTERS was, no doubt, a turning point for Barth’s reputation. Adam Dalva calls it an “utter shitshow” in his otherwise glowing review of Every Third Thought. And he’s right: the novel is a loud, distracting spectacle—a discursive vortex that served to pull attention away from the far more interesting developments that were to follow. The year LETTERS was published was also a decisive year of stock-taking and reorientation on Barth’s part, for which that novel’s excess was an act of purgation.

Kenosis, which Barth defined as the “emptying of the spirit’s vessel in preparation for a refill,” was among the author’s favorite figures for the creative process. He likened it to the blank interval between the completion of one novel and the beginning of the next. LETTERS, however, signaled more than the completion of one novel among many; it also shut the door on Barth’s preoccupation with Joseph Campbell’s writings on monomyth and the hero’s journey—a hobbyhorse that “contaminated” his writing with “self-consciousness.” Completing the novel, writes Barth, “flushed the Ur-myth from my system.”

Shortly before the novel’s release, Barth admitted, during a panel discussion with John Hawkes, that he had “at times gone farther than I want to go in the direction of a fiction that foregrounds language and form.” He goes on to explain to Hawkes that, moving forward, he feels an “ambition to become simpler, simpler, simpler.” This was not a wholesale rejection or repudiation of his past but a corrective reorientation. His prior fixations would return, but they would do so with “an unmistakably middle-aged mellowness, in the novels that followed.”

The same year, Barth also penned “The Literature of Replenishment,” a corrective to his (widely misread) essay “The Literature of Exhaustion.” In hindsight, what the exhaustion essay was really about, was “the effective ‘exhaustion’ not of language or of literature, but of the aesthetic of high modernism.” He cautions against blind experimentation as an end in itself, urging instead a democratic synthesis of experimental play and compelling, accessible narrative. A “worthy program” for the fiction of the future lay in a pluralistic postmodernism that “neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates either [its] twentieth-century modernist parents or [its] nineteenth-century premodernist grandparents.”


Barth stuck to the program. Sabbatical, his next novel, accompanies Fenwick Turner, an aspiring novelist, and his wife Susan Seckler, a professor of literature, on the return leg of a sailing trip during a sabbatical vacation. Its plot reflects Barth’s midcareer reboot: the middle-aged Fenn and Susan’s trip marks a period of rest between one chapter of their careers and the next, as well as for their marriage. Upon their return, they face a series of “forks in the road” relating to deferred decisions. Fenn, a newly retired CIA agent, wrestles with whether to pursue a career as a novelist or to dedicate the rest of his life to exposing corruption within the Company; Susan considers a job offer that would require uprooting their lives, and possibly leaving Fenn; and, together, the couple wrestle with whether or not to have children.

Sabbatical drifts between a conventional third-person point of view and a shared first-person-plural narration (the Turners often speak of themselves as a “we”). It features nonlinear cuts forward and back in time, and it weaves several real Baltimore Sun articles about the mysterious death of CIA agent John Arthur Paisley into its fabric. At bottom however, it is a straightforward domestic novel that enlists Barth’s earlier forays into nonlinearity and self-reflexivity into the furtherance of its plot.

Sabbatical effectively reads as a second first novel—it represents a shaky baby step out of the Ur-mythic labyrinth. Barth’s turn toward family life thaws the cold detachment that leant Giles Goat-Boy, Funhouse, and LETTERS an air of inhuman severity. But despite Barth’s conscious efforts to melt his metafictional intrusions directly into the texture of the novel’s plot, it’s too easy to spot Sabbatical’s seams. Kirkus praised it as an “intriguing, touching spectacle” but ultimately concluded that it was “not a successful book by either Barth-ian or old-fashioned standards.”

It’s tempting to read the novel’s flirtation with mimetic realism as an overconfident, fish-out-of-water dalliance—something akin to Michael Jordan’s brief baseball career. In 1982, this was a reasonable conclusion. It’s also worth remembering, however, that after the novel’s release, Barth told Michiko Kakutani that it “has been very useful […] in demonstrating that I can write to my own satisfaction a story which—whatever else it involves—also involves such things as politics, love between recognizable people and a kind of caring for the characters.”

Even at the time, however, it was clear that the novel was not another reflexive reprise. Rob Madole, who dismisses the entire second half of Barth’s career, describes his late work as “an ever-more-involuted treatment of the ‘funhouse mirror room’ metaphor.” This assertion not only plays into the misbegotten consensus narrative, but it’s also simply, and plainly, wrong. Sabbatical was less a doubling-down than a doubling-back. It marked the beginning of Barth’s mining his experimental period for new tools to expand fiction’s boundaries, initiating a period of writing that proceeded with the lessons gleaned from his Funhouse tinkering “under his belt” but never “on his back.”


Thomas Carmichael calls Barth’s post-LETTERS fiction a return to realism. It’s not—or it isn’t quite. To return to realism would be to return to reality, a subject (as Barth put it in his essay “Very Like an Elephant: Reality Versus Realism”) that is “too enormously large and multifaceted to be encompassed by any of the various species of aesthetic realism, and equally of irrealism.” Realism was never more than an artistic pretense for Barth—the product of what he called a “Windex” approach to writing, which produced formidable art by “the masterful deployment of the artifice of ‘invisible language.’” Instead, he favored a “stained-glass” approach, which so foregrounds its medium that “exterior reality may appear to serve mainly to backlight it.”

Despite its flaws, Sabbatical is a genuine attempt to confront the limitations of language on new terms. As a value-neutral description, Gore Vidal was not wrong to describe Barth’s work as a form of “Research and Development.” Christine Brooke-Rose, writing of her own formal tinkering, remarks that experiments cut “across all genres, and, needless to say, experiments can fail.” They can be pointless or imitative, but they can also yield results. Sabbatical was a faltering first step toward enlisting the results of the author’s research into the development of an expanded narrative register.

Everything that preceded LETTERS was not so much a rejection of language as it was a rejection of Windex writing’s pretense to immediacy. “Our experience of life,” writes Barth, “centrally includes our experience of language.” A writer like John Gardner, whose strict adherence to the “way things actually work in the world,” does not, in fact, “bea[t] back the monsters and […] mak[e] the world safe for triviality” (as he asserts in his 1979 manifesto On Moral Fiction). Rather, he merely refuses to use some of the tools at his disposal. Gardner’s variety of fiction relies on a delusional conflation of reality with realism. Barth’s friend and fellow traveler William Gass astutely criticized Gardner’s posture: “Because fiction is a method which, by its very nature and demands, deforms,” Gardner does not so much “beat back the monsters” as dance around the inconvenient but inescapable fact that he traffics in artifice.

Sabbatical confirms that, even in his deepest moments of skepticism, Barth never sought to kill the novel, only to enrich it. Where he subverted conventional narrative, he did so out of a deeper fidelity to fiction as an art form distinct from all others. He sought always to reveal its limitations; as he puts it in his essay “The Limits of Imagination,” fiction “may render indirectly any and all of the physical senses, but it is the only medium […] that deals directly with none of them.” Yet these limits contained compensating strengths, allowing the form to “render directly the universe inside our heads and under our skins.”

This is why the obituaries are so disappointingly incomplete. The subhead of The Guardian’s obit describes Barth as an “American postmodernist novelist whose experimental approach challenged literary conventions.” This is factually correct, but it also obscures more than it reveals. It’s much more important to address how the author later met the challenges he posed to language and plot. The Chicago Tribune’s headline is factually correct that “his books pulled stories apart,” but how he later put those stories back together was a harder-won accomplishment.


Ricœur sets the work of memory to the task of recollection, a type of active memory distinct from the “simple presence of memories,” which he terms evocation. He uses the word in a consciously etymological sense—for Ricœur, the act of recollection consists in an “active search” through impressions, sensations, images, and events of the past, followed by their careful selection and reassembly. For Ricœur, the substance of memory itself is less important than the “verb ‘to remember,’” because the meaning of the past is not to be found in the past itself but in how we reconcile it with the present.

Historiographer Hayden White sees the work of narrative as the sequencing of a series of past events along a timeline, from which “the meaning of beginnings can only be discerned from the vantage point of a putative ending.” The relationship between past and present is thus one of figuration and fulfillment. The search for historical meaning, writes White, is a “kind of reverse causation”—a doubly articulated sense of time that carries echoes of T. S. Eliot’s observation that “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” When we examine how an event in the present fulfills one prefigured by the past, it is, White asserts, “at once grasped by consciousness, brought into the present by recollection, and redeemed, made new, by being put to a use theretofore unforeseeable.” The ceaseless passage of time, however, means that every moment in the present is at one and the same time a virtual fulfillment of the past and a potential prefiguration of some later event.

Barth’s novel The Tidewater Tales opens as its female lead, “Katherine Sherritt Sagamore, 39 years old and 8 1/2 months pregnant, […] speaking as she sometimes does in verse,” sets the work of her husband, Peter Sagamore, a similar task. Her invocation opens:

Tell me a story of women and men
Like us: like us in love for ten
Years, lovers for seven, spouses
Two, or two point five. Their House’s
Increase is the tale I wish you’d tell.

And it closes:

Tell me their story as if it weren’t ours
But like ours enough so that the Powers
That drive and steer good stories might
Fetch them beyond our present plight.

What follows is the story of the Sagamores’ voyage on the Chesapeake Bay as they “dream and tell, tell and dream, narrate and navigate” the chain of stories that led them to the present moment. In doing so, they complete the task of recollection that Ricœur assigns to the work of memory via White’s work of narrative. Like Barth himself, who wrote (in his essay “Getting Oriented: The Stories Thus Far”) that he worked through a process of “regression, reenactment, and reorientation,” Pete and Kathy explain that their joint “touching of bases, personal and narrative” serves to recollect and refigure their past in search of “some chapter-by-chapter idea where we’re headed; but knowing where we’re bound requires knowing where we are, which like good navigators we reckon from where we’ve been.”

The Tidewater Tales is, effectively, a rewrite of its precursor. Its central conceit is nearly identical to that of Sabbatical: Pete, an accomplished, but stuck, novelist, and his wife Kathy, a pregnant prep-school teacher, take a 15-day sailing trip on the Chesapeake Bay to sort out their lives before Kathy reaches term. Both novels open in verse; both follow couples who grapple with indecision; both speculate about roads not taken; both are works of recollection. And both stories are bound within the ecology, imagery, and rich figurative soil of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

At a passing glance, the novel appears to risk retreading well-worn terrain. The Tidewater Tales is, however, a far more developed, finely tuned, and carefully wrought blend of straight and experimental storytelling. Its effortless shifts between framed and framing sections smooth out the rougher edges of Sabbatical’s play with oral narrative. The earlier novel’s “fleshbecks” and “fleshforvarts,” Susan’s elderly Jewish grandmother’s terms for the novel’s shifts backward and forward in time, are too abrupt, too intrusive, and too gimmicky. The Tidewater Tales’ drift between narrative progress and regress not only reads as a more technically sound play with nonlinearity but also works as a formal complement to Barth’s thematic approach to recollection. Kathy likens the story’s ebb and flow to the Chesapeake tides, which wash “farther up the beach of Where We’re Going” and roll “back to pick up Where We’ve Been”—until, at the novel’s climax, “the past overtakes the present and sweeps us to a finale rich and strange.”

Barth’s early tinkering with Sabbatical’s first-person-plural narration also receives an overhaul in Tidewater Tales. I think there’s a strong case to be made that if any single piece of Barth’s corpus has suffered from too little memory, it may very well be the Sagamores’ joint narration. It’s far and away Barth’s most fully realized blend of technical ingenuity and straightforward generosity—his stained-glass writing at its finest. He unapologetically recognizes, as he puts it in his essay “A Body of Words,” that Pete and Kathy are, as literary characters, “no more than words on the page.” And indeed, they take a back seat to their mutual dialogue. Yet though they are only heard and not seen, neither is the weaker for it (in fact, I’d count Kathy among the most vividly realized characters in late 20th-century fiction). The Sagamores arrive at self-consciousness through conversation: as they recount their lives’ stories, each takes turns filling in gaps and lapses in the other’s limited perspective. Pete can’t access Kathy’s memories, and Kathy can’t access Pete’s. Pete sees things about Kathy she can’t see about herself, and vice versa. And yet, neither ever has the last word about the other.

Barth does all of this without losing sight of the “passionate virtuosity” that characterizes his personal canon of literary icons: Homer, Scheherazade, Cervantes, and Twain. The Sagamores’ joint narration is a patiently crafted blend of every tool in Barth’s fictional arsenal. It justifies his skeptical attitude toward transparency, not so much as a condemnation of narrative fiction but as a reminder that the novel makes space for what Mikhail Bakhtin called “unspeakable sentences.” Through his indirect approach, Barth builds a much richer readerly experience of the Sagamores’ relationship than he could have via conventional forms of characterization. He brings the Sagamores into a concrete, living, open-ended present, rather than consigning them to an inert, dead past. The effect is a reflection on successful marriages that underlines how the relationship between two loving partners produces something entirely new—“something both and neither.”

The Tidewater Tales speaks through a collage of points of view. By breaking the line of communication between narrator and reader, The Tidewater Tales is less about love, marriage, parenthood, recollection, or the passage of time than a direct staging of these themes. Its strength lies not in the representation of its content but in how Barth turns formal construction toward the performance of its thematic conceits. What Pete and Kathy have to say about storytelling and memory is less important than how the perform Ricœur’s work of memory in the very act of exchanging stories.

What sets the novel apart from so much other experimental writing that prioritizes form above content, however, is in the way Barth turns the novel’s unconventionality toward warmth and kindness—and he does so without falling into sentimentality. The result is not only a sharp break from the cold connotations the label “postmodern fiction” tends to carry but also a departure from the “inhuman” dryness that many critics saw in Barth’s earlier work. Pete and Kathy are characters made of words, but Barth does not take this as license to pull back from affective investment. The Tidewater Tales is unapologetically unironic, entirely rewarding as a straightforward read, yet at the same time sharply aware of the recursive link between its content and its form. It is a rare case of having one’s aesthetic cake while also eating it.


In a recent essay on autofiction, Lauren Oyler writes that “we want life to be like a novel, and actually, it often is.” On the first point, Oyler is entirely correct; on the second, she falls prey to what Pete Sagamore calls his “art’s great lie.” Life is like a novel, but, absent what Barth calls the “dramaturgical suction” we expect from novels, it is only so in hindsight. It is less that life is like a novel and more that it becomes like one through retrospective emplotment.

Pete finds his faith shaken by the realization that meaning is a contrivance—that it is conferred on our lives post hoc, by narrative. “The storymaker Peter Sagamore” is stunned by the realization that the meaning of his work is situated wholly in his arrangement of events, rather than in the events themselves; as a husband and prospective father, he is stunned by the fact “that Nature is not naturally narrative; that whatever the nature of cause and effect,” meaning is accidental. “What you’re reading, reader,” Barth writes, “is P’s and K’s story. But what husband and wife are living, and trying rather desperately just now without success to read ahead in, is not their story. It’s their life.”

What has Pete “by the Adam’s apple” is the realization that all future outcomes—for his career, for his marriage, and for his unborn children—are all “equally ‘meaningless,’ inasmuch as in fact, so far as we can tell, we are not characters in a story.” Yet Pete and Kathy are indeed characters in a fictional story who raise serious questions about the relationship between our lives and our stories. “To raise the question of the nature of narrative,” writes White, “is to invite reflection on the very nature of culture and, possibly, even on the nature of humanity itself.” It’s true that we impose narrative meaning on the events of our lives, but to refuse narrative is to refuse meaning. Without the act of emplotment, which we perform retrospectively, there is no significant connective tissue linking the prefiguration of the past to its fulfillment in the future. These are the sorts of questions Barth sought to address from the beginning of his career until its end. And the stakes are and always were higher than the simplistic misbegotten consensus narrative admits.

Later in Oyler’s essay, she argues that “one can produce one’s own narrative at any time.” Again, this is obviously true, but it also a continuation of fiction’s great lie. One can, in fact, produce one’s own narrative at any time, but to narrate from the lived present always risks premature closure. Without a careful eye turned toward the future, we are in danger of committing exactly the type of abuse of memory that fueled the misbegotten consensus about John Barth.

A more accurate timeline than this false narrative might look like something close to a reversed version of the spiraling Freytag’s triangle that Bellerophon puts together in Chimera. Where Bellerophon’s grows more involuted as it shrinks in upon itself, Barth’s grows outward with each rectification. It might appear as follows:

Barth’s autofictional memoir-novel Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera offers a tempered point of contrast to Oyler’s premature compulsion to narrate from an unfinished middle. That novel’s protagonist, not quite Barth but not quite not Barth, calls the idea that “each of our lives is a story-in-progress” the “mother of all fiction.” He warns that the book is “not the story of my life, but it is most certainly a story thereof.” It is a retrospective read-through of his earlier fiction that establishes a figuration-fulfillment relationship between his past and present writing. Like The Tidewater Tales, it also works on two planes: at the level of content, it is a compelling personal reflection on the work of memory; at the level of form, it actively engages in this work. In the process, Barth becomes “the reader and writer” of his own life and work through the “endless rectification” of a previous narrative by a subsequent one.

Similarly, the author’s collection of stories The Book of Ten Nights and a Night affirms his commitment to this rectification by linking a series of pre-9/11 stories within a narrative frame that attempts to parse out their new meaning in a post-9/11 world. The collection’s framing narrator, who “retells” Barth’s stories, sets out to “re-render now, in these so radically altered circumstances, Author’s eleven mostly Autumnal and impossibly innocent stories” against the backdrop of geopolitical catastrophe. Narration from the present is subject to change and constant revision. Because endings always remain provisional, so too must be the meaning we draw from them. The slippery fluidity of The Tidewater Tales recurs here: Where you’re going leads nowhere other than where you are; where you are can only become where you’ve been.

As Barth outlines in his essay “Storytelling Explained,” he appropriated philosopher Daniel Dennett’s “multiple drafts model of consciousness,” which subjects identity to “continual editing” indefinitely into the future. Ricœur, likewise, spoke of a provisional “narrative identity” that establishes a sense of cohesion as “the story of a life continues to be refigured by all the truthful or fictive stories a subject tells about himself or herself.” Life stories are moving targets, constituted by the “endless rectification of a previous narrative by a subsequent one.” These rectifications and refigurations, according to Ricœur, make “life itself a cloth woven of stories told.”

To cut short Ricœur’s “chain of refigurations,” which often continue well beyond a subject’s death, is to prematurely reify it. Narrative identities resist such abuse because they are unstable, open-ended, and subject to constant revision, while remaining inextricably tied to the subject that inheres within them. One of most unique aspects of Barth’s corpus is the intertextual chain of rectifications that links his entire body of work while at the same time steering it in new and unexpected directions. Holding true to his remark that in “the making of writers, there is no end until The End unmakes them,” he continued his revisionary rectification beyond The Tidewater Tales and through the completion of Every Third Thought in 2011. In his late essay “Keats’s Fears, Etc.,” which explores aging and the creative process, Barth continued to ruminate on the elusiveness of endings by pointing out that the end of a career and the end of a life do not necessarily coincide: “One might go on being and being and being after one’s pen, et cetera, [is] silenced not by death or devastation but by mere bare-cupboardhood.”

When we remember too much of the past, we do so at the expense of forgetting where the past led (and often, continues to lead), and thus we dissolve its continuity with the present. Without this continuity, the past becomes distant, inert, unknowable, and, ultimately, meaningless. Unfulfilled figuration amounts to nothing more than data. To remember Barth too much for Funhouse and too little for what followed is to remember him uncritically. And to remember uncritically risks not remembering at all.

“On with the story!”


Featured image: Eadweard Muybridge. Animal Locomotion, Plate 305, 1887. Henry S. F. Cooper, B.A. 1956, Fund. Yale Art Gallery (1973.37.2). CC0, artgallery.yale.edu. Accessed June 18, 2024. 

LARB Contributor

Zach Gibson is a substitute teacher, photographer, and furniture mover based in Richmond, Virginia. He earned an MA in English from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2022. He is currently conducting research for a project on aging and regionalism in 2oth-century fiction.


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