Lucrative Lying

John Barth: The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction; G.P. Putnam’s Sons; New York
“For the writer intent on truth,” Solzhenitsyn observes, “life never was, never is (and never will be!) easy: his like have suffered every imaginable harass­ment—defamation, duels, a shattered family life, financial ruin or lifelong unrelieved pov­erty, the madhouse, jail.” Things are quite different for John Barth, the prominent “post-modernist” writer who calls himself a “professional liar.” Over the past two and a half decades, Barth’s lying has brought him honorary de­grees, invitations to symposia, a cushy creative-writing profes­sorship at Johns Hopkins.
All meaning for Barth issimply an imaginative construct with no absolute ontological grounding. Since the real world of fact is “devoid of ultimate meaning,” the fictionist must repudiate any sense of mimesis in his art, as he creates, ex nihilo, “not a view of the cosmos, but a cosmos itself.” At bottom, Barth concedes, his cosmos is a lie, but “my lies, at least, will be of professional caliber.” For most of Barth’s rewarding career this has meant creating lies that are “technically up-to-date,” with all the gee­gaws, anagrams, surrealism, leftist rant, cute punctuation, and pornography demanded by the fashionable avant-garde. However, not long ago Barth allowed as how, now that the “rigidities” of “bourgeois realism” had been brokenup,perhapspost-modernism could  reclaim some of its conventions. That is to say, now that modernism has corroded away all of the cognitive significance of traditional narration and made storytelling utterly hollow, now its tropes are fit vehicles for liars like himself. 

In this collection of essays and speeches, Barth offers us some of his nonfiction allies, though what the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is for a profes­sional liar is difficult to say. Certainly, Barth’s calls for nationalizing major industries, his paeans to the campus mad­ ness of the 60’s, and all of his other “stock-liberal sentiments” (as he calls them) would fit nicely in some fantasy novel. Barth did not have to tell us that he dropped out of graduate school because he had little “ability for abstract thinking and rigorous critical analysis” and was therefore “out of [his] intel­lectual depth.” Yet he has never let his intellectual limitations restrain his ambitions. His aim as a novelist is to create a fictional world “more orderly, meaning­ful, beautiful, and interesting than the one God turned out,” and he announces that if he were God he would startle and befud­dle “my theologians” with a “Boo!”

If Barth can turn himself into god on Friday, we hope he takes the weekend off.


That Old Magic

Nicholas Von Hoffman: Organized Crimes; Harper & Row; New York

A boring book on a worn-out theme (which has been exploited to exhaustion by countless books and movies) ineptly written by a singularly untalented writer. Ooops, the writer is one Von Hoffman, the chic radical with a German pseudoaristocratic prefix, a fixture in “progressive” journalism—in a phrase: the leftist Mr. Right.