uring the whole of a dull,
dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung
oppressively low, the Unknown had been passing together, on horseback,
through a singularly dreary tract of country
in Maryland, and at length found themselves, as the shades of the evening
drew on, within view of the melancholy house of John Barth. I know not
how it wasbut with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable
metafiction pervaded Dirks spirit. I say
insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved
by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which
the mind receives even the sternest natural images of storytelling or
the storyteller. We looked upon the scene before usupon the mere house,
with the boathouse and the gray sea behind itupon the bleak wallsupon
the vacant eye-like windowsupon a few rank marijuana plantsand upon
a few white trunks of decayed treeswith the utter depression of soul
which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the
afterdream of the reveler upon opiumthe bitter lapse into everyday lifethe
hideous dropping of the veil.
Dirk groaned and the horses neighed. We tied them onto the thing onto
which you tie horses so that they might lap at the trough of murky gray
water, and yet not prance away into the inky day, I forget what such a
thing is calledbut I remember that Barth had one, most convenientlythe
William said, So, this is Baltimore? and groaned as well.
Our asses were sore, as we were unaccustomed to riding horses. Scott groaned as well.
What of John Barth?
The spry old man ran up to greet us.
William paused to thinkwhat was it that so unnerved him in the contemplation of John Barth?
John Barth gave all high fives. He was bouncing about, chock full of energy.
It was possible, William reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, or the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression.
Hello, Mr. Barth, Scott said.
On with the story, Barth said, on with the story.
He evidently thought we were in Baltimore to play writing games. Hed prepared a list of them, and was quite anxious to play them with us, Before the end, we must play before the denouement, he said, referring, as he did so often that quite anxiety-ridden day, to all of experience as if it were a narratological experiment.
He tried to get us to do an exquisite corpse.
We were tired, and had no interest in anything so violent.
He tried to get us to write about the travels of a coin, from the coins perspective.
It felt facile and vacuous. William crumpled his page up and soon the other Unknown followed.
He tried to get us to write about the sea. He encouraged us to write from the point of view of a sperm, swimming.
William guffawed, and told Barth he knew nothing of politics.
A little liqueur, in medias res? Barth
said as he offered us some sickening melon concoction.
In better days, we would have had none of that. We would have smashed
the foul-smelling bottle to the floor and demanded Bookers. But
these were not better days, and as far as we could tell, there were no
other bottles in that wretched house. It was gut-wrenching, sugary-sweet
poison, it was like drinking medicine, suffering the taste of it, knowing
full well that it wouldnt do the job. We passed it around. Scott
held his nose.
I have had that for years, Barth said, as if it werent obvious to us, that bottle could tell a few stories.
Dirk tried to politely hint that we were tired, and in need of warm, dry, beds.
To the sea, then, am I right, men, some salty
air for what ails you, again we enter the archetypal epic of man and the sea,
aye? Barth said, and squinted his eye like a pirate.
We didnt want to be impolite. The guy had written like forty books, and we only had one hypertext novel, itself impossible to hold.
William vomited ten yards out from shore, and Barth called him a scurvy knave and said something about minding the topmast.
Scott said something about writers block, while Dirk tried and failed to write a poem about an albatross.
Writing is like following a wave, Barth
said, and he looked meaningful, even mournful, the story is the ripple
behind the wave, and we had no idea what he meant, and we are the
foam on the ripple. Then he laughed, and said, Ahoy maties, a squalls
coming in. The sea is all the stories wrapped in one, and he giggled, the
Chesapeake Bay is an encyclopedia, he was laughing at his own jokes, if
thats what they were, or perhaps this was the onset of some sudden madness,
the three of us trapped on a boat with him, Dirk vomiting now as well, a syrupy
green, and this boat, our little dinghy, this boat is a comma, and
Scott grew ill as well, globs of Midori projecting from his nose out onto the
deck, life is all punctuation, Barth said, profound now, deeper now, and
every ending is an ellipsis.