By John Barth
203 pages
New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1988
ISBN# 0-385-24087-2>>795

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2012

The author tells us in an introduction that this book “. . . is neither a collection nor a selection, but a series . . . Meant to be received ‘all at once’ and as here arranged.” Since the first story is about the meaning of human existence, I was led to suspect that this was the theme which would organize the whole. It tuned out that Barth somewhat misled me. There is more going on that just that one theme.


Barth begins with a marvelous metaphor for life -- it is a night sea journey in which human beings are swimming, forever, in a dangerous sea. Eventually each will drown. It is natural, he claims, to wonder if this journey has any purpose of meaning.

The narrator is fairly sure there is no meaning but the swimming itself, but it doesn’t make any sense to drown oneself either, so, like others, he goes on swimming, just not trying to pretend there is meaning to the journey. “Indeed, if I have yet to join the hosts of suicides it is because (fatigue apart) I find it no meaningfuller to drown myself than to go on swimming.”

As best he can tell our destiny “. . . is merely to perish, one way or another, soon or late.”

I found the story to be powerful, insightful and in no way negative. It does seem the dominant thrust of human kind is to give life some larger meaning. Yet, like the narrator of the story, I tend to see those hopeful “meanings” as fictions, albeit at times useful. On the other hand, I have never found it to be depressing or in any way negative to view life as a journey which I have by virtue of birth and which will end by virtue of death.


This is a captivating story of a very strange family, and the title has to do with a birth mark on the narrator’s face. Good read, but not particularly profound tale.


The narrator knows a certain version of his past, and just plods on being the ‘he’ he has created, aware of his past and troubles, even burdened by his father’s lack of desire for his birth or his career.


This is a tale of boys, one being the narrator, sort of a weakling who depends upon his brother for protection. The kids play around the edge of the waters and find a message in a bottle that is enigmatic and challenging. The narrator constantly enriches his own life with creating stories that surround what is actually going on.

PETITION: 58-71.

The story is a crazy petition to an eastern potentate who is in the U.S. for surgery. This petition ask the potentate to help him escape his brother to whom he is physically bound. He cites an historical case in the potentate’s nation. Very wild story, some might suggest it is way over the edge of imagination!


“Lost in the Fun House” is play on meaning: it is to be taken in the sense of being lost for meaning in human existence.

ECHO p. 98-103

Yikes. No comment. I don’t think I understood a word of the story.


1. Niagara Falls. Plays on the notion of the last straw notion. 2. Lake Erie Image of Oedipus.

TITLE p. 105-113

“The final question is, Can nothing be made meaningful?”

Title is a brilliant story about trying hopelessly, to make sense out of a world that we don’t really know means anything. Barth tells it from the point of view of a writer trying to say what can’t be said. Thus “Title” is they only title possible. Brilliantly done.

GLOSSLALIA pp. 114 - 115

Last paragraph: “Ill fortune, constraint and terror, generate guileful art; despair inspires. The laurelled clairvoyants tell our doom in riddles. Sewn in our robes are horrid tales, and the speakers-in-tongues enounce atrocious tidings. The prophet-birds seem to speak sagely, but are shrieking their frustration. The senselessest babble, could we ken it, might disclose a dark message, or prayer.”

He talks of the falseness of prophets. But, isn’t his prophecy just as arbitrary?

In the afterword Barth identifies the quotes of the six different speakers in this very short story.

LIFE STORY -- pp. 116 - 129

This story contains the marvelous appearance of the character of woman - mistress - of this author who is actually without a mistress, and has no desire for one.

There is also an hilarious assault on any reader who’d read this far (90% of the story) into the ‘story.’

Stunning writing; one of my favorite stories in the collection.

MENELAIAD P. 130-167

Two themes dominate

1. The unknowability of any possible meaning to human existence.
2. The dilemma of the absurdity of an author telling the true story of an author telling a true story of . . .and so on.

This problematic is both an infinite regress and logically impossible.

The story was a blank for me. First off it built in detail on the period of the Trojan War, and while I just recently re-visited some of that tale in Shakespeare’s TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, I wasn’t up to the details.

However, the tale wasn’t really about that period at all, but about the nature of punctuation to determine who was actually telling us what and when.

I just got too lost to do the work.

ANONYMIAL. Pp. 168-201.

There are actually 9 lovers for the narrator to deal with:

1. Euterpe
2. Polyhymnia
3. Tespsichore
4. Urania
5. Melpomene
6. Erato
7. Clio
8. Calliope

But he actually loves Merope, his wife, with whom he lived outside Mycenae.

So he writes the Anonymial, which apparently means 9 verses. “The trouble with us minstrels is, when all’s said and done we love our work more than our women.”

These “verses” do a double task:
1. The story itself.
2. Telling about story-telling.

I was especially taken by the period at the end of the story when he is isolated on an island yet finds meaning in being alone and doing his writing. Ah me, I wouldn’t want to be without Sally, but we sort of live like that as a couple! Living with our work like hermits.

Overall I enjoyed the stories very much. They were often challenging and at times I had no idea at all what Barth was talking about. Nonetheless, I am quite happy to have taken the time to read this collection.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu