Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Boundary Crossings: John Barth's Renewed Love Affair with the Short Story

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Boundary Crossings: John Barth's Renewed Love Affair with the Short Story

Article excerpt

Summary

John Barth's return to the short story after ah absence of almost 30 years in the genre has been heralded by the publication of two collections of short stories. Both collections signify a valuable building block in his life-long encyclopaedic project on the origin of fiction, its viability and its survival. In vintage-Barth style, narration is theorised and theory is narrativised in the self-conscious short narratives. Playing with different narrative levels helps Barth in teasing out what constitutes a story, what constitutes the ground truths of narrative theory. The narrative process is defined as a complex (or chaotic) system of suspended, yet incessant, motion. Thus the narrative process is simultaneously linear and non-linear. In the second collection we find the author also questioning the function of (apparently) trivial stories in the aftermath of 9/11. Storytelling may be a distraction from catastrophe, but it is not an escape. It is conceived of as a life-giving urge, while its function in times of crisis is to reassert the human capability to shape the world.

Opsomming

John Barth se terugkeer na die kortverhaal na 'n afwesigheid van die genre van byna 30 jaar word ingelui deur die verskyning van twee bundels kortverhale. Albei die bundels versinnebeeld 'n waardevolle bousteen in sy lewenslange ensiklopediese projek oor die oorsprong van fiksie, die lewensvatbaarheid daarvan, en die oorlewing daarvan. Op uitnemende Barth-trant word die narratief geteoretiseer en die teorie genarratifiseer in hierdie selfbewuste kort narratiewe. Die spel met verskillende narratiefvlakke help Barth om uit te pluis wat 'n storie uitmaak, wat die grondwaarhede van narratiefteorie uitmaak. Die narratiewe proses word as 'n komplekse (of chaotiese) stelsel van onderbreekte en tog onophoudelike beweging gedefinieer. Die narratiewe proses is dus terselfdertyd linier en nie-linier. In die tweede bundel bevraagteken die skrywer ook nog die funksie van (skynbaar) onbenullige stories as nadraai van 9/11. Die vertel van stories is miskien 'n afleiding van katastrofiese gebeure, maar dit is nie ontvlugting nie. Dit word gebore uit 'n lewegewende drang, terwyl dit in krisistye dien ter herbevestiging van die mens se vermoe om vorm te gee aan die wereld.

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John Barth is primarily known as a writer of experimental long fiction. So far he has published novels, non-fiction collections, novellas and three collections of short stories: Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (1968), On with the Story: Stories (1996), followed by The Book of Ten Nights and a Night: Eleven Stories (2004). In 2005 he published Where Three Roads Meet: Novellas. With the publication of the second collection of short stories in 1996 it had taken him almost 30 years to return to the genre of the short story. He is known to prefer writing long fiction to short fiction. As he wrote in one of his essays ("Borges and I: A MiniMemoir", in Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures and Other Nonfiction): "[T]he short story ha[d] never been [his] long suit" (1995: 169). Eight years after his second collection, a third was published, in 2004, followed in the year after by a new series of novellas.

John Barth is well known for the shortest short story ever written, "Frame Tale", the one-sentence opening story in his experimental Lost in the Funhouse, which is paradoxically also the longest short story as it goes on and on, ad infinitum: "Once upon a time there was a story that once upon a time there was as story that once upon a time ..." and so on and on, ad infinitum. This was his "initiation fee" into the domain of the short story, as he calls it, "it was the shortest story in the whole corpus of literature, which would at the same time be literally endless" (1995: 101). In the prologue to this Funhouse, called "Night Sea Journey", we see a sperm narrating the story, reflecting metafictively on creation of various sorts, life and letters. …

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