November 8–15, 2001
Soon is Now
John Barth returns — but don’t call it a comeback.
Don’t call John Barth’s new novel Coming Soon!!! (Houghton Mifflin) a comeback. He’s been winning major awards and publishing his own brand of genre-busting metafiction for years, while Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and William T. Vollmann were still swaddled in the royal robes of academia. Since his earliest efforts — The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958) — he has paved the way for the current crop of literary whippersnappers, and he hasn’t slowed down since. Barth’s influence on 20th-century literature (and 21st, to be sure) cannot be overstated.
Born in 1930 in Cambridge, Md., Barth studied at Johns Hopkins both as an undergrad and as a graduate student. He taught at Penn State and Boston University before accepting a position at his alma matter. Three of his books have been nominated for the National Book Award: The Floating Opera, Lost in the Funhouse (1968) and Chimera (1972), which finally won him the prize.
If you buy Borges’ premise that each writer creates his own precursors, it’s possible to ID the seeds of Barth’s oeuvre in the works of writers like Gaddis, Heidegger, Ionesco, Joyce and Kafka, but he has combined his influences into a genre all his own and single-handedly expanded the palette of colors available to every subsequent fictioneer. By understanding and acknowledging the limits of what fiction is and can do, Barth manages to push those limits a little bit further than most authors. He often addresses the reader directly, making sure you’re enjoying the book in your hands. It’s only a story, kids, he reminds us.
Coming Soon!!! details the simultaneously ugly and hilarious rivalry that grows between an aging master of the written word (called Writer Emeritus, an obvious stand-in for Barth) and a young apprentice (Johns "Hop" Hopkins Johnson) more interested in e-fiction.
As a teacher for many years, Barth directly oversaw the earliest efforts of many subsequent published novelists including Curtis White, whose new novel Requiem (Dalkey Archive) is one of the most enlightened works of fiction to come along in ages and quite likely the best novel of the year. City Paper recently caught up with John Barth via e-mail to discuss Coming Soon!!! and the nature of student-teacher rivalries.
Q: There’s the old cliché that some great books teach you how to read it as you go. My initial impression of Coming Soon!!! is that it’s not only teaching me how to read it, it’s making me forget how to read anything else. What book could I possibly pick up after this?
A: Well, I myself have most recently read with pleasure Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work…, Richard Powers’ Plowing the Dark, Curt White’s Requiem, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever and Michael Martone’s Blue Guide to Indiana (those last three by ex-students of mine) and am happily rereading Diderot’s Jacques Le Fataliste— all books that pleasurably re-teach us how to read fiction.
Q: Was Curtis White or anyone else in particular a model for Hop?
A: Not at all. Hop Johnson is pure invention. I’ve never experienced the least competitiveness or rivalry, even of the teasing sort, with any of my ex-"coachees," only delight in their accomplishments. Curt’s newie is his best, I’d say.
Q: You’ve always made use of technology — spoken-word recordings, instructions for Möbius strips, etc. — not as a way to supplement your fiction but as an essential element of your fiction. If the novel isn’t dead, it sure has been asleep a bit too long for some tastes. Is technology the best way to wake it up? Is e-fiction our future?
A: No opinion: I’m on the advisory board of the ELO (Electronic Literature Organization) out of curiosity about all edges of the envelope; but I remain a print guy, to whom hypertext, the Web, etc., are appealing more as metaphors than as techniques.
Q: I understand there are a few poor souls out there who haven’t read any of your books. Where should they begin? What are your favorites?
A: The latest-born is always freshest on my mind (until its successor begins gestation). But ’tis a poor parent that chooseth among his/her children.
John Barth will read and sign Thu., Nov. 8, 8 p.m., Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St., 215-567-4341. $12, $8 for students, $6 for simulcast.