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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

Barth’s intense concentration on the temptations and perils of devising and constructing a story when the contemporary world already has heard every variant of plot or theme is paralleled by his curiosity about the relevance of classical mythology for a postmodern world. In Giles Goat-Boy: Or, The Revised New Syllabus (1966), Chimera, and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991), he combines the heroic proportions of figures from antiquity with the sensibility of a well-educated, self-conscious twentieth century writer both to demystify the heroic and to demonstrate the continuing importance of mythic patterns shaped by storytellers over time. He is concerned with the value of literary art in an age of diminishing literacy; though accepting the proposition that all stories are “lies,” he insists that the best stories are “something larger than fact”—that is, a myth that is both a personal record and something larger than any particular person.

Using a dazzling array of self-reflective devices, Barth also employs the traditional techniques of tale tellers as ancient as Homer to captivate the reader, shaping a narrative rife with romance, suspense, and dramatic action to approach the great mysteries of existence that enduring myths have always engaged. At the heart of Chimera, the essential question posed by any artist intrigued by the possibilities of the fantastic is confronted directly: What if one could overcome the apparent limits of the material world? Barth is successful in making the fantastic plausible (or, as Paul Valéry put it, making “the fantastic another aspect of the realistic”) by confounding skepticism through continually expanding the range of action of his protagonists. The linkage of mythic patterns with contemporary issues and of classic tales with current modes of speech and thought carries the narrative from the comfortingly familiar to the unsettlingly extraordinary. The aim of Chimera is to argue that an ultimate reality resides or endures only in the shaping of experience through language. Thus, if the artist is sufficiently skillful, it becomes difficult to determine which realm is intruding. As Barth has put it, “I wonder whether the world’s really there when I’m not narrating it.” Although this is a distinctly individual declaration, its expression in Chimera reached enough discerning readers for Barth to win the National Book Award for Fiction.

The mythic hero Perseus is presented as a man who, like the author, struggles with the petrification and immobility of middle age. He cannot relive his youthful achievements, but through the imaginative power of the artist, he can begin to understand and appreciate who he is and what he has done. With what Scheherazade asserts is the “real magic . . . to understand which words work,” Barth connects the intimately personal with the mythologically universal, suggesting that an absolute distinction between the realistic and the fantastic is not only simplistic but also an impedance to understanding.

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