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.
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...
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