John Barth, a Novelist Who Found Possibility in a ‘Used-Up’ Form

Nobody likes the comic who explains his own material, but the writer John Barth, who died on Tuesday, had a way of making explanations — of gags, of stories, of the whole creative enterprise — sing louder and funnier and truer than punchlines. The maxim “Show, don’t tell” had little purchase with him. In novels, short stories and essays, through an astoundingly prolific six-decade career, he ran riot over literary rules and conventions, even as he displayed, with meticulous discipline, mastery of and respect for them.

He was styled a postmodernist, an awkwardly fitting title that only just managed to cover his essential attributes, like a swimsuit left too long in the dryer. But it meant that much of what Barth was doing — cheekily recycling dusty forms, shining klieg lights on the artificiality of art, turning the tyranny of plot against itself — had a name, a movement.

For many years, starting in the 1960s, he was at the vanguard of this movement, alongside writers like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. He declared that all paths for the novel had already been taken, and then blazed new ones for generations of awe-struck followers. He showed us how writing works by letting us peer into its machinery, and reminded us that our experience of the world will always be dictated by the instruments we have to observe and record it. While never abandoning narrative, he found endless joy in picking apart its elements, and in the process helped define a postwar American style.

Were Barth the author of this article, for example, he might pause here to point out that the lines above constitute what journalists like to call the nut graf, an early paragraph that provides larger context for the topic at hand and tries to establish its importance — and is sometimes wedged in last-minute by a harried writer or editor ordered to “elevate” a story or “give it sweep.” Then Barth might explain why this one is lousy, why the whole business of nut grafs is more or less absurd.

The constructive disruption, the literary public service announcement: It became something of a signature for Barth, and it’s best expressed in his story collection “Lost in the Funhouse” (1968). The title piece, a masterwork of metafiction, follows a teenage boy lurching about the revolving discs and mirrored walls of an amusement-park fun house, where he realizes, dolefully, that he is better suited to construct such contrivances than experience them.

Throughout, a comically pedantic narrator critiques the very tale he’s telling by identifying the flashy tricks of the “funhouse” that is fiction: symbolism, theme, sensory detail, resolution. The story is simultaneously a rigorous analysis, vivid example and ruthless dismantling of how literature operates.

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