Barth's 'Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor' is an intricate literary journey




John Barth.

Little, Brown

573 pages. $32.95.

The stranger in Chapter 1 of "The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor" provides a clue to this novel, which isn't exactly a novel. Neither is Chapter 1 exactly Chapter 1; nor is the stranger a stranger. In fact, nothing in this story, which is at least four stories within one story, is what it seems.

John Simmons Barth, professor in the graduate Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and winner of the National Book Award in 1973 for "Chimera," has been compared to such literary figures as Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce. His fiction, like theirs, is art. It abounds in puns and allusions, and metaphysical, philosophical and philological pyrotechnics. While it's aesthetically pleasing, it does make demands on the reader.

Just as Mr. Barth's 1960 novel "The Sot-Weed Factor" was a story about the genesis of a poem, "The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor" is a story about the genesis of a story. It's also a story within stories. The plot describes the life of Somebody, the hero, who, preparing for his final voyage, takes a trip into the story of Sindbad the Sailor.

The point, though, is not what happens to Somebody and Sindbad. The point is the power of the word and the story. In the world of this novel, the Poet hands out justice, both poetic and practical; the poetic equals the practical; the word equals the deed.

In addition, nothing in Somebody's world is fictional or real, past or present. It's a mixture of all of them. For example, when Sindbad tells his stories to Somebody, his words actually construct the stage for the new story of this novel. Because Sindbad tells his story through Scheherazade, who tells her story through Somebody, we have several stories and several narrators. All meet in this present story.

Furthermore, while the protagonist, Simon William Behler -- a.k.a. Simmons, Baylor, Bey-el-Loor and Somebody: his name changes he learns more and less about himself -- tells his story, he alludes to (and becomes a character in) several other stories. One of them is, of course, Sindbad's story in "The Thousand and One Nights," as it was translated by Richard Burton. But into Sindbad's story Somebody interweaves two other stories: "The Zahir," by Jorge Borges, and Homer's "Ulysses." So this book, by extension, isn't just one story; it's several, possibly all stories. And it isn't just Somebody's story; it's an allegory and Everyman's story. The result is the literary equivalent of a complex mathematical equation.

Somebody's story begins at the end of his life. We meet him speaking to a doctor, "a familiar stranger," whose bluish green eyes remind him of all the women whom he has loved. Afraid, he wants her beside him. But duty calls, and as the doctor prepares to leave, Somebody offers to tell her a story -- not the story of his life, he says. She's heard that story.

He'll tell her the last of Scheherazade's stories. Scheherazade, he continues, wanted to die. Death would take her, only if she told him a new story. Ironically, the story she tells is of Somebody's last voyage, in which Somebody falls through contemporary time -- 1980s U.S.A. -- into the days of medieval Baghdad.

There, we see Bey-el-loor at Sindbad's table. Convinced that Bey-el-loor is a spy, sent to determine his daughter Yasmin's virginity, Sindbad threatens to kill him unless he reveals his identity. This Bey-el-loor attempts to do with six stories.

For six days and nights, Sindbad and Bey-el-lor will tell the stories of their lives. They will see where their stories intersect and what they portend. Sindbad's guests, along with the Poet, will decide the best tales and teller. (Here, Mr. Barth manages to contrast ancient with modern stories and to establish critical perspective on both.) In addition, those stories clear up several mysteries. Among them is the mystery of Bey-el-loor: who he is, and how he came to be in this fictional past, which is also a real and a fictional present.

Born in the 1930s, in "Dorset County," Md., Simon William Behler is a lonely child. To compensate for his loneliness, he tells his twin sister both the stories he lives and the stories he imagines. What is unusual about these stories is their audience: His sister had died at birth. By telling his stories, Simon, in effect, creates his twin. His sister is the first of six women whom Simon loves. Life for Simon is an attempt to create and re-create these women through the rapture of fiction.

At first, these are the stories that Baylor (his pen name), a journalist and a novelist, writes. Later, these stories will become the stories that Bey-el-loor tells to Sindbad and to Sindbad's daughter, in the privacy of her bedroom. In there the "act of love" becomes "the erotic recapitulation" of that night's story. Much later Somebody will retell all these stories to the doctor, who has visited him in the hospital. Then, the combination of these stories Sindbad's stories, a few tales from "Ulysses" and a short story from Borges -- will become this novel.

This marvelous and maddeningly convoluted novel ends where it begins: Somebody learns who the familiar stranger is. "Remember how it was," she says. "I went first. . . . Follow me, now." Recognizing her for the first time, Somebody takes his and Everyman's last voyage.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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