On Columbus Day, 1992, John Barth sets sail on his tenth novel-length voyage, journeying back through the events of his life aboard "a meany, sturdy, shoal-craft cutter" christened the US. He gets lost, explores tangled visions of his past, and grows increasingly disoriented by his own reflections.
Meanwhile back in 1990, an anterior John Barth remains at home penning the adventures of his own voyage across the time it takes him to complete this book. Barth A, the writer, is hurrying across the years to catch up with Barth B, the character. And in the meantime, he crosses many seas of story.
Like all the fiction Barth has produced in a remarkable career spanning 40 years, Once Upon a Time is about writing books. In other words, you are supposed to get lost in his intricate, myriad reflections on the act of writing, otherwise there's no fun in finding your way out again. As Barth writes: "The mother of all fiction, reader, is surely our common sense that our lives are stories - more exactly that each of our lives is a story-in-progress whereof each of us is perforce the central, if not neces sarily the dominant, character." In other words, as Barth sees it, people can never "know themselves". They can only invent the possibilities of who they might be.
Once Upon a Time is, as Barth calls it, "a memoir bottled in a novel" or "a story of my life but by no means the". In the course of it, Barth recalls those patterns of memory which have informed his fiction for the past five decades. Growing up as a twinon the Choptank River of East Cambridge, Maryland, working his way through Johns Hopkins as a jazz musician, marrying young, lauching himself into the academic life, and writing his first books: The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, and the long exhilarating 17th-century picaresque pastiche The Sot-Weed Factor.
Although Once Upon a Time is more fiction than fact (and for Barth all facts are just more stories waiting to be told) one truly intimate glimpse of Barth emerges in its writing: the always obsessive author composing his books in the same binder every morning with the same pen year after year after year.
Like other meta-fictionists before him - Nabokov or Calvino, say - Barth is something of a control-freak. He'd rather manipulate readers with fantastic tales than expose his true self to somebody else's manipulation.
Once Upon a Time succeeds as a story, but not as a life; and that's deliberate. Barth is not forthcoming about the breakdown of his first marriage or the children he raised or the people he's known. About the closest he comes to a confession in this: "I'm short of thoughtfulness, empathetic sensitivity, tact, subtlety, interest in others . . . I am decidedly self-centered". Maybe it qualifies as a confession; but by this point in the book it doesn't qualify as a surprise.
For five decades now, John Barth has been one of America's premier literary fabulators and it's hard to imagine contemporary British fiction (Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, Salman Rushdie) without him. Because his fictions tend to make much of their own foolery, they are often unfairly regarded as slightly obtuse. On the contrary, though, everything Barth has ever written is filled with fable, sex, magic, comic-opera and more plot twists than you can shake a plot-twist at. He is not thesort of author who wants to be remembered for who he was, but for what he wrote. He will be.