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The Art of Storytelling That All but Avoids the Telling : ON WITH THE STORY by John Barth; Little, Brown; $23.45, 272 pages


Alice, a divorced, downwardly mobile baby boomer on a cross-country flight, reads a story in her airline magazine. Oddly enough, it's fiction, and pretty sophisticated fiction at that. Titled "Freeze Frame," it tells of a woman whose troubles uncannily mirror her own.

Alice pauses in her reading and looks down from her plane at St. Louis' Gateway Arch just as the story's unnamed protagonist is caught in a traffic jam crossing the same Mississippi River and the author of "Freeze Frame" digresses from his narrative to discuss how stories in general differ from life.

In the seat next to Alice, a man who "looked to be maybe 20 years older than herself, same general eth and class, standard navy blazer khaki slacks open sport shirt lanky build graying hair nice tan easy smile," is about to admit, after preliminary chitchat, that he wrote "Freeze Frame."

In the story we are reading, however--the title story of this 12-story collection by John Barth--all we know so far is that Alice feels a "tiny voltage" of skin on skin as he passes her a plastic cup of wine.

"What do you think about this gimmick of hitting the narrative pause button," the man asks Alice playfully (as Barth asks us), "and smarting off about relative motion and Zeno's paradoxes? Is that any way to tell a story?"

Well, it is if you're Barth, the distinguished author who excelled at realistic storytelling even as he parodied it in "The Floating Opera" and "The End of the Road," constructed vast postmodern labyrinths in "Giles Goat-Boy," "The Sot-Weed Factor" and "Chimera," and toyed with the life-versus-art conundrum--telling stories in the act of seeming to avoid telling stories--in his previous short-story collection, "Lost in the Funhouse" (1968).

Our only surprise is that Barth is still beating this horse long after it went to the dog-food factory. That is, long after he and others of his generation made the world safe for stories that keep reminding us what an artificial thing a story is. They no longer amaze or outrage us. So what's the point here?

It turns out that Barth has an answer for us. This collection has the air of a valedictory, a summing up. The stories in "On With the Story" are not only thematically linked but also framed by another story. They are told by a middle-aged man to his wife during a "last resort" vacation. As in the "Arabian Nights," they seem to be a strategy for holding death at bay.

The framing story shows us Barth at his most arch and irritating. The framed stories, though, are full of life as well as cleverness--Barth's saving grace. They concern--though they may not actually be about--sailing, storms, the creative process, AIDS, academia, cancer, the "Duct-Tape Rapist," parenthood, sex, food, the Bahamas, the extermination of Iraq's Marsh Arabs by Saddam Hussein, and love both endangered and fulfilled.

What are they about, then? Quantum physics. The way humankind's irresistible urge to turn lives into stories mirrors the wave/particle duality of matter, the very structure of the universe. Fix something's position--treat it as a particle, make up a story about it--and it loses its wavelike momentum, ceases to be life. Focus on its momentum, on the other hand--on life's ceaseless flux--and we lose track of exactly where it is. No story.

OK, this is an oversimplification. But Barth is clearly saying here that his so-called cleverness is actually an attempt to get as close to reality as he can. It's not "smarting off"; it's more like a religion.

In "Ad Infinitum," a woman gets a life-pulverizing phone call--about a child's death? We never know--while, through a window, she watches her husband puttering in the garden. She puts the phone down and walks outside to tell him the bad news.

In Zeno's paradox about Achilles and the tortoise (which flashes through her mind), the fleet runner will never catch the slow one. In real life, of course, he will. The woman wishes that the moment when her husband, too, will be shattered, could be put off indefinitely. She can't do this, crossing the lawn in the life that the story gives her, but Barth, telling the story with all kinds of freeze-frame narrative tricks, can--and does.

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