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Sabbatical by John Barth


"The first-person-duple voice of 
a well-coupled couple."
You may have heard me mention Barth in other posts as an author for whom I have all the time in the world, but time which needs to be apportioned and plotted across the linear path of my intertextual voyage, much like the course a sailor might plot as he or she or they sailed across his beloved Chesapeake Bay. His novels are course markers, between two of which I might meander or make other stops as whimsy dictates. They are also a delight, a challenge, a reproach, an encouragement, a revelation. Whilst there are other literary ports for me in times of foul weather, Barth stands as my lighthouse to guard and guide.

Okay, sailing metaphors be damned, and on with the story. Sabbatical, subtitled A Romance, engenders so many Ah! and Oh! moments, both revelatory and astonishing, and (as the Washington Post notes on the cover) visceral and bloody, that I think I won't be able to do it justice in a review. I remarked to a colleague, half in jest and half in a fit of pique at his lip-curling, eye-narrowing, nostril-flaring critique of Will Self's debut novel as, "clever but for his own amusement, not mine," that if he thought that was clever, he should read the passage of this novel where the triple narrator (both Fenwick and Susan, of whom more shortly, have distinct authorial voices but also combine to create Narrator, a separate entity and the one ostensibly pushing the pen), introduces an example of Vietnamese oral poetry couplets with strict tone and syllable constraints but, in this particular instance, referencing directly and indirectly both the poet's relationship with Susan's twin-sister, her relationship with Susan her sister, and her sons, and her sister Susan's husband Fenwick, and her sister's Susan's husband Fenwick's family, and her mother, and sailing, and life, and counter intelligence, and narrative, in fact with everything the book talks about obliquely and obviously, in such a feat of microcosmic summation that it literally blows my cognitive functions and makes me turn out sentences of breathless paragraph-lengths. He blinked his eyes and damned all such literature as onanistic and self-indulgent*. In retrospect, Barth might be a tad selfish, but he does it in a manner which comes cross as playful, even when dealing with subjects as potentially calamitous as vacuum aspiration (of twins no less). He notes devices and tropes in his own / his narrator's writing, telling then showing (and showing-off) such devices and tropes as weather to indicate or confuse characters' actions and moods. He plays with language like no-one else of whom I know, compounding his own nouns when fun dictates, verbing-up other nouns when suitable existing ones won't encapsulate the meaning as succinctly as he would like; he removes punctuation where deemed superfluous, particularly around reported speech, and some of his descriptive passages and phrases** come from an artist's view of things that I very much wish I could possess or, if not, emulate successfully. But of course, as with everything, it's not perfect; I mean, what kind of monster uses so many footnotes?!***

To recount the story, a little, for those who enjoy a narrative arc in their executive summaries; recently retired C.I.A. officer and fifty-something divorcee Fenwick Scott Key Turner, absolutely descended from author of The Star Spangled Banner, to whom many references abound, and his second wife of seven years, the younger at thirty five, and scholarly American Literature professor, Susan Rachel Allan Seckler, potentially descended from Edgar Allan Poe, to whom many, many references abound also, have just about finished a sabbatical sailing tour of the Caribbean and are headed back to home to face many questions about their joint or several futures after failing to find out any more about the mysterious disappearances of his twin brother and C.I.A. maverick Manfred, and Manfred's own son, with Fenn's wife's mother, Gus, half-brother to both Susan and her twin sister and victim of repeated acts of atrocity, Miriam. And that's about as simply as I can put it. I wonder if the subtitle of the novel relates to the Byronic influence of action and nomenclature surrounding 'Count' Manfred, hinted at and directly referenced within, particularly in relationship to Fenn's first wife, the sibling-courted Marilyn Marsh, who – spoiler alert! – crops up late on as a C.I.A. operative herself. Oh, also the first couple mentioned there, Suse and Fenn, appear to be co-authoring a novel about their time at sea and their lives on land, which, in essence, is this novel. 

Postmodern eh?

Fear not! For all its complexity it is still a joyful and surprising novel, witty and erudite, challenging and rewarding, and for the lover of sailing, replete with nautical thingameejigs and whassnames. If you've never tried Barth before, this might be the gateway novel to a future of reading pleasure.

* A nearly true story!
** Off the top of my head, one description of massing storm clouds made me squeal like a child with his hand in a tub of maggots - "...that sky over there has put on its green and black rampage dress."
*** An over-used and tiresome device to prove not only that the writer is cleverer than the reader but also that there was hard work involved, such as would require the noting of research to prove all that is said is so.

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