- The Functions of Myth in John Barth's Chimera
It is no great secret to any attentive student of John Barth's career that he is dedicated to narrativity, to the telling and retelling of stories. Unlike Samuel Beckett, who throughout his career moved ever closer to the minimal conditions of narrative, Barth has cultivated an exuberant expansiveness of the concept of story such that it threatens to absorb or overwhelm other aspects of the fictive enterprise. It is as if the sinister threat of writer's block can only or best be held at bay by never allowing a/the story to stop, by continuing to spin increasingly intricate permutations and combinations on the original or initial formulation. In a diachronic sense, clearly the later works are, at least potentially, elaborations on the earlier ones. Now, as a strategy for maintaining narrativity per se, and with it creativity and life itself, this requires ceaseless actual, physical authorial activity, which to the writer must sooner or later come to look increasingly like running in place, with all of the attendant problems of fatigue and futility. Clearly, if narrativity is to become authorial salvation, it must find some means for ceasing to be a one-directional movement into an ever-receding future and become, at least as a model, a cyclical or double-helix looping back on itself so that the author ceases to be the causative agent and becomes part of an inexhaustible process. This Barth does principally by having his characters participate in shape-changing [End Page 427] activities of such fluidity as to challenge any concept of actual identity as such and by having at least some of them assume a protean authorial role. In doing so, he implicitly creates a generic cycle of narrativity throughout the forms of narrative, which assures its logical or epistemological perpetuation apart from authorial effort.
A particularly cogent illustration of how this process plays out in Barth's fiction is afforded by Chimera. When Jerome B. Bray, the purported author of John Barth's works and self-proclaimed descendant of Napoleon's brother, appeals for grant support to Todd Andrews, who in Chimera at any rate is the Executive Secretary of a philanthropic foundation, it is discovered by Bellerophon (who is actually his own ostensibly dead brother Deliades) through the shape- and nature-changing activities of Polyeidus, the unreliable tutor and writer whose pen is capable of slaying spurious dragon-like beasts, that Bray has been reduced "to writing out for public sale a kind of myths called novels " (248).
Well, what to make of this? Clearly the unreliability of the narrators and the dubiety and implausibility of the tale generate a host of questions. Are we to assume that Barth's novels are in some sense of the word actually "myths" or are they only "novellas, longish tales" (28) as the Genie, another Barthian surrogate, contends in Dunyazadiad? Does Bellerophon-Deliades correctly interpret Bray's notes to Andrews when he paraphrases them as identifying myths and novels? Or is that a function of his having "comprehended most imperfectly what they signified?" (247). Or is Bray, who is clearly afflicted with a delusion complex and a compulsion to verbal gigantism, simply indicating his lunatic nature in yet another way when he links, if he does, myths and novels?
What all of these questions, as well as numerous others adducible, reduce themselves to is the veracity of the word, the truth-value of statements in fiction, and the credibility of the teller. And looked at concretely and practically, it appears clear, at least to this eye, that no uncontestable decision-procedure is available in these instances. Or if there is, it lies in a different direction and under a different guise than what we are inclined to pursue most immediately. Put most simply, I would submit that the answer to the Ur-question of the nature of myth in Chimera may best be sought in the function or functions of myth in that work. At the same time, it is important to recognize that this answer is likely to prove as unwieldy, multi-stranded, and complex in its totality...