Having passed the axis mundi and entered the second half of his literary output (so far), John Barth puts aside his "love it or lump it" style of conceptual fiction and eases us into "Sabbatical's" (1982) gentle estuaries.
Subtitled "A Romance," it is certainly that. This is the first time that Barth focuses on mundane human problems, midlife crises, and ennui, as opposed to unusual or historically-significant plot complications. In less skillful hands these topics could be dull, but BARTH KNOWS PEOPLE, at least certain TYPES of people. He deeply understands the angst of his characters, and "Sabbatical" is, at its heart, a dialog of angst.
Fenwick and Susan are married. They've embarked on an extended sailing trip to try to come to terms with their problems, and to make some crucial decisions about their future. At the beginning we're unsure of what their problems actually are, and their marriage seems pretty much perfect...but as the book's OTHER subtitle promises us ("A wry, mysterious tale about love, the sea, and storytelling") there is much going on below the surface, and I'm not just talking about Chessie.
The C.I.A. is involved. Relatives have disappeared mysteriously. Fenwick and Susan find themselves on an impossibly uncharted island, where Fenn loses his beloved boina and gets fired upon. Susan's family is a strange mess of authors, revolutionaries, and subnormal children, and Fenwick worries that the government may have designs on his heart. Huge, beautifully-described storms at sea bracket the equally awesome emotional blowouts on the boat, which crash towards a conclusion that SHOULDN'T have a happy ending...
...but does. I can't tell you about Fenwick's final revelation, but I WILL say that it's one of the most satisfying and surprising resolutions I've ever come across. It's the sort of "click" that should have come at the end of "Giles Goat-Boy." It's perfect and makes some of the more annoying elements of the book worthwhile.
Because, yes, "Sabbatical" is about "storytelling," so it is actually the story that Fenwick and Susan have written about their own adventure. You get the co-authors squabbling within the text itself. You get footnotes that are supposed to help introduce characters (but instead are just misplaced and confusing). You get the usual Barth practice of each character having multiple nicknames, and the need to describe in great detail how each name came about. You also get the intelligent, cute, sexually explicit and pun-filled "man and wife" dialog that we first read in "Chimera" and which finds its full expression here.
Also, for the first time, Barth REALLY lets loose with the sailing. Todd Andrews had an extended bit of sailing at the end of "LETTERS," but here we get an anatomical description of boats, procedures, and Maryland geography. I personally don't know the first thing about boats...in fact, the only boating information I've ever read has come from books by John Barth. But even so, he describes everything with such vivid joy that you can't help but appreciate the journey, even if you don't know what it means to "roller-furl" a "genoa."
This is Barth's most concise and beautiful book. I've never read it before and it's been a real delight, especially during the last fifty pages when things began to gel. If I were to recommend an introductory John Barth novel to a curious reader, this would be the one. Hint hint!
Barthy themes we read in "Sabbatical" for the first time: "on with the story" and references to Cervantes. Themes that continue from "LETTERS": Francis Scott Key, Edgar Allen Poe, the C.I.A., characters who have been somehow involved in literary history, and "Barataria." Themes that we've been coming across for a long time: water-messages, sea-nettles, twins, impotency, night-sea-journeys, the heroic pattern, Scheherazade, personified eggs and sperm.