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John Barth: LETTERS

Of course, this is an epistolary novel but that’s like saying that The Sot-Weed Factor is an eighteenth century romance. Seven people write the letters – Jacob Horner from The End of the Road, Todd Andrews from The Floating Opera, Ambrose Mensch from Lost in the Funhouse, Andrew Burlingame Cook VI, descendant of Henry Burlingame of The Sot-Weed Factor, Jerome Bonaparte Bray, descendant of Harold Bray of Giles Goat-Boy, Germaine Pitt, Lady Amherst, Acting Provost of Marshyhope State University in Maryland and the author himself. Of course, those that appeared in the earlier novels have aged.

But, unlike the epistolary novels of old, these characters, in good pomo fashion, are generally aware they are characters in a novel and not real people. Moreover, while these characters do write to one another, they also write to others – deceased parents, an unborn child, an unknown person who sent a blank message in a bottle. But what we get, emerging in fits and starts, with witty asides, ramblings on what is reality (and what is not), discussions of Barth’s earlier novels, including by the characters in them, is another complicated plot, involving the War of 1812, machinations at Marshyhope State University, the filming of a Barth novel, the usual sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and all sorts of subterfuges, codes and intrigues. The poor characters – and they are both to be pitied and characters, not real people – struggle to find out what it is all about but, as in all Barth’s novels, there are no answers, only questions. Is there a code, a meaning, as Barth implies? Does the Burlingame family have the whole country sewn up in its intrigue? Is Mensch the archetypical hero, as he thinks? Will computers, history, bureaucracy save the world as the others believe. Hell, no. Or hell, yes. If you are looking for answers, neither you or the characters will find them here but if you want a riotous run through literature and history, then this is your novel.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Putnam