Tripping the Not-So-Light Fantastic

The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

by John Barth
Little, Brown, 573 pp., $22.95

John Barth is known as the procreator of sacred monsters—strange hybrid creatures endowed with attributes that display his erudition, gift for mimicry, and perversity, in almost equal proportions. These qualities are all present in his vast, tumbling “historical” novel, The Sot-Weed Factor, with its evocations of Defoe and Smollett; the travesties and reinventions of myth and fable in Chimera and, recently, The Tidewater Tales; and particularly his two mythopoeic extravaganzas, Giles Goat-boy and LETTERS, the later replete with cerebral puzzles, anagrams, and symbolic cross-references. Except for Chimera, these books are gigantic in size and for long stretches make what an unsympathetic reader might consider inordinate demands upon his or her attention. Collectively, they have gained for Barth his reputation—particularly within the shrinking circle of academics drawn to postmodernist writing—as one of America’s supreme “metafictionists,” rivaled only by Thomas Pynchon and followed at a short distance by that inspired comedian Robert Coover.

But all along there has been another John Barth—the writer of low-keyed fiction set for the most part in tidewater Maryland, where Barth himself grew up. Even when not specifically autobiographical in feeling, this work, which includes the 1958 novel The End of the Road, parts of Lost in the Funhouse, and the recent Sabbatical: A Romance, presents in a mundane fashion the experiences of a character whom we encounter variously as a boy growing up in a middle-class family, as a college instructor, a lover, and a married man who is also a skilled and passionate sailor on the waters of Chesapeake Bay. Despite interludes of self-reflexive game playing and the fantastic in the form of uncanny occurrences, out-of-body experiences, and odd time warps, the surfaces of life are rendered with scrupulous verisimilitude.

The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor brings together, although without unifying, both sides of Barth’s work in a novel as extravagant and ambitious as any he has attempted, one that gives full scope to his talent for stylistic pastiche, for verbal play, and for narrative constructions of dizzying complexity. It begins with an evocation of that archetypal teller of tales, Scheherazade, who has been a favorite Barthian figure at least since Chimera of 1972 and who most recently appeared in the numbingly long and dense Tidewater Tales. With an ironic twist on the famous story, Scheherazade is a miserable, ailing old woman who longs to die. Whereas once, as a young beauty, she had to bribe her husband with a new story every night in order to live another day, she now has to bargain with Death (“the Destroyer of Delights”) in order to be allowed to die. Death demands from her a “virgin” story—one that he has never heard before. What follows is the “time-straddling” story that makes up the novel.

There are two principal narrators. One is the wily old Sindbad the Sailor himself, who having completed the six voyages recounted in The Arabian Nights is now preparing for a seventh and final voyage to …

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