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Recursion, Supplementarity, and the Limits of Subjectivity in John Barth’s “Menelaiad”

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“Menelaiad,” an experimental short story from John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, consists of a series of multiply nested narratives in which each layer recursively generates the next, chronologically earlier one. The story presents narrative and memory as supplemental processes that look back in time to recover or replace a lost moment of presence and completion. Barth suggests these supplements are imperfect and self-defeating means of recapturing the past, however, as they further separate the narrator from his tale’s irretrievable origins. The story structures human subjectivity along similarly self-deferring lines, portraying the self not as an essential whole but as a sequence of narrative supplements organized around an absence that no supplement can redress. Paralleling contemporary developments in poststructuralist theory yet not inspired by, beholden to, or even necessarily aware of them, “Menelaiad” delivers an original illustration of the recursive and supplemental processes that, Barth believes, define and demarcate the human subject.

Affiliations: 1: Department of English, Howard University Washington, DC 20059, Email:


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