Tuesday, March 10, 2020

John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991)

I'd had this book sitting around for a long time: I obtained a copy of it years ago back in grad school when some professor was retiring and giving away the books in their office. I'd been wanting to read it, not least because of a glowing review in the Washington Post by the great Angela Carter--it must've been one of the last things she wrote, published just two weeks before her extremely untimely death. Anyway, I just got around to it.

So we're in Sindbad's palace, and there's a mysterious beggar, whom we'll call Somebody, at the gate. He's invited in, and between bits of palace intrigue, he and Sindbad take turns telling stories about their "voyages:" Sindbad's the sort of Arabian Nights thing you'd expect, and Somebody one hundred percent realistic narratives of his childhood and adult life in Maryland (the details closely mirroring Barth's own)--his "real" name is Simon Baylor (Simon...seaman), a semi-successful travel writer. At the age of fifty-ish, he's sailing with his girlfriend; she falls in the water, he jumps in to save her, and when he wakes up, bam, he's in Arabian Nights world. There is more intrigue, much of it centered on the question of Sindbad's daughter Yasmine's virginity or lack thereof and how this effects the difficulty of getting her married off (is this Orientalist? Maybe, but given how neatly it dovetails with Barth's usual themes, it might be more accurate to just call it Barthist). There are a lot of other characters and strands of plot, but that's it basically.

I feel that I have a complicated relationship with Barth. This is the eighth of his books I've read, so obviously I'm a fan in some sense, and not just "in some sense," I'd say. Pull quotes keep calling him a "genius," and I think that's fair. Certainly, few authors are as capable of playing with narrative as well as he does. He's talented. There's no denying it.

On the other hand, he's also capable of almost unbelievable levels of self-indulgence--less here than elsewhere--and the main thing, which I think I've danced around in talking about other of his books: I really hate the way he talks about sex, and he does it all the time. Am I a prude? Well, maybe, but I've never had this problem with any other author, or at least any other that I would ever want to read. Anyway, I don't even hate it all the time; Somebody's second "voyage," largely concerning his first sexual experiences as a young teenager, are okay; I didn't have any problem. But...well, two things: first, although it would be base slander to call Barth pro-rape, he definitely treats it more lightly than feels appropriate to me. Just as another narrative device. It creeps me out. But even when he's writing about purely consenual sex, I just get this VERY strong dirty-old-man vibe from him, and SERIOUSLY, there were parts of this that I just read through gritted teeth, thinking OH GOD BARTH WHY? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? I mean, maybe given that Carter--who was way cooler and smarter than me and undoubtedly had way more sex than I ever have--seemingly had no problems in this regard, I should just let it go, but...URK. There were many moments when I cast my mind back longingly to Somebody's first voyage, in which he's a seven-year-old and totally non-sexual. There's this one subplot--so small as to barely count as a subplot, really--where the father of Simon's first girlfiend Daisy Moore and his later-girlfriend Julia would molest his daughters, and it's like, GOOD GOD, what is the POINT of this? It doesn't inform anything else in the novel in any way! It's just you, Barth, being creepy. LETTERS was in part about aging and whether, at the age of forty, he can still have sexual potency meaning creative potency, and ten years later, he's still at it. I mean, if you have a jaundiced attitude towards the sort of extremely white heterosexual male that Barth is, this certainly won't make you rethink anything.

Well, even Carter concedes that Barth's habitually referring to male and female sexual organs as "zabb" and "wahat" is a bit much. It's like, dude, the only reason you feel you can write this way is because of the sort of distancing effect of having the words in a foreign language. If you went around constantly referring to dicks and pussies, you would look absolutely fucking deranged, and in my view, this doesn't make it much better.

All this sounds very negative on my part, and there's more I could say against it, but I can't help but liking this book, on balance, even if it requires accepting Barth's most irritating traits. The "real world" bits especially are incredibly well-rendered, and as much as all the palace intrigue can be a bit much, it really does kind of suck you in at a certain point, and honestly, there are times you just have to gape in awe at what the narrative is doing. And then, durnit, I cannot deny that in spite of everything, the inevitably indeterminate ending is very moving. Damn you, Barth! You're making me want to read more of you in spite of myself! I don't know if I will, though. It's possible that as much as I do admire him, I am about Barth'd out. We shall see!


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