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Chimera by Barth John

Chimera (original 1972; edition 1972)

by Barth John

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695513,692 (3.55)39
Authors:Barth John
Info:Random House (1972), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover
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Chimera by John Barth (1972)

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Showing 4 of 4
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.) ( )
  nostalgebraist | Mar 31, 2013 |
I read this first in the '70s, shortly after it was published in paperback, and I loved it -- so much that I've hung on to my cheap ($1.50!) paperback copy for 40 years. Nudged by reading 1001 Nights recently, I read it again, and I think I enjoyed it even more this time through, maturity and "widsom" allowing a richer appreciation of the tales.

The book consists of three interrelated novellas that stretch and twist and tie in knots any sense of narrative in the traditional sense (though Barth takes a little time out for a little exposition on the narrative arc). The narrator changes, voice changes, the author makes appearances, characters change their names, shapeshifters shift their shape while somehow and slowly the reader is told extended stories of Dunyazade (Sharhazade's sister from 1001 Nights) , Perseus, and Belleraphon.

It would be difficult to read if you tried to "understand it", but it's great fun if you just approach it as you would a story told you by an educated, clever, and thoroughly deranged friend -- it's literate, erotic (without even approaching pornographic), wise, silly, fun and good-natured. I can't recommend it highly enough. ( )
2 vote steve.clason | May 29, 2012 |
This was a difficult read. The first of the three novellas contained in this book starts in the middle of the story. The second novella is told by two multiple narrators - sometimes at the same time. These are just examples of how John Barth plays with the standard form of the novel and keeps the reader guessing.

John Barth is clearly a brilliant writer. His language is intense, focused, funny, and surprising. I really enjoyed his sentences. The re-telling of the tale of 1001 nights and of Perseus was enjoyable. But I was frequently challenged to understand who was speaking at any given point in the story, and where in the chronological or physical ordering of the story I was at any given time.

This book would be great for an English Ph.D. interested in the re-invention of style and form. For someone just out to read a good book, I recommend picking up something else. ( )
  mrminjares | May 27, 2012 |
I read this book in college and just didn't get it. The first section was brilliant, but the rest was largely unreadable. I understand that it's an example of postmodern writing and it's very celebrated; now that I'm a little older and might have more perspective I should probably re-read this one. ( )
  mrkatzer | Apr 24, 2008 |
Showing 4 of 4
Of the 77 books that have won the National Book Award in Fiction it may be the funniest, and still the most erotic.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618131701, Paperback)

In CHIMERAJohn Barth injects his signature wit into the tales of Scheherezade of the Thousand and One Nights, Perseus, the slayer of Medusa, and Bellerophon, who tamed the winged horse Pegasus. In a book that the Washington Post called “stylishly maned, tragically songful, and serpentinely elegant,” Barth retells these tales from varying perspectives, examining the myths’ relationship to reality and their resonance with the contemporary world. A winner of the National Book Award, this feisty, witty, sometimes bawdy book provoked Playboy to comment, “There’s every chance in the world that John Barth is a genius.”

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:39:26 -0400)

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