John Barth

By: Tom Nealon
May 27, 2010


There’s a moment in JOHN BARTH’s (born 1930) The End of the Road (1958) where postmodernism pushes its boulder to the top of the hill and waits. And waits. Jacob Horner retreats to a train station bench to choose what to do next — take a train somewhere, continue the blossoming love triangle that forms the plot of the novel — and is frozen by the meaningless, arbitrariness of existence; the future an infinite, yawning void. He sits, immobilized, overnight, until, when randomly sprung from his paralysis, he finds himself unwilling to choose to continue to be paralyzed. Barth’s playfulness in subsequent novels — the endless campus apocalypse of Giles Goatboy, the brilliantly deadpan 18th century satire The Sot-Weed Factor, and the determinedly metafictive Chimera — is the desperate genius of a man who saw the end and rejected it. Lost in the Funhouse, a sort of deglazing of the crisped residue of postmodernism, is Barth’s ambivalent attempt to embrace the duality in his work — the creeping philosophical sensation that the world is without objective meaning, and the visceral knowledge that the relationships of actual humans generate their own meaning, the world be damned. If his work after this burst of early activity seems like a victory lap, just know that he earned it.

ALSO BORN ON MAY 27: Dashiell Hammett.

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Each day, HILOBROW pays tribute to one of our favorite high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes on that person’s birthday.

READ MORE about the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).

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What do you think?

  1. Thanks Peggy! I wanted to fit The Floating Opera in there as well, which is as great a first novel as you’d want, but couldn’t squeeze it.

  2. Put aside a copy for me . . .

    Love this line (of yours): “. . . the creeping philosophical sensation that the world is without objective meaning, and the visceral knowledge that the relationships of actual humans generate their own meaning, the world be damned.”

  3. Nicely summed up, Tom — and your barbs about his later works are sheathed in velvet, thus demonstrating your own writing chops.

  4. the picture of the bloke is so fantastic – sort of enlarges the (excellent) commentary… nibbling on the crispy rinds of postmodernism with that big shiny mekon head… love it.

  5. Tom specified the shot—not only fine writing, but fine art-direction! Luckily, I was able to take a pill that sent me back in time to capture the image—that “Getty Images” watermark in the corner is only a ruse.

  6. That’s some fine phrase-turning, sir: “a sort of deglazing of the crisped residue of postmodernism.”

    And that picture makes all other eggheads deeply and profoundly jealous of their inadequate domes.

  7. Thanks David – I was sort of pleased with that one.

    Right? His head is so perfectly formed it’s art. Can you imagine how pleased he must have been, after the initial dismay, when he started going bald?

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