Grandmaster Flesh


John Barth and Gabriel García Márquez’s newest don’t rank with their best, though the septuagenarian grandmasters probably aren’t sweating it. In Where 3 Roads Meet and Memories of My Melancholy Whores, it’s their self-possession that’s so intriguing.

Penning novellas is ballsy. As Barth writes in the 3 Roads triad, a novella’s “a story too long to sell to a magazine and too short to sell to a book publisher.” The supremely productive Baltimorean exudes meta-experimentation—just last year he published a post-Chimera Scheherazade cycle with a 9-11 frame.

Or perhaps brevity sprouted from necessity. Memories is García Márquez’s only fiction in a decade, the first since he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. The Colombian diviner’s fallow period hardly looms thanks to his mythmaking memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, which was spiked with enough hits of magic realism to buzz the regulars. Still, surfacing sans multigenerational masterpiece will bum book clubs jonesing for One Hundred More Years of Solitude.

Why brevity? Memories‘ narrator states: “It is a triumph of life that old people lose their memories of inessential things.” Which reads like reasoning for distillation. (Or as in Gaddis’s Agape Agape, manic compression.) Barth riffs mightily on “geezers” and explains, roundabout, the task behind his own newbie: “Tell the [story] over and over, damn it, till you get it right! Even after you get it right, if you ever do.”

His addiction to jotting “Just One More before the narrative bar shuts down for keeps” can lead to tedium, but the reps also point to a captivatingly pure denouement. Thus 3 Roads has a “peekaboo story-about-storying,” in which a “beat-up” three-wheeler called “The Dramatic Vehicle” runs out of gas.

García Márquez rolls up his narrative sleeves for an unnamed, horse-faced cable editor, columnist, and confirmed bachelor equipped with the “tool of a galley slave.” Called “Don Scholar,” in his youth he stranded a woman at the altar because “whores left [him] no time to be married.” He began keeping a list of lays at age 20, and by the time he’s 50, there are 514 names—no Wilt Chamberlain, but not too shabby. (García Márquez lived in a brothel when he was younger and wrote a column for El Heraldo—no word on the other details.)

Slowing down as he enters his 10th decade, he resurrects his whoring after a period of an “erratic” rereading of the classics and digging into his “private programs of concert music.” Ergo, he phones his favorite brothel and requests a virgin; against odds, the shrewd madam—a particularly enjoyable character—finds one. The girl’s 14, works in a button factory, has good skin, sleeps through their “dates.” Smitten, Scholar names her after the folk character Delgadina, a king’s youngest daughter “wooed by her father,” and turns his traditional newspaper columns into “love letters that all people could make their own.”

In the past, García Márquez conjured “false memories,” but here there are false futures. As his narrator posits, “the adolescents of my generation, greedy for life, forgot in body and soul about their hopes for the future until reality taught them that tomorrow was not what they had dreamed, and they discovered nostalgia.”

Besides tantrums and Luddite prissiness, the narrator’s likable. At an office party for his 90th, he gets a cat adoption certificate; giggling secretaries give him “three pairs of silk undershorts printed with kisses, and a card in which they offer to remove them.” His response: “[A]mong the charms of old age are the provocations our young female friends permit themselves because they think we are out of commission.”

As Barth reminds us, a story (and therefore its author) ends only when finished. If he were to stop typing, his current syllabus would possess a lovely arc between Where 3 Roads Meet and his 1956 debut, The Floating Opera. Both include idealistic love triangles spoken of in musical terms and resulting in whodunit pregnancies. Here at the center of “Tell Me” is well-hung Will, a jazz drummer (like Barth himself) who wants to be a composer, and then an arranger, but who turns out to be a writer. (Barth has rung changes on these themes time and again—for starters, see The End of the Road.)

3 Roads‘ other pieces are Beckettian bits: “I’ve Been Told: A Story’s Story” is an Endgame standoff between story, teller, reader, and author; “As I Was Saying . . . ” is sorta Krapp’s Last Tape cock-talk among three old sisters, a/k/a the Gracious Masons, his muses, who retell their overlap with Manfred F. Dickson Sr., the once controversial author of the forgotten novel trilogy The Fates. In lieu of plot recounts, it’s truer to Barth to create a flowchart of “threes”—Goldilocks, trivia, Dante, fertilization, Oedipus’s beat-down, “Y” as female genitalia, and the book’s title. In García Márquez we have a retired john returning to the game monogamously; this John, too, remains true to his obsessions, unwilling, just yet, to call the whole thing off.

Brandon Stosuy’s anthology of Downtown New York literature, Up Is Up, But So Is Down, is forthcoming from NYU Press.