A man and woman, probably late middle-aged and married, check into a tropical holiday resort for their last annual vacation. One of them is dying. The man begins telling stories to the woman, as he has promised to, in the unspoken hope of postponing the ending that will separate them. The book consists of the twelve stories he tells, interspersed with her responses to the stories. Each story is in some way about the same two things: about being half of a couple--about love, partnership, and the prospect of loss--and about narrative--about communication, the construction of meaning, and about the way all stories (and lives), sooner or later, must end.

Like their teller, though, these stories do their best not to reach closure. An example is the second story, "Ad Infinitum," in which a woman receives some bad news by telephone--we deduce it concerns her husband's cancer diagnosis--and goes out to where he is working in the garden in order to tell him the news. She has to cross the space of the garden before giving him the information that will change everything for the worse, beginning the end of his life and their marriage.

It occurs to her that the space she must cross can be infinitely extended if, as Zeno's paradox has it, she can keep halving the distance that remains before she reaches her husband (and thus the end of their story). This would infinitely suspend time in their story. And yet, as she walks, she also knows she WILL reach him . . . until the narrator intervenes by breaking into her thoughts and beginning another story, effectively enacting Zeno's theory of the arrow that keeps re-beginning its flight towards the target. Just as stories stave off death in the frame narrative, they seem able to keep this man happily and innocently gardening, in suspended story-time at least, forever.

In the last story, the narrator returns to all the others, pulling together their interconnected patterns and allowing each a kind of closure that, while it reiterates the storyteller's resistance to endings, his act of "beguiling" himself, his wife, and perhaps death itself, "with narrative possibilities still unforeclosed" (224), also reminds us that stories need to end in order to mean.


John Barth's postmodern experiments in narrative often take as a model the heroine of the 1001 Nights, Scheherazade, who kept herself from being murdered by telling stories to her captor. Here Barth connects the old storytelling with new theories of time and space. The fractals of Zeno's arrow and the infinite slipperiness of matter delineated by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle are played out in his characters' attempts to escape the limitations of biological time. "Are we waves or are we particles?" asks one character.

The ending that these stories postpone is nonetheless a physical certainty: the bodies in this book are dying (though never dead), of cancer, AIDS, drowning, old age, terrorist attacks, and more. What gives meaning to the postponed endings are the familiar formulae with which Barth names his stories: a couple may or may not be attacked by a lurking psychopath in "Ever After," a woman whose marriage is ending reads a story about a woman whose marriage is ending in "On with the Story," an elderly man's last words are the beginning of a new anecdote in "And Then One Day . . . " and the final couple reach the end of their tale in "Once upon a Time."

This would be an invaluable addition to conversations or classes about narrative in medicine.


Little, Brown

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