The narrators of John Barth's new book, like those in much of his fiction from the past twenty-five years, are all cut from the same hyperverbal cloth. At times, his work risks sounding as though it had been composed with the aid of a magnetic poetry set—albeit an extremely clever edition customized to Barth's inimitable lexicon. Some of these tics are syntactical ("his innocence, of which he was more than ready to be divested, was of an extent whereof he'd been innocently ignorant, excuse all those ofs"); others hinge on vocabulary (readers are defied to find a Barth work published in the last fifteen years that doesn't contain the phrase "faute de mieux"). What rescues the three novellas that constitute Where Three Roads Meet from being mere rearrangements of Barth's usual linguistic idiosyncrasies and recurring themes is the sense not only that is he refining his preoccupations—chief among them, tales and the tellers thereof—but also that, like a scientist, he is constantly testing his hypotheses, confirming that his understanding of the world remains valid.

Barth first began returning to past works with the epic epistolary novel Letters (1979), which took its cast of characters from the six volumes of fiction that preceded it. Likewise, by the midway point of "Tell Me," the opening novella of Where Three Roads Meet, Barth has already revisited a short story published in 1968 ("Night-Sea Journey," from Lost in the Funhouse), a talk he delivered in 1993 ("Ad Lib Libraries and the Coastline Measurement Problem: A Reminiscence"), and his 1994 "memoir bottled in a novel," Once Upon a Time. And as he did in Letters, Barth here weaves these familiar elements into a unique whole, another chorus in the extended jazz solo of his oeuvre. The narrator—as usual, a writer—struggles to tell the story of the best friend and mentor who guided him in his youthful discovery of his vocation and with whom he shared a lover. Barth's work always involves layers of narrative, and "Tell Me" is no exception, with the friend goading the narrator with corrections, comments, and admonishments, which reach a fever pitch at the novella's close: "Tell [our] Story over and over, damn it, till you get it right! Even after you get it right, if you ever do."

This command, fraught as it is with doubts and conditions, is the engine that drives the subsequent two novellas of the book, as well as Barth's entire project as an artist. This exhortation also reveals the core of what Where Three Roads Meet has to say: that although "the story of your life is not your life," we do "turn into the stories that we tell ourselves and others about who we are." These stories "[enjoy] or anyhow [live] serial lives, multiple simultaneous lives, lives resonant with avatars and reincarnations. . . ." And because the author is so meticulous in filling in every possible narrative gap, Where Three Roads Meet is not a forbidding read to the Barth novice; rather than rely on his previous writings, this slim volume contains them all.

 
     
     
 
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WHERE THREE ROADS MEET BY JOHN BARTH. NEW YORK: HOUGHTON MIFFLIN. 176 PAGES. $23.
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