Hilariously Inappropriate:  John Barth’s “Chimera” & Preferring Press Releases

chimera barthMany years ago, at my first teaching job, I tried to interest my Latin students by interspersing historical novels and retold myths with their Latin grammar and translations. 

The class was reading Ovid, and I had a brilliant idea.  “They would love John Barth’s Chimera.”  At least I had loved it when I’d read it 10 years before.  It consists of three retold myths, the Dunyazadiad (narrated by Scheherazade’s sister in The Arabian Nights), the Perseid (narrated by Perseus himself), and the Bellerophoniad (narrated by Bellerophon). I happily spent a Saturday going from bookstore to bookstore to buy cheap mass-market paperback editions.  I distributed them to my students, but when I began rereading Chimera…  Oh no!

I had forgotten how bawdy it was.  And so I collected the books next day, saying I’d decided to assign George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra instead “because it was shorter.” As you can imagine, they were enthralled to read something shorter.

This summer, I have finally returned to Barth, one of the great post-modern writers.  And Chimera, which won the National Book Award, is a witty, playful experiment in  the art of storytelling, with marvelously clever and crafty mythic characters,

Here are the opening lines of the Perseid.

Good evening.

Stories last longer than men, stones than stories, stars than stone.  But even our stars’ nights are numbered, and with them will pass this patterned tale to a long-deceased earth. 

Stunning, yes?  

PREFERRING PRESS RELEASES.  I have been trying to read more new books, and some are excellent.  Alas!  I must tell you that some… are… not.   I recently wondered,  “Why does everybody at Goodreads like this??”  I found this particular novel boring, precious, and way too whimsical. (I won’t mention the title, out of courtesy.)  And yet the publicist had sent an intriguing press release.  She writes very well. Where is her book?  I would read it!

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