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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 the magical island of Serendib. The other is a journalist from the eastern shore of Maryland, Simon William Behler, who, using the nom de plume William Baylor, has written a number of popular histories and travel books mostly concerned with the Islamic world. At age fifty, his career in decline, Behler-Baylor is lost in a storm off the coast of Sri Lanka (anciently called Serendib) while attempting with his mistress to retrace the voyages of Sindbad in a modern sailboat. But Behler does not drown. Instead, he is transported, via a timelapse, to medieval Baghdad, where he becomes the guest and rival storyteller of Sindbad himself. There he is known variously as Sindbad the Landed, Bey el-Loor, Somebody the Stranded, or simply as Somebody. He also becomes the lover of Sindbad’s beautiful and spirited daughter, Yasmin, who in looks and personality is a prototype of Behler’s sailing companion, Julia Moore. The setting for the storytelling is the banquet hall of Sindbad’s house, where night after night the old sailor’s guests are entertained not only by the stories but also with copious food and wine and the gyrations of an accomplished belly dancer.

This device of rival narrators allows Barth to juxtapose the fantastic Arabian material with the realistic account of the childhood, adolescence, and subsequent career of Simon Behler. From time to time a third or possibly a fourth voice (Scheherazade? An omniscient author?) intrudes to comment on the proceedings, thereby adding another layer to the narrative complexity. Old Sindbad’s stories are essentially recapitulations, with many elaborations, of the voyages familiar to most of us from our childhood versions of The Arabian Nights. Once again we are told of forested islands that turn out to be sleeping whales, gigantic rocs and roc eggs as big as domes, one-eyed cannibalistic ogres, the valley of diamonds and serpents, the Old Man of the Sea…. The style of the Sindbad sections is a pastiche of Sir Richard Burton and other translators of The Thousand and One Nights—full of pithy proverbs and apostrophes to Allah the Compassionate, together with archaisms, alliteration, inversions of word order, and, occasionally, an anachronism plucked from our own century. When Sindbad is so unwise as to allow an old man clad in fig leaves to climb upon his shoulders in order to reach some delectable fruit, he tells us:

You all have heard what followed—how when presently I unpooled myself and bade the old chap alight so that I could proceed uncumbered to my own, more temperate nourishing, he gripped my head near to cracking between his thighs and gobbled on: how when then in angry fright I tried to cast him off me, he choked me senseless with one hand while still gorging with the other…. All day he drove me like a beast of burden through Paradise’s orchards, kicking my gut while stuffing his. At nightfall he rode me insensible to earth, nor could I shake free of him even when he seemed to sleep, for his fig-leaf frailty masked a stallion’s strength. Worse than a slave, worse than a donkey, I was but his walking prop and privy, on which he voided the unspeakable wastes of his appetite….

But how unhorse by overgorging this ape of appetite…?

Since Sindbad has told these tales many times, Barth can allow his narrator to indulge in some very contemporary critical reflections on the “structure” of his voyages: the setting forth, shipwreck, the sole survivor, the island, the encounters with marvels and monsters, followed by “Nemesis Overcome, King’s Favor Bestowed, then Rescue, New Fortune, and Home.” He also uses shorthand notation, referring his listeners back to “Island Two, Voyage One,” or “Proverb Three, Voyage Two.” Meanwhile, in the interludes between voyages, we listen to lengthy stories within stories and follow—or try to follow—the various intrigues involving Sindbad, his guests, his household, his daughter, Yasmin, her suitor, and the financial backers of his final voyage to Serendib. Sexual passages are provided by the nightly coupling of Yasmin with Somebody the Sailor under the very eyes of Yasmin’s duenna.

There are a great many occasions in all this for old-fashioned bawdry, accompanied by countless references to “zabbs” (penises) and the severing thereof and to “wâhâts” (vaginas) and the maidenheads that may or may not accompany them. Scheherazade’s “virginal” last tale is much concerned with the obsessive Arabic preoccupation with the virginity of brides and the value—monetary and otherwise—assigned to it; near the conclusion the fraudulent “bridal banner” (i.e., bloodied bedsheet) is triumphantly hung over the courtyard gate following the official nuptial night of Somebody and the long-since-deflowered Yasmin.

Barth obviously has a good time playing with all this material, both familiar and arcane. He seems to have steeped himself in the notes to Burton’s famous (i.e., infamous) edition of the Nights. Many of the embellishments are imaginative and witty. The voyages, sea fights, festivities, copulations, rapes, castrations, and intrigues are narrated with unflagging gusto. But after a while tedium sets in, and the reader—this reader at least—begins to feel as surfeited as one of the guests at Sindbad’s banquets. The reiteration of Arabian names and epithets becomes a blur. Too often one has to wade through heavy passages like the following account of the seating of the participants at Sindbad’s banquet:

Sovereign of my spittle,” Yasmin smoothly reminded him [her official “fiancé,” Ibn-al-Hamra], “you have forgotten my father’s ban on all such democracy. Shall we begin?” This last was asked of Sindbad, who left off contemplating her as raptly as our man had been doing and bade Kuzia Fakan, to her large surprise and joy, to take the fifth place, alongside Haroun’s emissary. The sixth, across from her, he then assigned to Jayda, as expressionless as ever. The two women exchanged a glance: Kuzia shrugged; Jayda nodded. The seventh place, next to Hajj Masud, went now to Fatmah Awad, who had to be coaxed by Yasmin and Kuzia to join the entertained instead of entertaining. Likewise suddenly shy Nuzhat, who when Sindbad ordered her to Cushion Eight (on Somebody’s left) would no more put down her pipe than Fatmah unclutch her tambourine.

As with all of his long novels, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor presents Barth with many opportunities, virtually all of them seized, to bludgeon his readers into insensibility.

As much as I was entertained by some of the stories from The Arabian Nights, it was always enjoyable (and indeed something of a relief) to reach Somebody’s next voyage and to find myself in the company of Simon Behler rather than Bey el-Loor. Barth re-creates Simon’s lower-middle-class childhood and adolescence with careful attention to the details of the late Thirties and the Second World War in the small city of Dorset and the marshes and tidal estuaries of its environs. There is a similar tenderness in the graphic anatomical detail of Simon’s first sexual experience on his fourteenth birthday—an initiation provided him as a present from Crazy Daisy Moore, a wild, upper-middle-class girl of sixteen.

Barth establishes his connection between the “real” world of Behler’s experience and the fantastic world of Sindbad’s Baghdad in a passage in which the boy’s recent reading of the Arabian Nights causes him to “chafe not only at being ineluctably I and here and now but likewise at the iron constraints of nature itself, which made it quite certain that no fish would really ever talk and no genie appear from a bottle, nor would Daisy and I be magically transported from Dorset County to Samarkand or Serendib.” Simon is, however, on occasion able to “rock” himself into a state of near ecstasy and “scary” disorientation

in which the ceiling, the walls, the frames of the doors and windows, and the very bed beneath me were at once their familiar selves and unspeakably alien, their distance and configuration fluid, and I myself was no longer or not merely I but as it were the very lens of the cosmos: a sentient star of light-years more compass than anything named Simon William Behler—to whom, however, I clung in those thrillsome intervals like a man overboard to a rope, to haul myself back before I was carried past retrieving.

The boundaries of the self and the dangerous thrill of “crossing over” become central in Behler’s third and fourth voyages, when as an adult he is sailing, first in the Caribbean with his family and then in the Indian Ocean with Julia Moore, the younger sister of Crazy Daisy. In both voyages he comes close to drowning, with the result that he is briefly “transported,” in the first instance to contemporary Morocco and in the second permanently to the world of Sindbad. It is in this second transportation that Julia Moore undergoes a sea change into Yasmin and Behler into Somebody the sailor.

The final third of the novel is concerned, among a myriad of other things, with Somebody’s attempt to recross the Boundary. The “rope” with which he tries to haul himself back into the other reality is the wristwatch which has miraculously survived the sea changes. Does he succeed? Do he and Yasmin, swept overboard in yet another storm, manage to reach Island One of Voyage Seven—the island of Serendib? The answer is ambiguous. We are told that Scheherazade’s bargain with Death is honored: “From her absence in my story’s wrap-up, its narrator concludes, we may infer that old Scheherazade achieved her narrative end, Okay?” And the narrator himself? On the final page we see him in the presence of the Destroyer of Delights—otherwise known as the familiar stranger—who appears as an adult version of Behler’s twin sister who died at birth. She urges him to follow her….

Barth fits together the pieces of his schizophrenic double vision with enormous ingenuity. Details from Behler’s earlier life continuously crop up—transformed—in his second. The cross-referencing of allusion and symbol is almost as complex in the notoriously tricky LETTERS. There is considerable play on the concept of “serendipity,” the word that Horace Walpole coined from “Serendip.” The amount of pleasure the reader takes in all this novelistic gamesmanship is, one supposes, a matter of taste, temperament, and literary conditioning. Barth seems to me perhaps the cleverest of American novelists and, if one applies cleverness as a standard, the most inventive. But though I have been interested in, or entertained by, many passages in his work, have marveled at others, and have been bored or exasperated by still more, I have never been moved by his fiction, or been captured by it for a moment. He seems unable to give his characters a deeply grounded or significant inner life and when he tries to supply one it seems oddly superficial: this is the case even with Simon Behler, whose thoughts and sensations are fully documented.

While in his realistic passages Barth has created a gallery of well-observed figures in whom we can readily believe—Crazy Daisy and Julia Moore/Yasmin in the present work are all “successful,” indeed appealing—his fiction contains none that can be called memorable—in the sense that Leopold and Molly Bloom are memorable in a work far more complex and “experimental” than any Barth has attempted. His methodology encourages, or rather, incurs detachment. One sometimes feels with Barth that the soul of a computer whiz kid is embedded within the mind of a novelist.

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