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Return of the Old Avant Garde

Barth leads the charge for PoMo pioneers


It is time, once again, for someone to speak the truth about John Barth. Since his debut novel, The Floating Opera, and its companion piece, The End of the Road, Barth's writing has remained among the most challenging and distinctive artifacts of American post-modernity. Now, more than 40 years later, and leaving aside the question of what exactly constitutes the post-modern condition, it's enough to establish that Barth, during the 60s and 70s, emerged as the pre-eminent figure in a group of fine novelists which included Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, William H. Gass, and the late Joseph Heller and William Gaddis. Yes, there were others, but these were -- and are -- the mandarin elite.

Of course, as with all revolutions, the stylistic vogue has shifted variously away from and then again toward these writers' works. And it is the nature of the business that each has found himself celebrated and condemned, now essential, now forgotten, then suddenly rediscovered and in some instances, re-rediscovered, recontextualized and repackaged for the hip-hop generation.

But none among them has been as productive nor as consistently inventive nor as wildly misunderstood as Barth. His novel Coming Soon!!! (for which readers waited 10 years while he published a memoir, a book of essays and a collection of short stories) is as fascinating and engaging a project as one could hope for from a novelist half Barth's age.

Indeed, Coming Soon!!! explores the tenuous relationships between young writers of the new avant-garde who wish to displace the emeritus masters of the old avant-garde, who still have much to say and write. And certainly, a novelist of Barth's intellectual disposition wants to expose the equivocation in, and irrelevance of, a term like avant-garde -- insofar as it describes anything of interest, that thing is surely more interesting than the term itself. Thus are language and life fused in the Barthian universe where stories of lives and actual lives are woven through the same skein of imaginative experience.

It is superficially true that Coming Soon!!! is a difficult novel. Having, as it does, labyrinthine plots and counterplots, complex, even incomprehensible narrative voices, a principal character modeled after Barth himself, to say nothing of long disquisitions on sailing, lovemaking, and the metaphysics of storytelling. It is nonetheless a magnificent display of technical mastery and ebullient love for the novelistic art.

The literary theorist Roland Barthes observes that a writer has nothing to say, only a way of speaking. Taking together this wise admonition and John Barth's sophisticated, comic humanity, it's undisputable that with Coming Soon!!!, a great old genius has re-arrived.

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