A book of its time, wildly experimental on the edge of forms, flirting with an identity and abandoning it with glee and malice. This was fun stuff, and I recommend it.
John Barth describes his experimental amalgamation - I hesitate to use the word “collection” - as something of a novel, in its way. Though individual pieces stand alone as individual stories, once they are placed together they take on a new shape, of a novel-like-object, like mirrors joined together becoming a maze.
The story of Ambrose, then, is the arc of the whole. From the moment of conception, to his imprisonment in the funhouse and iterative imaginative ramblings, the “novel” tumbles through a series of ideas that form the life of the main character. Despite the clear narrative arc and a beginning that feels like a coming-of-age-as-an-artist novel, that coming-of-age is broken by the mirror maze, and the subsequent Grecian-themed short pieces that follow, re-imagining characters from Greek myth - especially from the era of the Trojan War.
Ergo, this is a short novel broken by an accidental entrapment of the mirror maze into Ambrose’s solipsism. Naturally, there is a larger metaphor in place, of the artist striving for a perfect union with something other, larger. He can never achieve it, truly, without destroying the self. Each story seems to have elements of self-creation and self-destruction, transformations. Menelaus is transformed by his jealous rage against what he discovers to be a cloud Helen, created by the Gods to taunt him - or so he believes… - and the poet of the Anonymaiad finds perfection of his art only when faced with pure negation on the island apart from his lover, his courtly intrigue. The very first story, of semen swimming upstream to some perfect union will be utterly decimated by union with the object of desire, the female egg.
As an in-between form - part novel, part collection - I wonder which form “won”, so to speak. When these two antagonistic forces are merged, does the work count - formally - as a collection or a novel? Barth, alas, does not get the final say in the matter. The story that, I think, best defines this in-between state is the Menelaiad, when Menelaus wrestles with Proteus, and experiences what might as well be a reflection of Ambrose’s fate, lost in the mirror maze. In this, the two conflicting works of art - novel, and short story collection - find a fragmented mirroring state, as if the reflection of Ambrose’s mind poured into the mirror maze also comes back into him.
As the creator of all these fanciful tales inside the maze, tricksy Proteus, constructing all the world around Menelaus as if creating a dream is Ambrose, blessing Menelaus with an imagined happy ending that will not arrive for Ambrose, lost in the maze.