From Publishers Weekly
Teller, tale, torrid (and torpid) inspiration: Barth's 17th book brings these three narrative "roads" together inimitably, and thrice. It employs all of his familiar devices—alliteration, shifts in diction and time, puns ("Leda lays egg, Egg hatches Helen, Helen lays Paris, Paris lays waste to Troy")—to tease and titillate, while at the same time articulate—obliquely, sadly, angrily, gloriously—a farewell to language and its objects: us. The first of three lightly linked novellas, "Tell Me," introduces the three Freds: Alfred, Winifred and Wilfred, post-WWII collegemates who play jazz together, talk frankly and joustingly into the night, and form two alternating pas de deux. One particular set of exchanges sets the course of Wilfred's career; the whole story is a look back by him, a near lifetime later, at the before and after of that moment. The second piece, "I've Been Told," presents a hero's tale that speaks in the first person (the story itself is the narrator)—"that story c'est moi
guys, and here's how I go, now that I've got myself cranked up and more or less under way"—and puns endlessly. (It also has Freds). The third, "As I Was Saying," uses the title's participle to riff on writing's eroticism: its three sisters, unreliable narrators all, use a Krapp's Last Tape
–type conceit to tell of the sexual maelstrom of their adult lives, within which an infamous, Barthian novelist (Manfred F. Dickson Sr.) wrote. Wrote?The story ends in a mix of the past, present and future progressive: "As I was saying..." (Nov. 21)
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In these three novellas, the irreverent master of verbal pyrotechnics shows off his literary chops; indulges in his obsessions with the heroic archetype, the number three, and the letter Y
; engages in a good deal of truly funny self-mockery; and anticipates and undercuts readers' reactions to his writing. He also seems highly amused at his own ability to try his readers' patience to the breaking point. The first novella, "Tell Me," concerns a menage a trois among undergraduates, one of whom is an author in the making, during the 1950s; bandmates and lovers of the arts, the three engage in lively wordplay and erotic adventures. In "I've Been Told," the "Wandering Hero" ("you can just call me Fred") exhibits symptoms of "encroaching old--fartity" as he discusses the purposes of storytelling and thumbs his nose at his "sweetly disappointed but dramaturgically fulfilled savvy Readers." In "As I Was Saying . . . ," a disgraced writer's three muses are revealed to be a trio of randy sisters who earned their college tuition by working as prostitutes. The novellas are aimed squarely at Barth devotees; the rest of us, befuddled and bemused, can only shake our heads at an old wisenheimer who seems to be laughing up his sleeve. Joanne WilkinsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved