- The Muses of John Barth: Tradition and Metafiction from Lost in the Funhouse to Tidewater Tales
John Barth has been well served by critics ready to unravel his complexities. Jac Tharpe, Charles B. Harris, and Patrick O'Donnell come to mind immediately, and to this list can be added Max F. Schulz. His recent Muses of John Barth does an admirable job of disentangling the themes and intentions of Barth's fiction since Lost in the Funhouse.
Schulz's premises are clearly set forth in his Preface. First, he explains why he will not deal, except in passing, with the novels written prior to Funhouse: Barth's "mature career as a fabulist," he feels, starts only with this work, one in which Barth begins to write fiction which will be "at once self-conscious, self-referential, and self-reflexive," fiction which will look to both metafictional issues and issues that belong to the quotidian. Second, Schulz dismisses two frequent approaches to Barth's work that see it as an example of the Literature of Exhaustion or as parody. Schulz feels both are too limiting, too critically exhausted. A third premise is presented in his statement of his critical stance. Schulz admits "to a formalist/structuralist bias" and argues briefly for the appropriateness of such an approach to Barth.
What follows this Preface is a working out of these premises. Instead of seeing Barth's recent fictions as repeated instances of the exhaustion of literature, Schulz is interested in proving that Barth is a postmodernist intent on examining what it means to be a fictionalist at the end of the twentieth century. Schulz, therefore, argues that Funhouse and Chimera are examinations of what metafiction is and what [End Page 756] literary avantgardism shares with the Great Tradition. Also, he sees Letters largely as an attempt to come to terms with this same Great Tradition. In support of this position, Schulz offers an intensely intricate analysis of Barth's extensive experiments with authorial voice and presence in Letters. Schulz draws fine and lucid distinctions between the various personas Barth assumes in the novel (Barth, "Barth," Author, "Author") and demonstrates how Barth uses these assumptions to breach the closed system that the novel traditionally is. Likewise, the recent Sabbatical and Tidewater Tales signal Barth's attempt to experiment with ways of introducing into the metafictional novel various real world concerns: pollution, abortion, death, pain, and—in general—the quality of life in the contemporary mega-state.
My brief sketch of what goes on in Schulz's work cannot begin to give a full indication of its riches. He is the best kind of critic. He not only understands his Barth, he also understands the world that Barth comes from, and he is therefore able to talk convincingly about Barth's relation not only to metafiction and poststructuralism but also to David Hockney's photography and Godel's theory of incompleteness.
Of course, some things about the book do not work for me. The critic's relative silence about the first two novels with their relative realism seems strange given he feels Barth is working toward the quotidian in the recent fiction. Also, I am unwilling to buy Schulz's dismissive judgments of Barth's contemporaries, especially Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover. It is a little too early to start passing around literary crowns and heavyweight-championship belts. But even such problems are minor given the scope and force with which Schulz writes.