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  I reread John Barth's second novel, The End of the Road, last week, looking for traces of my own far-off inspiration; I'd first read the book six years earlier, before starting As She Climbed Across the Table, and I recalled it as an influence without particularly remembering how it had influenced me. Or exactly how much. Rereading it I was struck by how much I'd forgotten in almost every sense--the tone and texture of the book, as well as the plot, and how deeply it had reached into me and shaped the fiction I was about to write.

Meaning to set a novel on a college campus, I'd undertaken that year to read as many novels with academic settings as I could stand. That's what led me to The End of the Road. Thus, because it was read as a part of the 'research' on settings, I'd falsely recalled that the influence of Barth's book was mainly on the setting of Table (pun half-intended). In fact, the campus setting of Road is almost incidental to the book, and seems anyway not to have infiltrated mine. My campus is instead indebted to Don DeLillo's in End Zone and White Noise, and to Malcolm Bradbury's in The History Man (especially the parties). While on this subject I suppose I should note that the campus in my book stems at least a little from direct observation--I'd been a student at Bennington, in Vermont, and I was then living a few blocks from the university in Berkeley, California, and both got into the book. (How this patchwork coheres, or whether it does, I have no idea.)

No, Barth's influence is much more fundamental--in fact it seems strange to me now that I could have even felt I had a book to write, as opposed to a scrap of plot and a few conceits, before reading Road. So much of my book transmutes Barth's that it's a little scary. The current Anchor edition, which pairs the book with Barth's first novel, The Floating Opera, also contains a gently brilliant foreword where Barth gives away most of the plot, so I won't feel too bad about doing the same here: The End of the Road's narrator, Jacob Horner, takes a job at Wicomico State Teachers College and is immediately befriended by an exuberant, willful married couple, Joe and Rennie Morgan. Before long, Jacob begins an affair with Rennie, and the love triangle, which will not resolve happily for anyone, takes center stage in the novel.

Takes center stage, that is, to the extent that center stage is not already permanently occupied by Jacob's voice, a voice brilliantly fatuous, self-deprecating and pompous in turns, a voice that might be insufferably wry and smug were it not for the precision and knowingness of its observations, and for the thread of tragic foreshadowing that runs through it. Conversely, the tragedy of the book's ending might be unbearable if it weren't for the deflationary dryness of Jacob's tone.

When I started Table, this voice had a powerful hold on me. Barth had shown me a way to write a book about lost love that wasn't at odds with either the philosophical fable about identity I hoped to write or the goofy comic gambits I, being myself, was foredoomed to undertake along the way. If I could capture some of the freshness and flexibility of this voice, I might stand a chance of juggling all the elements I wanted to incorporate. And so I started.

Now imagine my delight when I read the following in Barth's new foreword:

"I discovered by happy accident the turn-of-the-century Brazilian novelist Joaquim Machado de Assis... Machado, himself much under the influence of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy--taught me something I had not quite learned from Joyce's Ulysses and would not likely have learned from Sterne directly, had I happened to have read him: how to combine formal sportiveness with genuine sentiment as well as a fair degree of realism."

Hot dog! Here was Barth, six years after providing the influence that freed me to try writing my novel, coming along again just when I needed him with an example of how to speak with unabashed excitement about that influence. What's more, Barth seems to be crediting Assis with precisely the assist (hmmm) I'd received from Barth! One moment I'm tiptoing around my debt to a living American novelist, the next my head is swelling with the realization that I can now claim, albeit in a sort of six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon way, a gene-splice of Tristram Shandy for my poor book.

There's more. Both books center on love triangles, but our narrators occupy different legs of those figures. Jacob Horner intrudes on Joe Morgan's marriage and woos Rennie away, but Table's Philip Engstrand is contentedly living with Alice when he begins to lose her to the 'embodied' black hole, Lack. Barth's Jacob Horner is characterized by a certain slipperiness: he refuses to cohere, to take one or another rather than both ends of a given argument, to be consistently seducer or seduced, rival or friend, confident or pathetic. Which is to say, as much as Jacob became my narrator, Philip, he's also similar, in his indeterminacy, to Lack. Jacob is without firm opinions or attitudes, and Lack is without form or substance, or qualities of any kind.

I took Barth's metaphor, in other words, and made it ludicrously concrete. This is a habit, I'm afraid--I have a tremendous difficulty leaving metaphors metaphorical. So my Philip Engstrand and Barth's Joe Morgan share the dilemma oflosing a woman to a rival who refuses to provide any fixed identity to hate, compete with, or understand.

Just this morning I found this, near the beginning of Road:

"... I drove out to the college, parked unhesitatingly in the front doorway, and walked through the main entrance. The steps happened to be uninhabited, but no reception committee could have daunted me that day. My mood had changed."

Hearing echoes, I flipped open my galleys. From Chapter One of Table:

"... as I approached the entrance, double doors of scratched plexiglas, I felt immune. No immensity was enough to dwarf me... So I stepped inside. The facility was made of bland slabs of concrete, as if to refute the hyperactive instability of the atomic world... The floor thrummed slightly. The facility might have been a giant ventilation system, and I a speck or mote. But I had my target. I walked undaunted."

Wow. That's about enough. I'm putting The End of the Road back on the shelf now...
 

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Copyright © 1997 Jonathan Lethem.