Barth’s Chimera (more grouchiness, alas)
This is a stupid book.
John Barth has admirable goals (rejuvenating the novel) and an precise, musical command of language. But his one fatal flaw is his inability to get outside his own head. He aims for mythic significance, but the cosmic scope of his stories keeps getting mixed together with the very un-cosmic matter of John Barth, 20th century American writer, trying to think of words to put on the page. This manifests itself most obviously in two ways: his metafictional bent (he likes to write stories that are about their own telling — a perilous endeavour, since “John Barth wrote a book” isn’t a very good story), and his injection of 20th-century language and attitudes into other times and places (usually played for comedy, but not very successfully).
In Giles Goat-Boy, this all worked, because the tension between Barth’s impressive craftsmanship and his silliness felt like a deliberate balancing act. The combined effect was uncanny, like the book was a religious text from some unfinished draft of our own universe. In Chimera, the same tension just feels dumb. The story is about mythology (it is a retelling of several myths), but Barth’s interest in Barth obscures Barth’s interest in myth almost entirely. Scheherazade, Perseus, Bellerophon and numerous other mythic figures discuss literature like grad students (some of them before the invention of writing — they wonder aloud at this paradox, which only distances us further from their impossible situation). They parrot Barthian slogans (comparisons between literature and sex, the phrase “passionate virtuosity”). Historical accuracy is not just ignored but flouted: Scheherazade was “Homecoming Queen, valedictorian-elect, and a four-letter varsity athlete”; ancient Greeks drink Metaxa; Amazons talk like modern feminists and a gay man (in ancient Greece, yes) has a ridiculous lisp. (This list is a pretty representative sample of the book’s boringly irreverent “humor.”) Everyone sounds like they’re from the 1970s.
Well that just sounds like a silly book, doesn’t it? And what’s wrong with that? Why can’t I lighten up? Well, because it’s not very funny, for one thing. But more importantly, Barth really has higher ambitions. He doesn’t just want to joke around — he wants to make a new kind of art that takes all the old ones into detached consideration (hence this knowing, winking attitude toward ancient myths) and spits out some trans-historical ideal (both Chimera and GGB involve computers that chew up texts and produce mechanically optimized literature). But in his desire to be knowing and metafictional and above-it-all, Barth can’t bring himself to create plausible — or even vivid or interesting — characters. It’s hard to relate to someone who’s constantly in flux, arguing with the author about lit theory here, acting like some 20th-century stereotype for laughs there, never showing much of a coherent personality. Barth’s most famous books have naive protagonists (Ebenezer Cooke and George the Goat-Boy), which works well with his style, since innocent characters provide a nice reference point in the weird, shifting worlds he creates. Without his innocents, the reader has nothing to grab onto — they’re left adrift in a protean world of John Barth clones, bantering about their writerly anxieties, taking on many forms but capturing none of the wild variance of the real world. (The past is a foreign country — but in Barth’s hands even the ancient Greeks are less foreign than his next-door neighbors, in that his next-door neighbors aren’t him.)
I will give Barth another chance sometime. But not for a long while. (His next big book after Chimera is called LETTERS, and consists of Barth and characters from his other books sending each other letters for 800 pages. Oh, joy.)