John Barth
By: Tom Nealon | Categories: HiLo Heroes


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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Tom Nealon owns and operates the used and rare bookstore Pazzo Books in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Mass and runs the antiquarian food blog cruditas.