The Meaning of Death: John Barth's "Every Third Thought"

By James GreerMay 24, 2012

Every Third Thought by John Barth

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 Democratic presidential primary battle between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, the progress of the war in Iraq, and the other events of that year. A small place, a short time, few pages, yet how much is contained in this splendid, slender volume! The Sot-Weed Factor was composed of nothing but plot and subplot and sub-sub-plot, all feeding into the same estuary that led, inexorably, to the oceanic story itself. Every Third Thought is instead a nesting doll, caching its complexity inside itself, presenting to the reader a first impression of brevity and easy wit, which unravels layer by layer until one is left with the same mess of "what-just-happened?" as in almost every other Barth book.

So what accounts for the difference? The difference between a time when otherwise ordinary-seeming working people were inspired to form something called the Society for the Celebration of Barthomania whose sacred totem was the eggplant (I'm afraid you'll actually have to read The Sot-Weed Factor to find out why), and today, when a work of such vitality and complexity is greeted with complete indifference? Especially given that what he has to say now is at least as important, and as urgent, as what he said all those years ago.

Every Third Thought is in part about being and becoming an old man. It's not about John Barth doing so, per se, except insofar as he supplies his protagonist, the improbably named G.I. Newett (say it out loud to experience just one of the myriad punny uses to which Barth puts his narrator's moniker), with Barthian biographical details. Native/current resident of Maryland: check. "Creative Rotting" professor: check. Author of what G.I. (the G stands for George) calls "post-mortem" fiction: check.

Naturally, as with any post-mortem writer worth his seasoning, liberal use of semi-autobiography may be just another gambit — in this case a way of drawing the reader's attention to the space or lack thereof between the author and his creatures or creation.  Barth's touch is so skillful, and so seemingly artless, that one scarcely notices the depth and strength of the connections he draws between his "Aw shucks" narrator and the larger themes with which he is preoccupied. I don't know whether Barth hasn't the patience to write another sprawling epic or whether his craft has evolved to such an extent that he can stuff his sprawl into a smaller envelope, but either way, his light hand and sheer skill is jaw-dropping.

The novel proper is only 156 pages, not counting its "after words," subtitled "Five Postscriptive Scenarios." As with all things Barth this is deceptive, because the after words is where most of the action, such as it is, resides. As Barth himself puts it, these are "Worse-to-Worst Case Scenarios," and without giving too much away, everything the Narrator has narrated up to that point turns out to be Something Else (his propensity for capitalization is catching)... or does it? In the final scenario, the Narrator introduces the possibility that nothing he has Narrated has in fact "happened," or maybe it has, but not in the way he's told it, or maybe it's exactly the way he's told it, and he's just fucking with us, or ad infinitum and Good Night.

He used the same gimmick in his previous book — and in fact at the beginning of Every Third Thought urges the reader to first read that book — a collection of connected short stories called The Development. This collection describes the lives of several residents of a gated community called Heron Bay Estates (often short-handed as HBE, a faint echo of Joyce's HCE in Finnegans Wake? or have I gone clue-crazy?) in Tidewater Maryland. The titular event is a freak tornado that wrecks the entire development, and the last of the nine stories is written, or Narrated, by George I. Newett, who may or may not be the real author of the whole book of stories, or who, he suggests, may in fact be a fictional creation himself, just like HBE and its denizens. As Barth never tires of pointing out in Every Third Thought, the Death of the Author is not the same as the death of the author.

Or at least the fear of death of the author. JB's self-described "hyphenated-adjectival-strings" telegraph an intimation of mortality, and though Barth has always been interested in the subject of death, death is pretty much his whole bag, now. That interest could seem clinical in, say, The End of the Road, but Every Third Thought is intimate, concerned with his and his narrator's death, but also that of the narrator's spouse: The "minor poet but damned fine teacher" (Amanda Todd) — spoiler alert! — may or may not already be dead when the novel begins, unless she is only feared dead by her truly loving if somewhat hysterical husband as he lies abed at night unable to sleep. By the end of ETT, Newett has turned to both gin (G.I.N.) and djinn (a kind of genie who may or may not dwell in George's computer) in an attempt to separate reality from fiction.

A lot of the novel could be as easily described as an attempt by Barth to convince himself that there is a difference. He's never been a fan of objective capital R reality (the only word that always needs "quotes like claws" as Nabokov put it). "Choosing is existence. To the extent that you don't choose, you don't exist," he writes in The End of the Road. His earlier, no less funny books were consumed with the idea of choice as a defining characteristic of existence, of reality. The Floating Opera, his first published novel, begins with its protagonist deciding to commit suicide, because why not, and ends with him deciding not to commit suicide, because what for? "Why not step into the river? On the other hand, why bother?" After starting off with "...all things in heaven and earth became clear to me, and I realized that this day I would make my last; I would destroy myself on this day."

The river in question is not coincidentally the Choptank, a very real waterway which features prominently in The Sot-Weed Factor and makes guest appearances in several of Barth's books, including Every Third Thought. Again with the flux: symbols don't come any bigger than the riparian gush of the Chesapeake Bay estuarine system (the largest such on the planet, G. I. Newett points out at the end of The Development, in a story, I should probably add, that follows one called "The End" and is titled "Rebeginning"). The river represents change, sure, but also infinity, in particular the infinite array of choices, connections, and coincidences that make up anyone's life story — or are we the author of our own fate? And does it matter?

"The truth is that nothing makes any difference, including the truth. Hamlet's question is, absolutely, meaningless," Barth writes in The Floating Opera (the Shakespeare reference will return, expanded, in his latest book). "There's no final reason for living (or for suicide)." Even at the beginning, for example through the sociopathic antics (antic sociopathology?) of Jacob Horner in The End of the Road, Barth was vigorously exploring the idea of life as story. "Enough to say for now that we are all casting directors... and he is wise who realizes that his role-assigning is at best an arbitrary distortion of the actors' personalities." In that book, Horner believes himself cursed with "an imagination too fertile to be any use in predicting my fellow human beings." He easily imagines all possible reactions to any possible action, and therefore cannot take any action, except when desperation takes hold. And even then, he'll as likely choose the wrong one, with predictably disastrous results.

What Jacob Horner calls "cosmopsis" was a preoccupation of Barth's early work: the idea that choice itself can freeze into immobility a person overly-sensitive to the vastness of available options. His point of departure has always been the relativistic or subjective nature of truth, without which the author's black bag of post-mortem tricks would have been just that: tricks. But behind the witty, casual bantering tone Barth adopts in Every Third Thought is a seriousness of intent no less ever-fixed than the subject of the Bard's adoration in Sonnet 116: the one who mustn't to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.

Yeah, Shakespeare, again, and again, because of the many parallels Barth draws between Stratford-Upon-Avon, Stratford College, and Stratford, the latter two imaginary places in the unimaginary Tidewater setting of Every Third Thought. He links the two or three (another of the book's themes, as you may have guessed from its title, is the nearly Hegelian "on first thought, but on second thought, but on third thought" process to which both G. I. Newett and his best friend Ned Prosper — wink, wink — are prone) not just by comparing and contrasting, but by actually visiting, and — in an inspired bit of slapstick — smacking his head on the entrance to Shakespeare's purported place-of-birth hard enough to cause a concussion and trigger the first of five "visions" around which the novel is structured. The book's subtitle A Novel in Five Seasons is not misleading, exactly — in fact the equinoctial rotation of the earth is one of its primary themes — but the seasons George Newett both experiences and writes about are not just the ones in which he receives his series of illuminations, but seasons in his own life story.

Which doesn't end so much as re-begin, much as The Development did. "It's about time," Newett writes on the last page of the book, before counting backwards from three and concluding with a kind of self-dare, as he lies on his bed in the dark, to reach over and see for himself if his darling wife Amanda in fact (still) exists. The book ends in an italicized parenthesis "(Reach out and touch, old sport, and our story's done!)" that announces an end that's not an end to a story that's not a story. That crack you just heard was the sound of one head exploding.

But let's re-begin. Here's something else that struck me about Every Third Thought, although its relevance is unclear. "Pardon my French," George Newett says, after quoting something in French, and we're left to wonder whether the author is being deadpan or deliberate, playful or obtuse, simply because his narrator is so blithely self-aware at every turn. In a sense, Barth's style — both parodic and lackadaisical — deserves a neologism of its own: Parodaisical. For indeed, the writer's French — or his narrator's, if there's a difference — is wrong, to top it all off. Not drastically wrong, but wrong all the same. (This happens in The Sot-Weed Factor also: there were numerous instances when I felt compelled to correct his errors, but then changed them back. Simply because... with Barth, one is never sure.)

[For those interested, the phrase in question is "Chacun à son faute." This is wrong on two levels: 1) it's not something a French person would say. A French person would say either "chacun sa faute" or "à chacun sa faute." 2) As noted in the first instance, "faute" is feminine and requires "sa" and not "son." Barth is obviously playing off the well-known French phrase "Chacun à son goût," except: that phrase is only well-known to people who, again, are not French. (The French say "Chacun ses gouts," a shortened version of "À chacun ses gouts.").]

Is Barth parodying a type, a middle-brow professor of "Creative Rotting" at a fictional Maryland university whose occasional and casual use of French exemplifies a kind of breezy not-quite erudition? Or is he in fact not a Francophone at all and not interested in accuracy or verisimilitude in this, and only this, particular facet of his writing? The answer, I suspect, as with most things Barthian, is at once both and neither.

Every Third Thought has more to say about life, death, the "human condition," and maybe most particularly and surprisingly the deathlessness of love (bref: not Time's fool), than an entire constellation of newer, prettier literary lights. That's what makes its neglect intolerable.  What may look at first like a slight novel from an aging author on second and third sight proves to be a sleight novel by an ageless master. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.


LARB Contributor

James Greer is the author of the novels Artificial Light (LHotB/Akashic 2006) and The Failure (Akashic 2010), and the non-fiction book Guided By Voices: A Brief History, a biography of a band for which he played bass guitar. He's written or co-written movies for Lindsay Lohan, Jackie Chan, and Steven Soderbergh, among others.


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