"Chimera" by John Barth (1972)
"Polyeidus defended the monster's deadliness on genealogical grounds - both of its parents had been legendary man-killers - but acknowledged that the creature had not left its lair in Amisodorus's deadly service at least since tranquilized by the Polyeidic magic papers, and so could be said to be a threat only to vulcanologists or ignorant spelunkers, whom a posted guard could easily warn off. He agreed with me therefore that there was no particular need to kill it - or her, if I preferred."
John Barth is an American writer who also taught at various Ivy League universities. Much of his later fiction was inspired by ideas first put forward by Joseph Campbell. Chimera is his most famous novel, and it won the National Book Award in 1973.
This novel - if Chimera can be called a novel - consists of three interlocking stories. The first of these is a kind of postscript to The One Thousand and One Nights, the second is an update of the Perseus myth, and the third takes extensive liberties with the story of Bellerophon, a hero whose greatest labor was the slaying of the Chimera, the mythical creature that gives this "novel" its name.
Beyond that, Chimera is also the story of a mid-life crisis. In both Perseus's and Bellerophon's stories we find heroes struggling with a loss of virility, and in Sheherazad's story we find two brothers using this perceived loss of virility as a reason to abuse the female protagonists. Towards the end, this novel is both extremely self-referential and extremely difficult to pin down, but the author's (and through him, the heroes') struggle to preserve a sense of his/their own virility is a persistent theme.
But again, is it a novel? Aside from certain themes, there is little to hold the three stories together, though the author does his best to arrive at a conclusion that embraces all three of them. Just the same, I think the finality of the second story's ending weakens the whole, and it might have been better to present the three stories on their own merits, without trying to present them as a novel.
Taken altogether, Chimera has its strong and weak points. The use of sex as a plot device grows tiresome, and at times the last story becomes too convoluted for its own good. I would imagine that readers steeped in the Greek classics would have an easier time keeping track of what's going on, but for the rest of us it can be slow going. Classics majors will love this book, but readers with more modern tastes will probably feel left out in the cold.
Even so, I thought the conclusion of the second story was quite moving. I won't give it away here, but the "translation" that occurs really lifted the narrative to another level. The first story isn't as successful, and the third, well... it's a lot like it's titular hero. It can't quite get it up at the end.
Compared to Gunter Grass's The Flounder, another, similar book recently reviewed here, Chimera is much more readable, though almost as ponderous. I can't say that it's a bad book, but it left me a bit disappointed.