Wednesday, April 3, 2024

John Barth and Me, Having Fun [Trapped]

John Barth died yesterday (April 2). He was 93. I don't know him and never met him, but he was important to me early in my career.

In fact, I suppose, in a way, I identified with him. In fact, I most certainly did, and in a very specific way, which I’ll get to. But I never aspired to be what he was, a crafter of fictions, and I suspect that my trumpet playing was better than his drumming.

My sense of Barth is bound up with my sense of Johns Hopkins. We both got undergraduate degrees there, and he eventually taught there. Moreover 1973 was both the year I decamped from Johns Hopkins to get a Ph.D. at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the year he left his faculty position at Buffalo to take one at Hopkins. Dick Macksey introduced me to Barth’s fiction, The End of the Road, perhaps in his course on the autobiographical novel. I was hooked. I forget what I read next, but I also read The Foating Opera, The Sotweed Factor, and Giles Goat-Boy during my undergraduate years.

I remember how Barth labored mightily over a page or three to cough up an outrageous (gawdawefull?) pun in Goat-Boy: “George’s Gorge,” punning on “Gorgeous George,” a flamboyant professional wrestler from the 1950s. It seems there was a gorge on campus, somewhere – Goat-Boy was a university tale – and one of the central characters was named “George,” so the pun was, well, necessary, yes, no? Did Barth put that gorge in the tale because it was somehow a geological necessity, in as much as anything can be necessary to a fiction, or because he wanted that pun? In this wagging, which was the tail and which the dog?

Then came Lost in the Funhouse, a collection of stories published in 1968. I remember little beyond the pervasive deployment of meta-fictional gamesmanship and, more specifically, the “Frame-Tale,” printed vertically on two sides of an early page: “ONCE UPON A TIME THERE” (recto) “WAS A STORY” (verso). Was one supposed to cut it out, give it a twist, and tape the ends together in an endless one-sided loop? I didn’t. Didn’t have to. The imagining was easy and problematic enough.

Here’s the table of contents:

  1. "Frame-tale"
  2. "Night-sea Journey"
  3. "Ambrose His Mark"
  4. "Autobiography"
  5. "Water-message"
  6. "Petition"
  7. "Lost in the Funhouse"
  8. "Echo"
  9. "Two Meditations"
  10. "Title"
  11. "Glossolalia"
  12. "Life-story"
  13. "Menelaiad"
  14. "Anonymiad"

I still don’t recall the specifics of any of them, though I now have a sense of a blither of punctuation marks, quotation marks especially, and of course the endless meta-fictional commentary salted liberally throughout the whole damned thing.

It drove me nuts. Not literally in the figurative sense. But I was drawn as a moth to the flame, stuck as a bee in the honey, ying and yang. Was this honest-to-god true robust fiction or navel-gazing metafictional bullshit? It’s not as though there had to be a choice. It was both/and. But still, and therefore, maddening.

My only hope of exiting the maze was to write a review. I no longer have a copy – though perhaps there’s one in storage – nor do I remember much about it beyond the fact that it was a parody, a review about writing a review about a book of stories about writing fiction. But I do remember one specific formulation, perhaps not the exact words, but it went something like this: “Proteus plays both roles.” Proteus was a shape-shifter and I have a vague sense that Barth may have named him in one of his tales. As for the roles I was attributing to Proteus, one of them must have been “Bill Benzon” and the other “John Barth.” But I forget just which one of them signed the review first and how I managed to introduce the other one. All I remember is that I joined them through Proteus.

Once I’d written the review I had to publish it. “I wonder if the News-Letter, the campus student-run newspaper, would actually publish it?” Back in those days I thought all the cool clubs were closed to me, and The Johns Hopkins News-Letter was certainly a cool club. Still... “Nothing to lose. I might as well submit it.” And I did.

The News-Letter’s office was in a little slightly ramshackle building called “the gatehouse,” which it had originally been at one time. It was located in a small wooded area at the southeast edge of campus. There was a short bridge over a dip between the road the the door. There was a large mailbox beside the entrance to the bridge, or was it next to the door? I forget. I put the review in the mailbox. Why didn’t I knock on the door? Maybe I did, but no one answered. And maybe I didn’t. It was a long time ago and I don’t remember the details. I just remember that I left the review, perhaps, with a note of some kind, and anyhow my name was there. Some short while later I was in the office, talking to the guys – only guys at Hopkins at the time – and they were happy to publish the review. To some small local acclaim.

It was a revelation. I had been published. Someone had published my writing.

Now that I think of it, that may well have been the first time I self-consciously created a voice for writing something. Everything I’d written before then, in grade school, thank-you notes for Christmas presents, high school term papers, college exams and term papers, even love letters, I just wrote them, in whatever style. Earlier it would have been in whatever style I could, though in time I was able to exercise some choice. But this time I deliberately created a persona for the purpose of writing that review.

Lesson learned, a useful lesson.

Since then I’ve created many personae for various writing purposes and figured out how to shift voices in mid-stream. [Pro tip: Just do it.]

Nor was Funhouse the last Barth I read. I’ve read others, but not all of them. I got bogged down in Letters. I just couldn’t push my way through the metafictional swamp. I believe I made it to Sabbaticcal: A Romance, though I honestly can’t say whether or not I made it through. No matter. John Barth is John Barth regardless of whether or not Bill Benzon’s read it all. He’s read enough.


  1. Thanks for letting me know, Bill.

    I was honored to be the student selected to be with Jack at a dinner of the 4 lit professors at MIT in '73. I sat next to him and we chatted all evening. He was funny and charming and I was dazzled For a genius, he was so normal! Big reason I went to lit grad school. 4 yrs later wrote a chapter of my PhD dissertation about him and later a chapter in The Soft Machine. He and ironically Barthelme were my muses.

    We stayed in touch through Buffalo and William and Mary. This is a lovely tribute, Bill. Very sad to hear of his passing. He sat astride postmodern lit like a goliath.

    1. Thanks for the note, Dave. Barth and Barthelme, what a pair. Do you remember that rickety rope-slung bridge over the chasm in "The Man Who Would Be King?" I'm imagining Barth entering the bridge from one end and Barthelme from the other. When they meet in the middle, what then?

      I don't think any other book grabbed me in the way "Lost in the Funhouse" did. That such a thing is possible seems remarkable. It no doubt has something to do with books on the one hand and maturing minds on the other. That one slipped into the lock like no other and turned the tumblers, irrevocably.