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Barth’s Chimera (more grouchiness, alas)

May 12, 2012

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.)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. excelsizeus permalink
    May 13, 2012 9:53 pm

    Why not try his collecion of short stories, “Lost in the Funhouse” instead? There is no way you are going to like LETTERS.

    • nostalgebraist permalink*
      May 13, 2012 10:07 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve been curious about Lost in the Funhouse for a while, but the library I use doesn’t have a copy (silly as it sounds, this is one of the major factors that determines which books I end up reading). I could always ILL it, though, and I will probably do so the next time I want to read some Barth. (I wasn’t that serious about trying to read LETTERS — I mainly mentioned it because I thought it was funny how well it fit with the picture of Barth I gave in this review.)

  2. excelsizeus permalink
    May 14, 2012 8:27 pm

    Well, he´s not always a pleasurable read. I like reading his stuff for much the same reasons that I like listening to soundboards of the Grateful Dead jamming: it´s the non-commercial/redundant/out-of-touch/sense of exploration/questioning of norms and roles/willingness to ditch the hook or storyline and follow whatever happens thing going on. Granted there was a whole universe of music and fiction happening at the time that put these two cultural forces firmly into the margins but I question whether they were exploring cul-de-sacs/dead ends and so keep on reading/listening.

    • nostalgebraist permalink*
      May 15, 2012 11:51 pm

      For me, the issue is that I like some of the things Barth does a lot more than the other things he does, so it’s hard for me to just relax and “watch him go.” In the musical analogy, I guess this would correspond to a hypothetical jam band that sometimes plays in styles I like and sometimes plays in styles I don’t — so that even though I can appreciate that the stuff I like is flowing out of the overall atmosphere of freeform creativity, I do find myself wishing that they just played that stuff all the time (which would be “less free,” of course).

      What I like about Barth relates to some of the things he said in “The Literature of Replenishment.” In that essay, he wrote about how it’s hard to write in an existing form or re-tell a familiar story without being self-conscious, and he said, roughly, that since self-consciousness was unavoidable he wanted to go the opposite direction — to embrace self-consciousness, though parody, etc., and see if that can actually make the old things feel new. I felt like he achieved this in Giles Goat-Boy and to some extent in The Sot-Weed Factor, both of which have this strange combination of willful absurdity and an embrace of old-fashioned forms (both books also use a pleasantly old-fashioned language sort of language). There’s a lot of parody going on there, but in a certain way the parody actually feels like a way of freshening an old genre, and increasing one’s affection for it.

      What I like less about Barth is his metafictional side. I feel like all of the storytelling-about-storytelling and so forth in Chimera takes the self-consciousness so far that rather than “telling old stories self-consciously,” it just tends toward pure self-consciousness as a subject in itself. The stories recede and all you can see is Barth.

      I can definitely accept the metafictional stuff as an exploration for exploration’s sake, but part of my mind just keeps saying there’s lots of potential that’s being wasted when Barth chooses to follow that particular path.

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