John Barth is one of the most acclaimed postmodern and metafiction writers. Nominated for the National Book Award three times, he won for Chimera in 1973. For whatever reason, Barth
seems to have fallen out of fashion but continues to write at age 75.
Barth’s latest collection of three novellas, Where Three Roads Meet, characterizes his work - elliptical, irreverent and challenging. His interrelated thematic structure and mesmerizing diction engages readers. The title symbolizes the understanding that Oedipus gains when he learns his fate. Each of the stories contains symbols of roads, intersecting paths, lives taken and collisions.
In particular, Barth is so experienced of a storyteller that often readers cannot differentiate between the narrator and the narrative. Sometimes this is intriguing. At other times, readers may become frustrated and impatient because they are lost in Barth’s imaginative world. My advice is to try patience: his work is worth the effort.
Each of the stories becomes extremely compelling, especially by the middle. Barth’s technique, though convoluted at times, is just building
toward his finale. He is a musician playing his chords, rhythmically getting stronger until his melody and lyrics are in sync.
The first novella, “Tell Me,” depicts three college students, two men and one woman, as they form a ménage a trios. Their grouping is not only sexual by any means, as Barth illustrates through hip-hop dialogue. Rather, their intellectual and emotional connection bears a stronger weight than
mere sex. Each character is named Fred (Wilfred, Alfred, and Winifred), and they begin a jazz band, the Three Freds. Will later retells the events of their short time together and how it
Barth’s second novella, “I’ve Been Told: A Story’s Story,” starts as a dialogue between
two characters, Fred and Izzy, before launching into the actual story of Philip Blank. Barth intentionally chooses this name to compare this character to the world. Blank’s world is dull, ordinary, stable;
he is afraid of change and averse to commitment. But Barth narrates this novella in a manner that
compels readers to care about Philip and his consequences.
“As I Was Saying” retells the story of how three sisters work their way through college.
Sounds ordinary, but Barth spices it up a bit. The sisters are much older now and remember how they began working as call girls because they desperately wanted to earn their degrees.
If readers are new to Barth, they may be confused at first but also extremely satisfied. He is a wordsmith
to be reckoned with. The way he manipulates and molds his ideas into the novellas and creates an interlocking triad is masterful. In this particular work, he focuses on setting, and his influences were clearly his almas mater, John Hopkins and Penn State, where he later taught.
Barth is also the author of The Sot-Weed Factor, The Tidewater Tales, and
Lost in the Funhouse. Among his numerous honors are a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, an F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature, and a PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction.