Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2251
The premise of John Barth’s new novel, hot on the heels of his large (and largely unread) opus Letters: A Novel (1979), is the premise of a novel. If that sounds tautological and circular, such seems to be Barth’s purpose. The basic ground-situation of Sabbatical, which indeed does have more of a ground-situation than Barth’s last three books, is that of Fenwick Turner and his wife Susan Seckler’s sabbatical cruise on their small boat, Pokey, Wye I., from Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean and back again in order to come to some decisions about their future. The account begins as they near the end of their trip, their backgrounds provided by flashbacks and story interpolations. Their decision-making process, complicated by various problems concerning their families and by Fenn’s past involvement with the CIA, provides enough characters and complications indeed to constitute a traditional novel, but not completely the novel that John Barth has written here.
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Sabbatical, which employs many of the conventions of the spy story and many of the conventions of the love story, is primarily, however, about the making of a novel—in fact, about the making of this novel. This is a reflexive game which Barth began playing at least as early as The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), which he pushed a bit further with Giles Goat-Boy (1966), and which has become his sole preoccupation since Lost in the Funhouse (1968) and Chimera (1972). Although readers who exhausted themselves trying to unravel the narrative knots of Letters will find it easier to chart a course through Sabbatical, they will quickly realize that Barth’s central concern is still with the dynamics of fictional creation and with the epistemological implications of the conventions that make fiction, and life, possible.
The contrivances that traditional novelists conceal in the background of their work are all radically foregrounded here, as Fenn and Susan try to decide on the means of telling a story which is already told and is in the hands of the reader. One central model for Sabbatical, as unlikely as it might at first appear, is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), which Fenn (Barth) quite rightly regards as both a “silly farrago” and a serious reflexive fiction. At the end of Barth’s novel, Fenn says that the point of his story (a point he attributes in a footnote to a study by a colleague of Barth at The Johns Hopkins University) “is that the point of Poe’s story is that the point of Pym’s story is this: ’It is not that the end of the voyage interrupts the writing, but that the interruption of the writing ends the voyage.’” The allusion here is to the mysterious white figure that Pym confronts at the conclusion of Poe’s novel, which is the whiteness of the blank page that always confronts the writer and always ends his fiction. Thus, the end of Sabbatical (which primarily recounts a process of pre-writing) marks the beginning of the writing, and the reading, of a novel known as Sabbatical. The surface action, Fenn and Susan’s return to Chesapeake Bay, is repeated in the nature of the narrative itself as a Moebius strip which continually returns on itself; all of this is a game which Barth has played before, most emphatically in Lost in the Funhouse, which opens with an actual Moebius strip.
The twin actions of doing and telling, writing and reading, which Barth has also emphasized earlier in Chimera, especially in the “Dunyazadiad” tale of that collection, is likewise a central motif in Sabbatical. Not only are both Fenn and Susan individually twins, and not only is the fetus that Susan aborts twins, but also Fenn says that both their writing and loving are twins, that the doing and the telling of the story are twins. This basic notion of simultaneity is one that Barth developed in “Dunyazadiad” to suggest that key and treasure are twins, that the key to the treasure is the treasure and that what “is” is simultaneously only “as if.”
Sabbatical is much too purposely complex and much too consciously played for the benefit of exegetes and analysts to attempt even a partial exegesis and analysis here. Indeed, such an analysis of the book would be extremely long, because much of the book itself constitutes its own exegesis; the conventions that critics take such delight in uncovering are all laid bare in plain view. For example, Barth makes it quite clear that the relationship between Fenn and Susan is the love relationship between writer and reader (a common trope for Barth, William H. Gass, and other post-Modernist writers); he also makes it clear that Fenn, whose ancestor is Francis Scott Key, is representative of eighteenth century rationality, and that Susan, whose ancestor is Edgar Allan Poe, represents nineteenth century intuition, and even that their unity in contrariety is embodied in their boat, named Pokey. There is very little which the future reader may discover in the book of which Fenn and Susan are not already fully aware.
Throughout the novel, Susan and Fenn have dialogues about, or else Fenn fills his notebook with, notions about narrative in general and this particular narrative they are writing (have written). Moreover, the book as a whole is filled with interpolated stories and flashbacks (or “fleshbecks”—Susan’s father’s dialectical pronunciation of the word) which are also self-consciously considered both as fictions and as parts of the fiction Fenn and Susan are both living and writing. For example, in one dialogue about diction, Susan objects to the kind of language that Fenn uses, which is after all the language of the book the reader holds in his hands. In the middle of a story that begins, “Susie and Fenn,” the narrative is interrupted by a storm (or by a story of a storm) which begins, “Blam! Blooey!” When Fenn tells the story of his lost cap and his first lost story, he identifies it as “a story, bogged down in self-concern, of a story bogged down in self-concern” and describes it as the kind of story that taught him that he could not write stories, at least not that kind of story. His flashback he calls a story of the beginning of the end of his first marriage and how he came to join the CIA, for as he says, he decided to live a story, since he could not write one.
Each new character introduced in Sabbatical is identified in a footnote, although it is not clear whether the footnotes are Fenn’s or Barth’s. In fact, the point of view of the story bounces back and forth so much between the first-person plural and the omniscient third-person that the teller of the tale seems to be Fenn/Susan and Barth both at once. Susan also has her own interpolated stories to tell, the most fantastic and grotesque of which is that of her twin Miriam’s “other rapes,” for Miriam is not only raped by a motorcycle gang but is also then raped and tortured in turn by two different men who she thinks have stopped to rescue her. Susan sees their voyage, because of her graduate-school training in literature, as one which follows the standard wandering-hero myth, another convention which Barth has used extensively in Giles Goat-Boy, Lost in the Funhouse, and Chimera.
Much of the actual surface plot of Sabbatical makes use of the conventions of the spy novel. With so much intrigue about the CIA or the “Company,” about double-agents or “moles,” and about mysterious disappearances of Fenn’s twin brother Manfred and Manfred’s son Gus, one would not be surprised to see John Le Carré’s George Smiley turn up at any moment. For Barth, the “plots” of the CIA serve as convenient metaphors (as does the mise-en-scène of the spy story itself) for the very notion of plot complication; for in the world of the spy novel, plots-within-plots constitute the dominant device. It is easy to see why such a convention, which Barth both plays with and parodies here, would be appealing to a writer who has always been fascinated with the notion of tales within tales, a basic narrative device in fiction ever since the tales of Barth’s favorite storyteller, Scheherazade.
Plot is not everything in fiction, however, as Barth has learned well from The Thousand and One Nights (c. 1450), Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), and the tales of Poe. What they are after in their efforts to give fictionality to their adventures, says Fenn, is the truly irreal, the literally marvelous, not just the mysterious and the improbable. Fenn insists that whereas reality is wonderful, realism is a bore. “Realism is your keel and ballast of your effing Ship of Story, and good plot is your mast and sails. But magic is your wind, Suse. Your literally marvelous is your mother-effing wind.”
Sailing metaphors are used throughout the book for both living and writing. At the beginning of part 3 of the novel (the first two parts are entitled “The Cove” and “Sailing up the Chesapeake”), which is entitled “The Forks,” Fenn says that they are indeed at a fork in the channel of their narrative, in which they have to decide about having children, about teaching and writing fiction, about in fact “plotting their course” for the years ahead, for “if life is like a voyage, reader, a voyage must be like life.”
Throughout their journey up Chesapeake Bay, Fenn and Susan stop for various visits: with Susan’s sister and her two children, with her mother and grandmother, with Fenn’s parents and his son, and with a former CIA colleague—all of which delay their arrival at their destination (a desination they have still not decided upon), but which also help to constitute the narrative they are in the process of writing. The possibility of parenthood, Fenn says, lies near the heart of their sabbatical, and this and all the other external plot elements come to a climax on Friday the thirteenth, when Fenn rejects any further involvement in the “Company,” and when Susan has her abortion. The climax of the novel as narrative process, rather than as narrative of external events, comes later, however, when Fenn sees a sea-monster swim through their story in a kind of ontological warp, and when Fenn finds once again the Basque cap that he lost in the water in the first part of the book. It is with these two events that Fenn feels he has a full illumination, as if he now fully understands what he has only been talking about for so many years.
This final epiphany is a complicated ontological and epistemological revelation concerning the nature of Susan and Fenn as fictional characters; basically, it deals with Fenn’s realization of their fictional status even as he sees that they are creators of that fictional status. The sea-monster and mysteriously found cap are the literally marvelous events which force Fenn to accept Susan and himself as both creators and creations at once. Fenn tries to convince Susan that the story they are in constitutes both their house and their child. “We’ll have made it, says determined Fenn, and we’ll live in it. We’ll even live by it. It doesn’t have to be about us—children aren’t about their parents. But our love will be in it, and our friendship too.” Thus, with high hopes, Fenn and Susan begin their lives as they end their story, “happily after, to the end.”
Followers of Barth’s fiction will realize that, while he has retreated somewhat here from the largely incomprehensible structure of Letters, he is still eddying about in the same backwater of metafictional mystery that dominated Lost in the Funhouse. In fact, Sabbatical seems in many ways merely an extension of some of the same ideas that he began exploring in Chimera. The basic question one might pose is whether Barth himself is becalmed, or whether indeed the particular waterways he has chosen to voyage upon can go no farther, can be no more than a whirlpool of metaphysical mysteries that constantly swirls round upon itself. The issue is not a simple one for contemporary writers, for, once having accepted the philosophy of “as if,” once having seen reality to be a highly elaborated fictional process itself, it is not possible to go back and unselfconsciously accept reality as a given again.
The fictional issue centers on this basic principle: If reality is itself a process of fictional creation by metaphor-making man, then the modern writer who wishes to write about reality can truthfully only write about that very process. This is indeed what John Barth has done for the last twenty years. There is no doubt that such an approach severely limits his readership, for he is not content to give readers the seamless similitude that they most often pick up fiction to find. Few academic readers, for that matter, have found Barth’s Letters worth the trouble of plowing through, except for the possible later harvest of an article or a dissertation. Still, it is clear that John Barth is one of the leading writers of the post-Modernist tradition. Although Sabbatical perhaps does not significantly advance this claim, it does remind one that Barth’s explorations of the epistemological issues and metaphysical mysteries of the relationship between narrative and knowledge are far from over.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41
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