Thoughts on John Barth’s Every Third Thought

As I browsed new books at my library, I had first and second thoughts about reviewing John Barth’s Every Third Thought. God, Barth again? Do I really want to? Do I really want to visit the floating enigma again? The man must be in his eighties. Well, shit, you’re and old fart, too; try him one more time. He’s teased you for years, why not once more?

So, I checked out the book, for reasons probably as inexplicable as my decision to write a Master’s thesis on Barth back in 1970. Oh, I’ve dabbled in Barth since then; but one cannot really dabble in this author any more than he can dabble in James Joyce — not if you are a just reader. I didn’t know this when my thesis adviser voiced some reservations about the use of my time. “Study Swift instead,” he said. But back then, I was an artist, too. We were all creative sophomores.

It’s a small book, but still capable of delivering moments of boredom as Giles Goat Boy delivered in spades. (I learned to like Giles.) And George Giles redeemed himself, just as G.I.N. did. After all, the Barthian experience is still an aesthetic one. In Barth there’s probably a reason for boring dear reader — just as Anastasia’s violent rape had its purpose in Giles. This latest story tells us about G. I. Newitt (G.I.N.) and his wife/muse Amanda Todd, an English professor, boys and girls exploring each other in the attic and somebody’s fascination with coincidental events linked to the number 77; the seasons, both calendar and philosophic. The surprise ending for the first time in my reading of Barth, brought me close to tears. Passion and sorrow amidst the meta-fictional caper make a very conventional statement in the work of this unconventional, original writer. Growing old is no caper.

What still remains in Barth are the auto-biographical hints, no sooner given than fused into some other purpose or effect. Who is John Barth and where is Barth’s Barth? Where has the Narrator gone now? The reader still knows that while he’s reading a masterpiece, he’s also captured by a master magician (Prospero?). There’s no breaking the Barthian code which a young graduate student thought he might do over forty years ago. Barth is a writer’s writer, assuredly and a determined reader’s rubik’s cube.

Read it, but if you read it, read it twice, thrice or more. As usual, Barth is no quick read.

Thank you, Professor Barth, for your floating enigmas,

David Milliken

 

 

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