I suspect that anyone writing a review of a John Barth book is tempted to Barth Barth.
Which is to say, to try to be as inventive and witty and playful and erudite and literary and subtle as Barth is.
Which is to say, is tempted to certain failure.
From his third novel The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) to his 17th book-length work of fiction Every Third Thought (2011), Barth has caroused in the funhouse of metafiction.
Few have delighted so much in playing the game or sparked so much delight in those who have taken part. And probably no one has done it so well.
The term “metafiction”
(After all, writing from an outside perspective about the act of creating fiction as part of a piece of fiction turns the “outside” into the “inside.” There’s no full objectivity. In addition, the autobiographical and writing-as-mechanics details that an author, such as Barth, weaves into this kind of fiction isn’t done for how-to reasons. Rather than clarifying things, this complicates the story in the pages which, in fact, more closely mirrors the complications of life.)
A better term, to my mind, would be “inside-out fiction.” Not only does it avoid the arcane and academic pretension of a Greek prefix slapped onto a good solid English word, but it has a nice Anglo-Saxon ring to it — and it calls to mind an image of what it describes.
(It’s not bigger-than or beyond [i.e., meta] fiction. It’s just fiction from a different point of view.)
In the type of metafiction that Barth practices, there is no clean, clear narrative related by a storyteller who, aside from the byline on the title page, is invisible. Instead, Barth thrusts himself, in various guises, into the story. (Just as he thrusts the mechanics of story-telling, in all their permutations, into the forefront of the story.)
For instance, in Chimera (1972), J.B. appears in something of an autobiographical turn as the forty-ish novelist, recently divorced and seeking a new (metafictional) and old (rooting back into the origins of story-telling) approach to his craft, who shows up as a genie in the first of this book’s three novellas “Dunyazadiad.”
(In the early 1970s, when Barth was writing Chimera, he was apparently all of those things. Except, of course, the genie part. I think.)
This is a tale that’s ostensibly told by Dunyazade, the sister of Scheherazade — she of One Thousand and One Nights, the collection of stories that, over a period of more than three years, she is said to have told each night after having sex with her king Shahryar.
For each of the previous thousand nights, the king — embittered by his wife’s adultery — had bedded a virgin and, then, in the morning, had the unfortunate girl beheaded. To avoid that fate, Scheherazade tells a story through the night but makes sure not to finish it by dawn so that the king will order her to return to his bed that evening to complete the tale (which — Scheherazade is no fool — elides into another).
To call “Dunyazadiad” a novella, however, is misleading. Yes, it is — in a way — a stand-alone piece of fiction, just as the two other novellas in Chimera are: “Perseid” and “Bellerophoniad.”
The truth of fiction
But the “story” of Chimera is the union of this trinity of novellas. It is true that each can be read as an individual work, but any reader who does that will miss much. Actually, will miss the core of the story.
Like all of Barth’s fiction since 1960, Chimera is a story about story. And about the tellers of stories. And about fiction and fact — those two seemingly diametric approaches to human communication.
The truth of fiction is that Fact is fantasy; the made-up story is a model of the world.
That’s according to a memo written by Jerome B. Bray from a couple thousand years in the future that pops up in “Bellerophoniad.” (One of the meanings, by the way, of “chimera” is fantasy.)
Bray is a character from Barth’s 1966 novel Giles Goat-Boy, or, The Revised New Syllabus who, a few years after the publication of Chimera, would appear in LETTERS, a 1979 novel (mentioned as a work-in-progress in Chimera) in which Barth and various of his characters exchange correspondence.
Bray, another fictive version of Barth, is an addled sort who thinks he is the heir to the French throne. Hence, his nickname: “J.B. the Pretender.”
Of course, that’s all Barth (or any writer, for that matter) does in his fiction: pretend. He is J.B. the Pretender.
He is also J.B. the striver for “artful fiction” (who, at the moment, happens to be suffering from writer’s block), as the genie tells Dunyazade and Scheherazade in “Dunyazadiad.”
He was a writer of tales, he said — anyhow a former writer of tales — in a land on the other side of the world. At one time, we gathered, people in his country had been fond of reading; currently, however, the only readers of artful fiction were critics, other writers, and unwilling students who, left to themselves, preferred music and pictures to words….
[The genie’s hope] would be that he would not die without adding some artful trinket or two, however, small, to the general treasury of civilized delights, to which no keys were needed beyond goodwill, attention and a moderately cultivated sensibility: he meant the treasure of art, which if it could not redeem the barbarities of history or spare us the horrors of living and dying, at least sustained, refreshed, expanded, ennobled and enriched our spirits along the painful way.
Entertain and inspire
This is one of manifestos (a much better word than “mission statements”) for the art of writing that Barth inserts here and there throughout his text — if a “manifesto” can be, at times, wistful or witty or awed or agonized.
Consider this manifesto from a Barthian mask-wearer in “Bellerophoniad”:
I’m full of voices, all mine, none me; I can’t keep straight who’s speaking, as I used to. It’s not my wish to be obscure or difficult; I’d hoped at least to entertain, if not inspire.
I’ve been in book clubs and reading groups where I’ve heard, on relatively frequent occasions, complaints that the writer of this or that novel, or this or that history, or even this or that book of the Bible is hard to understand. “Why can’t he just say it straight and clear?”
Well, life isn’t straight and clear. The best that can be done is to try to find a way to describe the chaos of existence, knowing always that you’ll fall short. That’s what great writers do, and Barth is a great writer.
If you want to read Chimera or any of Barth’s other works, you need to have “goodwill, attention and a moderately cultivated sensibility.” Even then, you’ll find yourself tossed and turned by huge waves of a storm-churned ocean of unfathomable depths and unimaginable distances. I was.
This review is a mess. So is Chimera, as Barth-characters acknowledge often throughout the novel’s 320 pages.
It has multiple narrators whose stories are told within another narrator’s story. It has multiple listeners, including, of course, the reader. It has, from one page to the next, stories turned on their heads, stories denied and disproved, deluded narrators and confused narrators and lying narrators. It’s filled with shape-shifters, such as one, who at one moment, may be a monster and at another a letter from Napoleon. One of the novellas starts with Chapter 1 and has no Chapter 2 or 3. Chimera even has the line that two characters “lived happily ever after.” They didn’t. Or maybe they did.
What’s it about? Nothing. And everything.
What’s the point? Delight and insight. Entertainment and inspiration. But a reader has to work for it.
For me, it was a rich reading experience, a rich life experience, and the capper, so to speak, was the experience another Barth-mask character has in the final pages. He has angered Zeus and finds himself transformed:
I woke up at the back door of heaven, an odious large insect,…buzzing about a mound of godshit. Great Zeus (from my perspective) towered over me disdainfully and thundered: “You’re a shape-shifter: think of it as transmogrified ambrosia. Heh heh.”…
My newly compound eyes showed me more aspects of the future — mine, Bellerophon’s, the world’s — than I’d ever seen. I tried to groan; Zeus grinned
Here is the heart of Barth’s writing.
We are all at the mercy of the whims of the gods — which is to say, at the mercy of myriad forces beyond our control and our understanding.
We all get glimmers of a world that fits together — a world where things don’t fall apart. Our traditional novels, in a deep way, are the true fiction, being an attempt to impose an order and sense to the jaggedness of existence.
Barth embraces that jaggedness, just as he embraces the role of the “odious large insect” living out its time dining on godshit which, as Zeus says, is a second-hand ambrosia.
Still, Chimera and Barth seem to say, second-hand is better than none.
Patrick T. Reardon