John Barth’s fascination with the intricacies of narrative possibility and the complex, evolving interrelationship between an author and a work in progress drew him to the plight of Scheherazade, his figure for an ultimate author who must hold the attention of her audience or lose her life. Using a pattern of doubling that establishes a multiple perspective informing the three parts of Chimera, Barth presents the classic fable of Scheherazade’s predicament—to keep the shah’s interest in a never-ending story so he will spare her life in order to learn what happens next—through the words of Dunyazade, “Sherry’s” younger sister, who is talking to her husband, the shah’s brother, in an effort to escape the same fate. Dunyazade’s narrative is further complicated by the appearance of a genie figure who seems to resemble Barth himself, a fortyish American who has read Scheherazade’s account and can contribute to, comment on, and interact with the characters.
After numerous questions are raised about the composition of a narrative that continues for 1,001 nights, the focus shifts to the legendary Perseus, an analogue for a man, like Barth, who is caught between a heroic past in his youth and the flatness of his middle years. Perseus’ problems are summarized by his apparent impotence with the feminine muses who have inspired his glorious feats. By retelling and simultaneously reliving (now in altered form) the circumstances of his...
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