I suppose it is inevitable that, as the post-war boomers approach the big six-zero over the next decade, we will see a tidal flood of tender, soul-searching narratives. Boomers want to understand rather than simply experience life, and most have been frustrated by life's refusal to obey our expectations.
John Barth seems to have made such soul searching his life work, and I seem to have followed him book for book, life experience by life experience over the years. A clever "academic" writer (read: "he writes like a dream but his wit sometimes overwhelms the story"), Barth has addressed boomer experience and frailty .
Seeming to be five to ten years ahead of boomers, his books have ranged from the tragedy resulting from a terribly botched abortion (long before we openly spoke of this horror), through the visionary and usually misguided quest of the idealist (Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goatboy), the terrible pain of realizing one is an adult (the clever but exhausting Letters), to more leisurely and accessible mid-life reassessment as protagonists take "voyages" on the emotional seascape of middle age (Sabbatical, Tidewater Tales, Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, Once upon a Time...).
Each five years or so, I eagerly await his newest offering, devour it, and then feel frustrated when his literary games seem to detract from his story. But, then, each time I realize (as if for the first time), the essential nature of his writing. Like the age-old games from which his writings spring (the quest/redemption stories of the Iliad and Oddessy, the "doomed" prophet stories of the Old and New Testaments, the mistaken identity games of Shakespeare and thousands of authors since, and the metaphor of story as voyage and voyage as growth from Chaucer, 1001 Nights, etc), Barth plays his games to remind us that the act of story telling *is* the experience, it *is* the reason we read: the experience of hearing ghost stories around the camp fire remains with us long long after we have forgotten the actual story. And then I remember that, as a reader, I have no more "right" to expect neatness and closure in a Barth story than I have the right to expect neatness and closure in my own life. Try as we might, our own work, our own story is always in progress. And like Barth's beloved Tidewater, the ebb and flow of our own story defies our attempt to capture to master it. In the end, life and Barth's stories remain as delightfully cleansing as the tide itself. KRH [...]