Volume 73, Issue 26
April 26, 2002

John Barth gives energetic reading

Shane Brill

Fireworks exploded inside Hynson Lounge Wednesday afternoon. That is, celebrated metafictionist John Barth dazzled several dozen spectators with literary pyrotechnics.

He prefixed his reading with the chronological breakdown of his subsequent presentation, outlining events by the minute.

Barth opened with a colorful piece about "The place of place in fiction," a short essay inspired by a debate of professional literati who had argued whether writers can be defined by the location of their stories.

"Setting has become an authorial trademark," Barth explained. He then illustrated the absurdity of the debate with examples of regional writers and those who meandered through different settings.

"The evocation of place has become an end in itself. Place suggests the theme and vice versa."

As for his writing, Barth noted that although he didn't limit his stories to a specific locale, "The tidewater land of Maryland has been my muse's home."

He elaborated, "My muse mumbles at me like one of those vintage Hollywood monsters that prompt Fay Ray: 'I think it's trying to tell us something.'"

The audience didn't have to wait for his muse's manifestation in his latest novel, Coming Soon!!!

Defying convention as usual, he chose a "comic apocalyptic title, hyping at hype--a mock apocalypse."

Coming Soon!!! tells the story of the Chesapeake Floating Theatre, a quixotic project about a dilapidated military barge that portrays "The end of the 'word' as we know it."

He introduced the audience to the genderless narrator of the novel, who called attention to her/his sexual ambiguity with a love scene involving a (another?) man. Throughout his reading, he flashed visuals to the audience as they related to the tale: signs, photographs, and a computer disk bundled in three ziplock bags, as to stay dry in the watery domain of "Hick Finn," the imaginary setting of the story.

His distinct style of writing plays off expressions and epigrams, his wit curling beneath his words to uplift them.

Barth attributes his compositional approach to a hangover from aspirations to become a jazz musician. With the spirit of an orchestrator, he is "an arranger at heart."

As a masterful "arranger," he prefers the "metabolism of the novel instead of the short story." Poetry is an area where Barth dabbles purely for fun, composing work that is "Deliberately doggerel--it's great fun to make up verse."