The Literature of Exhaustion: On John Barth’s Last Novel

“Beginnings are exciting; middles are gratifying; but endings, boyoboy.” — John Barth, On With The Story   I’m tempted to start by calling John Barth literature’s professor emeritus. He does ...

Beginnings are exciting; middles are gratifying; but endings, boyoboy.” — John Barth, On With The Story


I’m tempted to start by calling John Barth literature’s professor emeritus. He does resemble the appropriate sort of professor, benevolent and a little mad, and it’s preferable to his usual topic sentence positioning as a “Master of Post-Modernism.” Yes, Barth is best known for his heavily thesised ‘70s novels: the talk-like-a-pirate Sot-Weed Factor; the deconstructive Giles Goat BoyLetters, that utter shitshow. But me? I like Barth’s gentler brand. I like Chimera’s wonderful corkscrews and On With The Story, the cascading novel disguised as short story collection.

In fact, my late-aughts PhD Lit application essay was about On With The Story. I didn’t get in. Looking back, there was a problem beyond over-reliance on the rule of threes and applying to grad school during a financial crisis: it’s too easy to write superficially about John Barth. The mad professor always takes care to cite his sources, his characters praising their muse Scheherazade, his metaphors stretching into mythology, his leads meta-grumbling about their own plots. But despite sabotaging my would-have-been life in academia, On With the Story remains a fresh examination of contemporary reading habits.

It was also the beginning of the end. Barth’s readership and fiction have steadily dwindled in the 20 years since On With the Story and I think that the main operative factor is that, like Tithonus,1 he got old. That might sound crass. I only say it because Barth has spent the last half-century making the case himself.

In his defining essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion” (one of those once-a-lustrum dead novel jams), a young Barth took on the output of late-career writers:

For Beckett, at this point in his career, to cease to create altogether would be fairly meaningful: his crowning work; his “last word.” What a convenient corner to paint yourself into! ‘And now I shall finish,’ the valet Arsene says in Watt ‘and you will hear my voice no more.’ Only the silence Molloy speaks of, of which the universe is made.

But with his moment of auto-summation finally at hand, Barth instead wrote of his fear that “one might go on being and being and being after one’s pen, et cetera, is silenced not by death or devastation but by mere bare cupboardhood.” This is a thoroughly modern problem—bodies now wind on after brains lose their spark; a vast swell of foggy boomers approaches; Clarence Thomas is a literal stone; writers are forced into retirement though they maintain their physical capabilities; the last word is likely to be an inconsequential mumble. Barth’s dreaded valediction came in 2012’s “The End: On Writing No Further Fiction.” It’s a weird retirement essay, suffused with gentle bitterness over his last book, 2011’s Every Third Thought, being “non-trade.” When he writes, “I’ve still gone to my workroom every weekday morning … and reenacted my muse inviting ritual, [but] I find that I’ve written … nothing,” it’s clear that his silence is a function of age’s frustrations.

Cynthia Ozick, another member of the old guard, recently, skillfully took on the question of farewell writing in the Times:

A very few have been known to admit to this crisis of confidence or exhaustion, as when in a burst of self-extinguishment as shocking as the unforeseen resignation of a reigning monarch, they submit to abdication. Admittedly, old writers tend to be cut off from their desks mainly by dotage, disability, or death; they do not voluntarily accede to unnatural stoppage. Such instances of self-erasure are rare, and may apply only to those old writers who own the immaculate status of literary popes. More typically, the banishment of old writers derives almost ritually from external sources. How do old writers learn that they are, after all, old writers? By being told, named, classified.

But Barth, no Philip Roth2-level pope, hypothetically able to putter ad infinitum, opted for self-erasure before it was too late. Every Third Thought is obsessed with the question of what a last work should entail. It is the swan song of a genuinely important writer, but the only reviewer that went beyond the polite obligatory favor-returning paragraph—and I believe most of those didn’t read the entire book, for reasons I’ll get into—is James Greer, whose claim that Barth is America’s greatest living writer would be fine if Greer wasn’t, in what I would consider a mild conflict of interest, adapting The Sot-Weed Factor for television. (Greer is also the bassist on one of my favorite songs ever,3 which fits nicely into my long-standing theory that the simulation the death-robot constructed for me has its glitches.)

It’s not that I don’t understand Every Third Thought’s muted reception. The critical alienation begins when you poke into the book and right away, and I mean right away, are stopped short by a Twainy protagonist who cautions, “Likewise, Reader, you don’t know about me without you have read a little short story series called The Development.” Which, fine. I played his game. I dropped the dough, waited two days, and began reading Barth’s penultimate work of fiction so I could get to know George I. Newitt.

 It’s always at its best when Barth lets his guard down and his age show.

Turns out, though, that the collection of stories set in a geriatric community on Maryland’s coast isn’t really about George I. Newitt. Infuriatingly, ETT’s lead waits until page 40 to enter, doing so with a cry of “vita brevis est” (which, I mean), only to promptly re-vanish. He’s not mentioned again until halfway through, when he reveals himself as the author of the story we’re reading, a “nice bit of metafiction” by this self-styled “Old Fiction Fart”—a pet phrase of late Barth that is now permanently lodged in one of the worst neighborhoods of my subconscious and serves as self-telling, self-naming, self-classification. That’s the way out that Ozick’s essay omitted. John Barth became an old writer because he looked at the state of his career and decided that he was one.

Which brings me to the problem with Gee I Newitt. I don’t come to tilt at windbags, but he’s frustrating for all the reasons he isn’t Barth. “Most of G.I. Newitt’s O.F. Fictions fizzle in the second or third trimester of their gestation,” and Barth uses these failures as an avenue to explore his own, less justifiable late-career anxiety. I enjoyed the two books despite these occasional flares of bitterness, and after the as-it-turns-out-unnecessary homework assignment, I re-entered ETT with a sense of dread.4

Every Third Thought seems to have passed unscathed through the editorial process. There are typos and spacing issues and inconsistencies. There are eleven different page-long hyper-liberal rants on Iraq and, in a retro twist, one on Vietnam (which I liked). G.I.N. and his poet-wife Amanda “sip and nibble” on their porch after their daily “scribble” on five distinct occasions. And there’s significant overlap with The Development and Barth’s last book of essays, Final Fridays. All three feature a Chesapeake-based retired writing teacher with a reasonably younger poet wife-cum-editor, three different desks in his office, a strong preference for fountain pens, a beloved southern professor who taught Barth/G.I.N. “creative rotting” in college, pressure to give a writing award to undergraduates, pre-emptive nostalgia for sex, resentment over Calvino and Borges never winning a Nobel prize, and affection for a non-existent Robert Frost poem about reluctant oak leaves.

But Barth anticipates my criticism. In 2011, he wrote in the Atlantic Monthly:

I would console Khakheperresenb with the familiar paraphrase of Walt Whitman: Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself” … Originality, after all, includes not only saying something for the first time, but re-saying (in a worthy new way) the already said: rearranging5 an old tune in a different key, to a different rhythm, perhaps on a different instrument.

ETT itself nods periodically enough at its flaws to make them feel intentional. “Yet another clink,” G.I.N. says, “of what the reader might fairly mistake to be our ever-present wine glasses.” Again, this is the problem with writing about John Barth—he’s always heading you off at the critical pass.

Another complication: the back of the jacket and many a lazy review claim that the book consists of a series of five visions that occur on the first day of a new season, but that is a bag of lies. They aren’t really visions, there aren’t five of them, they never come when they’re supposed to, and, as the text of the book that G.I.N. fruitlessly works on (at one exceptionally gross point he forces a story out of himself by clenching everything in his body), they serve as renditions of the writer’s block that drove Barth into retirement.

So what to make of these italicized reveries? They are sepia-stained partially autobiographical short stories about a childhood friend named Ned Prosper, a great writer with an annoying habit of saying “On Third Thought” whenever he changes his mind. The Prospero/Tempest stuff should be transparent enough that I’m not going to get into it.6 Even G.I.N himself wonders how he could not “have seen so obvious an echo before, especially given the last working title of Ned’s lost opus-in progress and his friend’s habit of naming First, Second, and Third Thoughts.”

But then, for an old hand at postmodernism, intransigence may be transigence. Consider G.I.N.’s “cruise ship cruise”—the very idea should get any modern reader salivating with memories of Wallace’s excellent 7NC and Franzen’s somewhat less excellent hallucinated talking shit. But Barth’s action at sea? “That’s enough traveloguing: Suffice it to say that thanks to Mandy’s homework and judicious planning we quickly shed our reverse-snob-cruise-ship-prejudice and quite enjoyed both vessel and voyage.” The entire narrative reason for the boat ride from Sweden to London, besides establishing The Tempest overlaps, seems to be so Barth can again complain that Calvino and Borges never won the Nobel Prize. His reluctance to dive in is, somewhat paradoxically, bold.

The first two-thirds of the book are pleasantly wobbly. There is a surprising amount of Updike influence (a pretty good anal sex scene like in Rabbit is Rich; a pretty good date at a civil rights parade like in the Maples story “Marching through Boston”), there is more literary second-guessing (“He having often acknowledged that were he an abler hand at such basics as the Sharp Rendition of Relevant Sensory Detail, he’d be a National Book Award dealer instead of a mere OFF,”), and lots more meta-fiction (“But I can’t help thinking that something more interesting ought to be going on in the present time of this narrative than just a series of visions that trigger Narrator’s recollections of his boyhood with Ned Prosper and the ho-hum suspense of whether they’ll add up to another G.I. Newitt book”). It’s always at its best when Barth lets his guard down and his age show. Eventually Prosper drowns, and G.I.N. makes his expected pivot and decides to write Every Third Thought—all fine. Three stars. On to the next whatever.

But then, blessed Amanda comes in on her way to the supermarket and rejects the premise. And there, in the last 25 pages of fiction that John Barth will ever publish, his real crowning work begins. It’s called “After Words” and it’s excellent. Despite my grousing, the rest of Every Third Thought and The Development function as a primer for what he himself describes as “a perhaps valedictory but nonetheless fresh, original, inspired, and lively new work.”

Ambition remains, anxiety remains, past works and career frustrations and old influences remain, and hover noxiously.

Remember the first story I liked in The Development footnote, the one with the suicide pact? That piece traumatically ripples through the rest of both that collection and ETT—characters just keep bringing the deaths up. The true anxiety in the books is that G.I.N.’s wife is going to recognize his obsolescence and abandon him, so, when she leaves the stage, even for a second, there’s a frenzy of post-modern plotting: maybe G.I.N. is actually Prosper; maybe Amanda is having an affair with a character from The Development; maybe Amanda might … no, anything but that. G.I.N. first tries Barth’s old Scheherazade move to cure his writer’s block, but then he pivots instead to a gorgeous description of looking for his wife in a grocery store. We’ve all felt that wonderfully spooky feeling—is the person we love between lonely aisles at the far end? Do we keep on missing her because we are dancing in sync?

If Barth/G.I.N.’s wife never emerges at the checkout, it will be the worst possible ending. He’s only ever been a Sous-Chef. He’s not particularly close to his children. He looks with wonder upon his widower friends who “attend social club events, do volunteer work, and in a few cases even remarry. Unimaginable!” All of this makes “After Words” an essential perspective on aging and love. (Except for when G.I.N.’s sexy computer begs him to fuck her. That I will leave well out of it.)

But then, in a genuine shock, the worst happens: Amanda dies in a car crash. In three harrowing pages, G.I.N. hits the bottle, fakes it through a funeral, and sinks into a permanent silence. It’s what Barth’s been preparing us for over the course of three books. It would be the sharpest ending. But he can’t go through with it. Even at Barth’s end, another terminal parenthesis is lurking.

The professor’s last chapter, fittingly called “The book of Fourteen Thousand Six Hundred-Plus Nights,” is a lovely Orpheus-infused confection. G.I.N. lies in bed at night, scared to reach out for his love in case she still isn’t there. It’s the most simple human need, this touch, and Barth is generous with his alter-ego, telling him not to be scared, telling him that he is done, wrapping his career up with a lovely period that gets a paragraph all its own.

What to make of this startling, redeeming sequence? In Final Fridays, Barth laid out the premise of his last novel: “Every Third Thought is a reorchestration both of Shakespeare’s Tempest and of characters from my 2008 The Development.” Reorchestration—he was talking about it in the Atlantic Monthly piece on repetition, too. And as it turns out, there is another recent essay by an aged writer about aged writers that focuses on musical themes, and it happens to have been written by John Barth’s favorite penpal, the one whose style influenced ETT.

In 2006, John Updike wrote a New Yorker piece called “Late Works” that centered on Edward Said’s studies of old composers and musicians—those who successfully reorchestrated their earlier themes at the end of their careers. Barth was either influenced by the essay or thinking along a parallel line to his old friend, because Every Third Thought echoes throughout.

(The senile sublime) describes various more or less intelligible performances by old brilliant people … where the bare outlines of a creative idiom seem finally to emerge from what had been the obscuring puppy fat of personableness, timeliness, or sometimes even of coherent sense … This can certainly be ascribed to the shimmering late works of Shakespeare … “The Tempest,” is one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces: the strained contrivances and righted wrongs of the previous romances—“Plot has always been the curse of serious drama,” George Bernard Shaw said, discussing “Cymbeline”—fall simply into place, with the contriver in plain view, his motives and magical means established at the start. Prospero, the unjustly deposed Duke of Milan and self-taught sorcerer, spins the plot before our eyes … “The Tempest” ends with Prospero claiming his right to “retire me to my Milan, where / Every third thought shall be my grave.

This helps tie things together—Prospero’s timely retirement and Shakespeare’s cessation when he still had something left in the tank help explain the allusions to The Tempest; the strange transparency of Every Third Thought, whose contriver stands in plain view, is identified as the hallmark of many late works; the way the book jacket plot is banished in favor of something less coherent and far more meaningful aligns with the idea of the senile sublime. It would be a classic professorial move to take Updike’s analysis and apply it preemptively to one’s own farewell work. “Late Works” closes with this:

What does haunt late works is the author’s previous works: he is burdensomely conscious that he has been cast, unlike his ingénue self, as an author who writes in a certain way, with the inexorable consistency of his own handwriting. “I am tired of my own thoughts and fancies and my own mode of expressing them,” Hawthorne wrote not many months before he died. Turning this way and that in his last creative torment, he kept meeting, with a shudder, his pet modes of imagining, chimeras on the fault line between the imaginary and the actual … Melville, no stranger to self-centered overcomplication, in old age found his way back to an earnest simplicity. Successful late works, shed of “obscuring puppy fat,” tend to have a translucent thinness. We feel on our faces the breeze of the senile sublime, a creativity liberated from its usual, anxiety-producing ambitions.

What a perfect encapsulation of the flaws and successes of late Barth. Except for that final, translucent ending, he doesn’t quite escape the Hawthorne trap. Ambition remains, anxiety remains, past works and career frustrations and old influences remain, and hover noxiously. But in the end, he makes Melville’s turn. He finally finds the release of the senile sublime. And that’s why he could finally walk away, finally do what he asked of Beckett all those years ago.

But, to take another cue from Barth, I feel that there is one more thing to say. My favorite part of ETT is this incredibly charming technophobic diatribe:

And the two hypergadgets interlinked … Why would one’s computer desire intercourse with one’s mobile phone, and vice versa? Ah: because the latter isn’t just a telephone these days, like its lost predecessor and Mandy’s fortunately still with us ‘old’ one, but also a camera (as is the computer too, Zeus help us, he now discovers!)

Funny, right? So much of Barth’s work, especially those post-modern monsters, obscures the earnestness that enlivens some of the most charming moments in his oeuvre. And that’s why there’s so much more that he could do. Because, I’m in New York on the subway writing notes for this essay on the inside cover of Every Third Thought. It’s the first nice day of spring. The lady sitting next to me is sexting. We’re underground so the sexts aren’t actually sending yet. She’s queuing them up in ascending order of lasciviousness. The dude across from me is sitting with his legs spread under a sign about how dudes shouldn’t sit that way. On my other side, a teenager is telling his mom that he wants to live with his dad. Life offers us no shortage of muses.

I hope John Barth decides he has one volley left in him. If he doesn’t, I guess it falls to us. The novel is dead and the novel will never die. It will start again in the silence of which the universe is made.

The story of our life is not our life; it is our story. Soon she must tell him the news.
Our lives are not stories. Now she must tell him the news. 
‘This story will never end. This story ends.’ — John Barth, On With The Story icon

  1. Shit, he’s got me doing it.
  2. Other than media sturm/drang, the critical difference between Roth and Barth’s abdications is that, in the face of Roth’s incontinence, Barth keeps a monomaniacal focus on his own tenacious libido over his last three books.
  4. By the way, The Development is pretty good—uneven, fun, confoundingly narrow-scoped. There are sections that are totally wince-worthy, like when a “young African-American poet from Baltimore … hip-hopped from the podium over to the seated dignitaries … and returned triumphantly after the ceremony to his ghetto ‘hood across the bay, only to be killed later that summer in a ‘drug related’ drive by shooting.” (This gave birth to an unprecedented margin notation: “OOF”)
    I had two favorite stories. One was a fulfilled suicide pact made by an aged man and his slightly less aged wife: if one goes, they both go. The other, “The Bard Award,” is drawn directly from Barth’s career frustrations. Basically, G.I.N. starts publishing insane popomo by a sexually provocative student while she sends out his Barthy stories, and they both achieve success because they’re sending out the unexpected. “I’m no avant-gardist … about contemporary experimental fiction—interactive electronic hypertext and the like?—I have only the most dutiful, professorial curiosity,” G.I.N. writes, while she in return criticizes “the muted epiphanies and petty nuances of upper-middle-class life in a not-all-that upscale gated community on Maryland’s endearingly Funky Eastern shore.” This is Barth’s most chip-shouldered moment in his late works—the idea that he’s in on the joke of his own obsolescence is the professor’s last development.
  5. Remember this word when I reach my own essayistic crescendo.
  6. Ditto that G.I.N. lives in an American Stratford, that he visits the Globe in London, that he gives out a Bard award, that he keeps on quoting that second-best-bed part of Shakespeare’s will that Stephen Dedalus is also obsessed with, that the book begins with a horrible storm, that …