Monday, August 07, 2017

John Barth, Chimera (1972)

This book is actually three novellas--or if we want to be a bit finer with out classifications, a long short story, a novella, and a short novel, all on mythological themes. Only the final story, "Bellerephoniad," is published here for the first time; "Dunyazadiad" and "Perseid" had previously appeared in Esquire and Harper's respectively. They're sufficiently thematically unified that gathering them all together makes sense, however.

"Dunyazadiad," our shortest entry here, is a story narrated by Scheherazade's sister Dunyazad...well, actually, technically it's narrated, most of it, by someone to whom Dunyazad is narrating it, consistent with these novella's theme of stories within stories. We previously witnessed this in Lost in the Funhouse's "Menelaiad," which featured so many nested narratives that it really isn't within the power of the human mind to keep them straight--you'd need to make some kind of chart. This isn't quite as extreme as that, but it is what it is. At any rate! Before the action of One Thousand and One Nights starts, the sisters are mulling over how they can stop the Sultan's murder spree, when they happen to inadvertently summon a genie who, it quickly becomes obvious, is the author himself, to help them out with some storytelling advice; the story ultimately takes a novel turn from the original. Compared to the stories to come, this is comparatively straightforward, though naturally, it all ends in metatextual uncertainty. I haven't read any of Barth's later novels, but I hear tell that in the latter half of his career he became absolutely fucking obsessed with Scheherazade, to the extent that it gets pretty tedious and exasperating to anyone trying to read his entire oeuvre.  Here's what one exasperated reader had to say:

Schehera-freaking-zade. Excuse my crudeness, but Barth has had a twenty-year hard-on for her, and I'm not just being flippant when I say so. She is CONSTANTLY coming up, and you can always tell when he's about to mention her again; his writing heats up, he beats around the bush a bit, he sort of shyly avoids the bait, and then WHAM: there she is, presented as though she were an ACTUAL WRITER (as opposed to what she really was: a minor fictional character who existed mainly so that the stories of OTHER characters could get told). Every time Barth presents her in a list of ACTUAL PEOPLE (eg. "You can see this in the stories of Cervantes, Borges, Scheherazade, Pynchon...") I want to scream, and I do, as I'm screaming now: SHE WASN'T REAL AND SHE WASN'T VERY SIGNIFICANT!

But this was the first time she appeared in his work (unless she's referenced in a Funhouse story I'm forgetting), and this story stands on its own quite well. Solid storytelling.

We move onward to Greek themes, and the fact that two of the three stories are thus preoccupied does make the book seem slightly unbalanced. All three on Greek mythology: fine. One on Greek mythology and two on two other topics: fine. But TWO on Greek mythology and only one on something else? Dubious. Anyway, "Perseid" tells, naturally, about Perseus, sort of. The whole thing takes place after Perseus' alleged death, as he narrates his story, as depicted in a series of friezes, to a priestess and also, somewhat obscurely for most of the story, simultaneously to someone else at a different time and place, who sometimes throws in their two cents. Barth introduces the idea--not original, obviously, but something he'd grown increasingly interested in in his previous works--of a mythical hero's Pattern; the whole Joseph Campbell thing. This also collides with Barth's interest in relationships between men and women, and a sort of midlife crisis for the character: what do you do after you've already had your heroic apotheosis? This question may make one think of Tennyson's "Ulysses," but obviously Barth approaches this very differently. It certainly doesn't HURT to know the mythology before you read the story, but, again, stories are always mutable and may not turn out the way you'd expect them to. For all its weirdness, "Perseid" is kind of sweet in the end.

"Bellerephoniad," the longest of the trio, is where things get REALLY batshit. This starts somewhat similarly to "Perseid," which indeed it references on a number of occasions. It's ostensibly the story of Bellerophon doing his thing--you remember Bellerophon; he was the one with Pegasus and the chimera--but there is massive uncertainty about what happened and what didn't hear. It frequently--and to quite humorous effect--lapses into twentieth-century slang and idioms. There's a hilarious passage where our narrator enumerates the genetic likelihood of gods, demigods, or mortals resulting from different kinds of unions, complete with diagrams. It also frequently references future figures and future ideas. There's a Q&A with the author. The most out-there section involves Bellerophon finding mesages in bottles from Jerome Bray, the sinister and enigmatic false prophet from Giles Goat-Boy. Bray is pissed off because some bastard with his same initials stole the book he wrote, and he's planning a revenge which involves building an automatic novel-writing machine. Honestly, the connection of this to the rest of the text--except in the loosest thematic sense of emphasizing textual mutability--is tenuous. But it's a lot of fun. The key figure is Bellerophon's teacher Polyeidus, whose polymorphic powers extend, notably, to turning into texts; the upshot of the novella (though really, you probably shouldn't think of anything here as too definitive) is that "Bellerephoniad" is Polyeidus in disguse.

Yup. This book is HELLA difficult to describe, but it's pretty darn delightful to my taste. Really, I don't know why I haven't read more Barth. But the good news is, having read his first six books, I am now ready to approach the forebodingly massive LETTERS. Just my type!

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