Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Barth, John

(1930-    ) US writer whose works generally display and advocate a playful attitude towards Story that makes almost anything he has written understandable within a broad understanding of the Fantastic. The small craft that conveys the protagonist and his wife through Sabbatical (1982) is called Story, and the protagonist makes sense of his life only through beginning to tell stories, to re-create the mundane world. At the same time, only some of JB's novels and tales can be described as Fantasy in a more usual sense. Neither The Sot-Weed Factor (1960; rev 1967), despite its extraordinary elaborations of the mode of the Picaresque, nor Giles Goat-Boy, or The Revised New Syllabus (1966), which is a Fable dressed as Science Fiction, can be so described. But some of the tales assembled in Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (coll 1968; exp 1969), like "Night-Sea Journey", are fantasy; and Chimera (coll of linked stories 1972) is full-blown fantasy. The first story here assembled, "Dunyazadiad", is an Arabian Fantasy centred on Scheherazade, who makes sense of her life (and, of course, literally saves it) through the telling of stories, which have been passed back through time by Barth himself when she cannot think of any, yet which are the stories she originally told. The second, "Perseid", takes the Hero into the confused world that comes after the great adventure has been accomplished, and in which he takes the form of a storyteller recounting his own past. The third, "Bellerophoniad", follows Bellerophon into preordained disaster – he plummets with Pegasus into the sea, and becomes not only a storyteller but, having undergone Shapeshifting at the hands of a minor deity, an actual text of Story: a bundle of papers.

One of the epistolary contributors to Letters (1979) is part-insect, and hopes to breed with human females. The Tidewater Tales (coll of linked stories 1987) features appearances, highly hypothetical though fabulous, of characters like Scheherazade (who reappears frequently in JB's work). The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1992) is constructed as a series of nested stories, in the coils of which are figures like Sinbad and, once more, Scheherazade. Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera (1994) again provides a structure within which a Barth-like author creates, through Mirrors and fabulated Timeslips, a story which will serve to fabricate an author named Barth.

JB's oeuvre as a whole comprises a sometimes marvellous series of internal recursions, each tale commenting upon and re-interpreting its siblings, so that, in the end, everything he writes turns out to be the story of what he has written. [JC]

John Barth

links

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.