This is John Barth’s “Life-Story” (in Lost in the Funhouse, 1968) as it approaches my work.

The protagonist, a writer, has become convinced of his fictional nature, and the third-person narrative that contains him presents continuous metatextual anxiety over the purpose of the story, its relationship to the protagonist, and hence the purpose of the protagonist. This anxiety finds expression in the tension of linguistic representation, and namely in the fluid exchange between grammatical and semantic fields. A sentence like the following:

“Through a lavender cascade of hysteria he observed that his wife had once again chosen to be the subject of this clause, itself the direct object of his observation” (p. 126)

threatens the destruction of the fictional world, but resists entirely dismantling it. The destruction here finds purchase in a rhyming malapropism (wisteria-hysteria), and this simultaneity of irreconcilable elements is maintained in a radical slicing through representation. Grammatically, “his wife” is indeed the subject of the clause in question, and yet that clause, and the one that follows, do not re-emerge onto the level of semantic representation. The wife is vertiginously stripped of inhabitable space, but saves herself from disintegrating altogether by maintaining agency: she has “chosen” to be there. The concluding part of the sentence names the central clause as the direct object of the protagonist’s observation, once again indicating a dizzyingly immediate relationship between a character and the language that creates him.

This unsteady interpolation of the telling and the told undercuts the both the conceit of the man and his wife, and the conceit of the language that supports it. The writer-protagonist finds himself inside and outside representation at once. The drive to conclude the story becomes a tussle for life or death, resolved only when the protagonist’s wife, oblivious to the fatal problem of representation, enters the scene and wishes him happy birthday:

“kissing him et cetera to obstruct his view of the end of the sentence he was nearing the end of, playfully refusing to be nay-said so that in fact he did at last as did his fictional character end his ending story endless by interruption, cap his pen.” (p. 129)

At the point of momentary equivalence between writer and character – the capping of the pen – each finally consents to the reality of his fictive world, and the juncture between the story and the telling of the story as a story ceases to be viable. The story is ended “endess”: it is not over, but nor does it remain a story.

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