Collected Stories by John Barth, Dalkey Archive Press, 784 pages, $32.95. It happened in Buffalo almost simultaneously at the Buffalo Philharmonic under Lukas Foss and the Albright Art Gallery under the influence of its primal benefactor Seymour Knox and Knox’s pivotal purchaser and director, Gordon Smith. Buffalo in the ’60s and early ’70s became a major center of avant-garde culture in the Northeast. The idea that literary avant-gardism, too, could actually turn into wild performance art came to us with John Barth.
He had come to the University at Buffalo from Penn State to join his friend and vehement proponent Leslie Fiedler. And while reading live excerpts from his collection-in-progress, “Lost in the Funhouse,” Barth introduced local audiences to multimedia performance tricks galore. He made sure we all knew his story “Autobiography” depended on recording and his story “Menelaid” required us all to experience the fine spray of quotation marks as a giddily confused joke on who was quoting whom and when that carried the art of interpolated stories in literature to gleeful absurdity.
Barth’s 1970s departure from Buffalo to Johns Hopkins and his native Maryland began a slow-motion crash in his reputation.
From then on, he came to symbolize academicism’s hopelessly bourgeois insularity. Leave it to Barth, now in his mid-80s, to collect his life’s work in his least-favorite medium in a doorstop of a volume as large, if not larger, than his gargantuan novels. While the slo-mo crash and burn of his reputation is understandable, it’s wickedly unfair. Read his life’s work in stories and there is no question that so many are for a select readership steeped in the most recondite matters of storytelling and hungry for playfulness and perversity guaranteed to drive others nuts.
But that’s, frankly, what’s hilarious about “Ad Infinitum: The Short Story” and “And Then One Day” from his second collection titled “On With the Story” with wicked irony.
To the obvious argument that Barth set literary records for academic insularity and self-satisfied inconsequence, this collection argues powerfully that at its best, his work is virtuosic, instructive and downright joyous. His celebration of post-modernism is marvelous merriment. – Jeff Simon