Two-thirds of the way through Every Third Thought, John Barth has his central characters, the married couple of George Irving Newett and Amanda Jean Todd, allude to some lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
As Scene I ends, Prospero mentions his plan to “retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave.”
These lines arise in the context of George’s reminiscences of his childhood friend Ned Prosper who had a habit of saying “On second thought…” and “On third thought….” and who died (or, at least, disappeared) at the age of 24 while still working on (or, at least, talking about) his Great American Novel-in-progress which may, as George ruminates, have been a fictitious fiction. No manuscript was ever found.
“Aiaiai!” as George says at several points in this 2011 novel. (I am pretty sure it is pronounced “aye-yi-yi.” But maybe not.) Prospero/Prosper, indeed!
Wordplay and thoughtplay
The foregoing indicates the extent to which Every Third Thought is about wordplay and thoughtplay.
This is not a “grave” narrative in the sense of somber. But much of it runs along the edges of and, at times, deep into the contemplation of death.
After all, there is that disappearance of Ned which still itches at George more than half a century later. And the total destruction (described in Barth’s 2008 short story collection The Development of the Newett-Todd home and much of the rest of the Heron Bay Estates gated community in exurbia Maryland, resulting in the deaths of another older couple.
And, well, by the end of the tale on October 21, 2008 (or thereabouts), George is 79 and Amanda is 65.
When George recalls Ned’s penchant with Last Things (“Last ride on our dumb old junior bikes…” “Last week of vacation…” “Last time you’re gonna see me in these stupid corduroy knickers and kneesocks!”), his thoughts naturally swing to Last Words.
Still, there is much more emphasis throughout this novel on play than on grave.
The Reader (as the George, the Narrator, addresses that person) is never quite sure what’s going on because, ostensibly, George doesn’t either.
Ostensibly, these pages are a kind of a running draft of George’s attempt to write something which evolves in an odd way. George writes that the thought of diehard leaves that hang on to their tree branch through a winter…
…put Narrator to mind of the few-not-yet-discarded leaves of Every Third Thought: the title originally of his lost friend’s lost novel, then of G.’s attempted but soon-abandoned memoir of its author, next (“on Second Thought”) of his likewise abortive effort somehow to reimagine and recreate that novel itself, and finally — surely finally, on Third Thought! — of…what?
George’s mind games seem to twist him into not-unpleasant knots. And any Reader who fails to be discombobulated as well simply isn’t paying attention.
E.g. — as George completes sections of the work, he shows them to Amanda (first Reader), and their give-and-take then becomes part of the work. Thus, some of what is on the pages is George’s memories; some, his reconstructions; some, reportage; some, sudden visions; and some, Amanda’s editorial comments and George’s responses.
George, it should be noted, is a minimally accomplished novelist and short story writer (one novel long out of print, a few stories in a few small literary journals), and Amanda is, similarly, a rarely published poet. Both have earned their money, built up their pensions and made what marks they’ve made in the world as teachers of creative writing at a small liberal arts college.
Their marriage has been childless although, with bitter or bittersweet humor, they have privately joked on occasion about “Son in St. Louis and Daughter in Detroit” (or other alliterative places).
[George] still published the occasional short story in this or that quarterly, and was reluctantly adjusting to composition for its own sake and a readership essentially of two. As he had foretold or forewarned, the couple’s scribblings were their only offspring. That the “parents” would be those scribblings’ all-but-only readers had not been by him foreseen: a state of affairs less easily accommodated by a would-be novelist, perhaps, than by a late-twentieth-century poet.
(“Composition for its own sake” — isn’t that what this blog post is?)
As George relates, it’s nonetheless been, for him and Amanda, a fulfilling life together. A comfortable existence — now a retirement for George, and a soon-to-be-retirement for Amanda. Frequent travels to interesting places. Playful conversations on subjects of shared interest. Little friction. A satisfying (aside from professional disappointments) life together.
George, it should be noted, is a figment of John Barth’s. He is a literary plaything for Barth, a giant of Post-Modernism who has published some 17 novels and short-story collections over a career that’s already spanned 57 years. (It’s also worth noting that it’s arbitrary in many ways to call a Barth fiction a novel or a collection since, in many of his novels, his characters spend most their time telling stories.) Not for him “composition for its own sake.”
In The Development, George ostensibly wrote a story about his inter-actions with one of his students that may have been — probably was, certainly wasn’t — written by the student herself. But, of course, both were figments of Barth’s imagination.
The Reader can’t read Every Third Thought without realizing that, as much as the Narrator brings the Reader on the inside of his writerly process, it’s all just a trick. And, as half a century of success has shown, Barth’s Readers like to be tricked in this way.
Amid all the play and puzzling — I haven’t even touched on the solstice-equinox or the fall-fall mind boggles, among many others — the Reader comes to know George and Amanda as real people. Of course, not real. But real in the sense that the Reader has spent a lot of time with them, traveling with them in a road of discovery or semi-discovery. Or, at least, search. A pleasant journey.
And then comes Barth’s wallop!
This wallop is the antithesis of the sort of surprise ending that is epitomized in O. Henry’s short story Gift of the Magi.
It grows directly out of the life the Reader has shared with George and Amanda, and it was even foreshadowed in the experience of another couple in The Development.
Or maybe it wasn’t.
Maybe the wallop isn’t.
It’s a testament to Barth’s still-high skill that he’s able to literarily hit the Reader over the head and yet leave the Reader wondering if it really happened.
For Barth the Trickster, this isn’t a trick.
Any Reader who fails to be affected by what George writes (what Barth writes) in the final pages of this novel just hasn’t been paying attention.
Patrick T. Reardon