John Barth, arguably the most didactic of modern writers, returns to short fiction in this shrewd, indelible (and maddeningly Barthian) book about a pair of vacationing "late-afternoon late-life lovers" who are "post-coitally lassitudinous and sweat-wet, skin to skin."
Leapfrogging from voice to voice, deftly weaving plots within plots, Barth spins "On With the Story" into a comically incisive meditation on love in life and literature by borrowing from Scheherazade and using the bedtime story as his vehicle. The couple in the novel -- who resemble Barth and his real-life spouse, a former student of his named Shelley Rosenberg -- tell each other tales while staying at their "last resort" (a phrase that, finally, deserves to remain a teasing secret). While the stories primarily explore the panorama of modern love -- its curious arrivals, its grim exits and its steadfast presence with this couple -- the book's autobiographical nature always hovers near the surface.
In one of the book's early chapters, for example, we're witness to a lecture by an unnamed professor before a gathering of students who are awaiting a "mystery guest." It's a chance for Barth to expand on his theories of story writing, in particular the need for solid, worthy endings. It's as good as a lecture at Johns Hopkins, with Barth charmingly (and testily) advancing the notion that a story's ending is a sign of whether "its author pays (or fails to pay) his narrative/dramatic bills."
Writing in a style that blends the unapologetically academic and the mischievously felicitous, Barth wields his intellect like a sword in "On With the Story." Yet his gifts for exploring the emotional terrain of the human condition are never dulled; they remain, like this remarkable book, vibrant and engaged.