It's different for everyone, I know--the subtle somethings that win your confidence and hand you a lovely sense of relief (a cool breeze in locked room). Many have already written on Barth's particular brilliance and this tale's perfected melding of form and content (at least I imagine they have). But what struck me was the spot-on articulation of...this:
Strive as he might to be transported, he heard his mind take notes upon the scene: This is what they call passion. I am experiencing it.and
[...] he has...some sort of receivers in his head; things speak to him, he understands more than he should, the world winks at him through its objects, grabs grinning at his coat. Everybody else is in on some secret he doesn't know; they've forgotten to tell him.and
He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he's not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator--though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.But what is it? The chronic experiential detachment of... Whom? Writers who don't know they're writers? Over-analytical types? Artistically precise crazies who should all live on their own deserted islands? Emotionally constipated naturalists? Bicultural bookworms with nomadic tendencies?
There was some simple, radical difference about him; he hoped it was genius, feared it was madness, devoted himself to amiability and inconspicuousness. Alone on the seawall near his house he was seized by the terrifying transports he'd thought to find in toolshed, in Communion-cup. The grass was alive! The town, the river, himself, were not imaginary; time roared in his ears like wind; the world was going on! This part ought to be dramatized. The Irish author James Joyce once wrote. Ambrose M____ is going to scream.Sex and spirituality fail, while the ordinary sings loud and clear. Why are some like this? Why can't we be struck likewise? Why do I find cause for concern in the fact that it only happens sometimes--that I'm neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring?
Best ponder this:
When you're lost, the smartest thing to do is stay put till you're found, hollering if necessary. But to holler guarantees humiliation as well as rescue; keeping silent permits some saving of face--you can act surprised at the fuss when your rescuers find you and swear you weren't lost, if they do. What's more you might find your own way yet, however belatedly.Maybe it just means I'm an incorrigible reader.
(Art by Kozlov Nickolay: "Three". Indian ink on paper. 1995.)
UPDATE: Ed steps up...
I too want to give John Barth a huge hug. If I had been at AWP, I would have given John Barth a huge hug. He may have been weary of this. He may have thought me insane or a fanboy to be avoided at all costs. But in Barth’s case, the hug is necessary. I encourage you to read John Barth (particularly, The Sot-Weed Factor), so that you too can feel compelled to give John Barth a huge hug. I think more writers can really use huge hugs. If you know an author who hasn’t been hugged, please hug them. Or promise to hug them. Or if the writer is shy about hugs, hug someone else in the author’s presence and tell the writer, “You see, I would apply this affection to you, but I understand your position about hugs. And I have no wish to invade your personal boundaries. So perhaps you can live vicariously through this third party, who is also deserving of a hug for his own achievements.”