couple stories

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For these are the kind of stories in Barth’s 1996 collection ON WITH THE STORY. All twelve of them, and the framing device, concern straight, white, upper bourgeois couples on vacation. A couple checks in to the hotel, do the usual business: topless beach, tennis, maybe some hot tub time, and of course post-coital bedtime stories. A story for each night of the vacay: as usual Barth has a eye on the old literature.

These pieces are like a domesticated, mainstreamed version of postmodernism. Narratives of upper middle class white couples, dreadfully straight, naturalistic, national magazine stuff with a bit of O. Henry like charm… But the familiar material is part of the fun, since Barth injects what could be stale shorts with encyclopedic details of quantum physics and narrative theorizing. The act of storytelling is some kind of profound part of humanity, but the reason is not as simple as telling stories in order to live. It’s probably more like staving off death, more Scheherezade than Didion.

The earlier stories focus on this kind of “primitive” storytelling, the need to put off the end, to fill up with words lest we’re met with silence, before moving on to more sophisticated narrative theory. “The End: An Introduction” for instance is narrated by a writing professor introducing an author traveling with heavy security, since her work, like Rushdie’s SATANIC VERSES, has attracted enmity from certain authorities. It’s taking a while to get her through campus onto the venue, so he fills the dead air with musings, including the millennial sense of termination.

In short and in sum, endings, endings everywhere; apocalypse large and small. Good-bye to the tropical rainforests; good-bye to the whales; good-bye to the mountain gorillas and the giant pandas and the rhinoceri; good-bye even to the humble frogs, one is beginning to hear, as our deteriorating ozone layer exposes their eggs to harmful radiation. Goodbye to the oldest continuous culture on the planet: the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, in process of extermination by Saddam Hussein even as I speak. Good-bye to the once-so-cosmopolitan Beirut and once-so-hospitable Sarajevo, as we who never had the chance to know them knew those excellent cities. The end of this, the end of that; little wonder we grow weary of “endism,” as I have heard it called. (15)

The influence of Barth’s diction on Wallace and Baker and maybe other writers after him became way more obvious to me. Indeed this story reminded me a lot of THE LOST SCRAPBOOK, which I’m still pondering a year after experiencing it.

More procrastination in the next story: A wife learns terrible news, news that could compromise the emotional happiness between her and the husband forever. Their time of equilibrium is over; she just has to cross over to the garden where the husband is at work to tell him. But the narrator, at pains to keep this moment at bay, starts describing the trees on the property, the birds and the nearby lake. There’s some business with Zeno’s paradox: how Achilles cannot catch up with the tortoise, since the distance between them is infinitely divisible.

Barth is famously a novelist who doesn’t usually do stories (his remark of being a long-distance rather than a sprint writer actually shows up in this text), so that when he does put out a collection it feels thoroughly composed. These are not novel chapters that have been published separately as stories, but rather a set of stories connected by small motifs (objects as well as bits of language) to loosely comprise an alternate narrative world. One white couple, Joan and Frank Pollack, appear in two stories (and I suspect they are the couple of the framing device. The phrase “On with the story”crops up in each one. A story about folks in South Carolina preparing for Hurricane Daishika is followed later with a story of a couple riding out Hurricane Emile in the Bahamas, which came after the first one.

That last one about Hurricane Emile, “‘Waves’ by Amien Richard”, was definitely my favorite piece. Amien Richard is the nom de plume of a straight white upper mid-class couple: Amy ‘n’ Richard. They’ve got it made as far as writers go: they apply for grant money to go on fun exotic trips and make non-fiction pieces out of them. Here they are in an island resort paradise, scuba diving, trying to keep their minds off something — something terrible has happened to them in the recent past. They’re trying to heal, but it doesn’t seem to be working.

Most interesting is the narration itself. It uses the legion “we” pronoun, but Amy and Richard are free to insert their own voices and separate themselves from the couple unit from time to time, which seemed like a wonderful way to dramatize the dynamic of these characters, and made what could have been a really boring story (as they try to distract themselves) into something delightful and energetic. For instance, when Amy and Richard swim around in a reef:

Has any of this advanced the story? (It has, between the lines, Amy here opines in pained parentheses; but she isn’t prepared to say how just yet. [What she did — unnoticed by Richard but not by the central joint narrative intelligence of this story — was give the slip to her mates recently somewhat oppressive though understandable monitoring of her ((as she perceives it)) and dive down behind a pile of living coral to see whether she would carry through on her one-tenth-serious inclination to drown herself. As her held breath reached its limit, however, she happened to catch sight of the corkscrew inner spiral of a small, ground-down conch shell on the sea floor: a dainty, perfect, tapered bush-and-ivory auger, not uncommon in these waters but in this instance uncommonly fine in its coloration and its intactness-within-attrition. Instead of blowing out the last of her air therefore to find out whether she could actually inhale water as… others have done before her, she forced herself a fathom deeper, retrieved the token, and shot to the surface. No Richard ((he has ducked under in search of her)); then there he is, looking the other way, toward shore. She recovers her breath and inner balance; returns to snorkeling as if nonchalantly, although her heart still pounds; tucks it for safekeeping into the crotch of her bikini, faute de mieux; then clasps her hands behind her back, the better to feign insouciance.]) (124)

The “central joint narrative intelligence” is the couple’s collaboration on the manuscript that is the story (Barth never permits the reader to be immersed, to forget they’re reading words on a page). It’s such a fun idea, and it’s also a throwback to the 18th century  English novels, always from this or that lost manuscript. At a glance it seems naive or gimmicky, but such devices were ironic ways to confront the profound lack of authority we have to craft literary fiction. It’s 19th century realism that shrugs off this problem or tries to distract the reader from it.

“‘Waves'” also theorizes about narrative in more formal way beyond the Scheherezade notion. The Russian formalists taught us that a given work has a syuzhet and a fabula, a plot and a story. You could generally observe that postmodernist fiction saturates the text with syuzhet while the fabula is far more obscure than usual (hence the interest in mystery stories by American pomo authors, really anti-mysteries, since they’re about how the bigger truth of What Happened eludes us).

What happened that damaged this couple so badly? Barth never tells outright, but there are more than enough clues that you can figure it out.

“Are we waves or particles?” Amy asks. Forget Richard Powers, Barth is my nomination for the true author of SCRAPBOOK, which never gets as cutesy or light as the later stories in this collection do. “The Stories of our Lives” is like that Simpsons episode, complete with physical transitions of people’s objects, a misplaced coin or pair of shades. Evan Dara didn’t have to use those kinds of tricks while putting things off til the last end-stop. And there were so many ding-dong kids these days gags that I was reminded by Barth will never be as cool as Coover or Pynchon.

We learn late in the collection that this frame couple, staving off the end of the vacation with stories, is about to end. If I comprehended it right, Frank Pollard has terminal pancreatic cancer: this really is the last vacation, and the final full-stop. A little bit of pathos with all this pomo esoterica.

All the same though, it was light, and it’s summertime.

 

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