The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor Critical Essays

John Barth

Critical Contexts

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Barth is usually characterized as a metafictionist, an author who writes fiction about fiction and is unapologetic about its fictional nature, not fiction depicting allegedly real persons or events. This is partially true of The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, yet the many episodes that are conventionally realistic should not be discounted. Simon’s memories of growing up in Maryland are rendered in an affectionately realistic style similar to nonfiction reminiscences such as Sidney Offit’s Memoir of the Bookie’s Son (1995). Simon’s first two “voyages” are as realistic as anything Barth ever wrote, perhaps more realistic than his actual autobiography, Once upon a Time (1994). Barth playfully comments on the impossibility of totally distinguishing fantasy and realism when he depicts the Arabs’ reaction to Somebody’s first two voyages. Ibn al-Hamra objects to Somebody’s second voyage, the Daisy Moore story, by claiming that it forsakes the ground of “traditional realism,” which he then defines as having to do with rocs, genies, and magic carpets. Of course, in Ibn al-Hamra’s world, these things are taken as the norm, whereas such workaday objects as cars and automobiles are so flagrantly eccentric that for him they should not be allowed within the canons of serious literature. Readers may laugh at ibn al-Hamra and complacently conclude that his world is fictional, but the novel then provokes them to wonder whether their own existence is fictional as well. Ibn al-Hamra is the mirror image of a modern reader who might find the story of Simon’s boyhood more “realistic” than Sindbad’s voyages. Realism, Barth implies, is a function of expectations; if readers suspend those expectations, they will see that fantasy is at least as viable a medium for storytelling as the mode termed “realism.” Barth has been accused by critics of being self-indulgent in his flamboyant adventures. His self-conscious retellings of myth are sometimes criticized as evading American realities of the twentieth century, just as Ibn al-Hamra sees Somebody’s outrageous stories as neglecting the thematic realities of fantastic Baghdad. Barth’s juxtaposition of fantasy and realism turns the tables on these critics, revealing them as constrained by expectations that, unlike Somebody’s voyages, are merely of their own time.