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Paperback Letters Book

ISBN: 1564780619

ISBN13: 9781564780614


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Format: Paperback

Condition: Very Good

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Book Overview

A landmark of postmodern American fiction, "Letters" is (as the subtitle genially informs us) "an old time epistolary novel by seven fictitious drolls and dreamers each of which imagines himself factual." Seven characters (including the Author himself) exchange a novel's worth of letters during a 7-month period in 1969, a time of revolution that recalls the U.S.'s first revolution in the 18th century - the heyday of the epistolary novel. Recapitulating...

Customer Reviews

3 ratings

It's chock-full of words

Letter writing is, for the most part, a lost art. In these days of e-mail and text messaging and instant messaging and cell phones, all communication has sped up to the point where we're just dashing off spurts of words to each other, dashing off the thoughts and leaving before we really have any time to ponder over what we wrote. This isn't a new thing, as technology has improved over the years, it's not necessary any more to put pen to paper to share your thoughts with someone. And yet, at the same time, it's fundamentally different than any other form of communication that we have. It's not so much the method as the process, the act of sitting there in front of the blank sheet of paper and organizing yourself, getting down everything you need to say and saying it just so, because you're not going to get an instant response. And then getting the response and poring over it, figuring out how to reply and add and expand. In this fast paced world, we don't really take the time anymore and being born after the heyday of letter writing (whenever that was, I know it's not now), I miss that. There's an intimacy to it that other forms don't have, that's different somehow. John Barth, being a writer, understands that, and in this novel he brings back that art for a brief time, with fictional characters. Basically, he takes several people from his early novels and has them all starting to write to each other, and to him, their letters and experiences directing the plot. And what starts out as what could be a too-cute literary trick winds up being extremely revealing, as the characters pour themselves into the letters, regardless of whom they're writing to, as the plot skips and slips through time. On one level it acts as a sequel to those early novels, continuing their stories and although it's not really required to read those books, I'm not going to pretend it doesn't help. The best thing to do would be to read those old novels in one block and then move onto this . . . I read them some years ago so I was a little fuzzy on the finer points. But I picked it up. But Barth captures the voices of his old characters well and even if you didn't know who was writing what letter, you could tell. And thus they tell the recepient, and us, about their hopes and fears, they mingle together, they lie, they come unglued, and by the end you sort of get a tapestry of their thoughts. There's a plot weaving through here but sometimes it becomes hard to connect it with six different people discussing different angles of it with you, but I just went with it and enjoyed the writing for what it was. Some of the writers are better than others (Germaine's are uniformly good, Bray's are funny and nuts, especially how it keeps resetting, Andrews, written to his dead father, as strangely touching . . . only Burlingame's left me cold, with the long history lessons) and for the life of me I can't figure out why this book is seven hundred pages. But there's a defin

One book you really got to work your way up to.

I never heard of any epistelary novels until I read this one. Imagine a book consisting of letters amongst the diverse characters from the author's other novels. Technically, we are advised, it is not essential to have read these other books in advance, but for all intents it would seem a moderately strong expectation. It helps that the books that one must read, Barth's early masterpieces, are of such genius as to take up a whole corner of the best of modern literature showcase. And if you are lucky enough to have stumbled onto Letters after already working through all the rest, than you can bask in the glow of the misconception that you are amongst some lucky few whose devotion to the writer has earned unexpected reward. For this is a truely stunning piece of work, more elaborate than Vlad's Pale Fire, and more satisfying than anything this side of Pynchon. At his best, Barth had few peers.

Like the tide, Barth's stories cleanse and refresh our life

I suppose it is inevitable that, as the post-war boomers approach the big six-zero over the next decade, we will see a tidal flood of tender, soul-searching narratives. Boomers want to understand rather than simply experience life, and most have been frustrated by life's refusal to obey our expectations. John Barth seems to have made such soul searching his life work, and I seem to have followed him book for book, life experience by life experience over the years. A clever "academic" writer (read: "he writes like a dream but his wit sometimes overwhelms the story"), Barth has addressed boomer experience and frailty . Seeming to be five to ten years ahead of boomers, his books have ranged from the tragedy resulting from a terribly botched abortion (long before we openly spoke of this horror), through the visionary and usually misguided quest of the idealist (Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goatboy), the terrible pain of realizing one is an adult (the clever but exhausting Letters), to more leisurely and accessible mid-life reassessment as protagonists take "voyages" on the emotional seascape of middle age (Sabbatical, Tidewater Tales, Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, Once upon a Time...). Each five years or so, I eagerly await his newest offering, devour it, and then feel frustrated when his literary games seem to detract from his story. But, then, each time I realize (as if for the first time), the essential nature of his writing. Like the age-old games from which his writings spring (the quest/redemption stories of the Iliad and Oddessy, the "doomed" prophet stories of the Old and New Testaments, the mistaken identity games of Shakespeare and thousands of authors since, and the metaphor of story as voyage and voyage as growth from Chaucer, 1001 Nights, etc), Barth plays his games to remind us that the act of story telling *is* the experience, it *is* the reason we read: the experience of hearing ghost stories around the camp fire remains with us long long after we have forgotten the actual story. And then I remember that, as a reader, I have no more "right" to expect neatness and closure in a Barth story than I have the right to expect neatness and closure in my own life. Try as we might, our own work, our own story is always in progress. And like Barth's beloved Tidewater, the ebb and flow of our own story defies our attempt to capture to master it. In the end, life and Barth's stories remain as delightfully cleansing as the tide itself. KRH
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