With a novel as peculiar as Giles Goat-Boy1 on their hands, John Barth's publishers wisely took the only course open to them: they played it all or nothing. The book was given the big treatment—interviews before publication, big ads, big reviews. The campaign, as we all know by now, has paid off handsomely; Giles Goat-Boy, well on its way up the bestseller list, has established Barth as a formidable new talent in American literature.
My role in this by-now-familiar ceremony must be the equally familiar one of the dissenting voice. But I dissent with a regret that is not only real but painful: to me Barth's second novel, End of the Road 2 (1958), is a splendid work, one of the most exciting novels of the last twenty years. His first novel, The Floating Opera3 (1956), I liked pretty well too, and so I felt something close to personal betrayal when I discovered that The Sot-Weed Factor 4 (1960) and Giles Goat-Boy are about as bad as novels can be. They are, to begin with, appallingly tedious, and what is worse, their tediousness seems to be almost deliberate, a necessary feature of the large fictional project which Barth has undertaken and in which The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy represent just the first two installments. This project, I believe, bears the same relation to interesting fiction that Baconianism bears to significant Shakespeare studies.
Actually, Barth's concern with this project was already visible in The Floating Opera, but at that point it had yet to take over his mind, and therefore did little damage to that entertaining novel. Now, however, we see the whole strange plan: Barth has taken upon himself no less a task than the resurrection of the pre-dramatic novel—a task he means to accomplish by overtly imitating the techniques of English fiction prior to Jane Austen, and by rendering in up-to-date contexts the themes which have been found in these early novels by some of their more strenuous over-readers. The Floating Opera is modeled on Tristram Shandy (amusing inability to get down to telling the story, exhibitionistic eccentricity, lots of digressions); The Sot-Weed Factor is an 806-page literal imitation of every picaresque novel from Rabelais to Fanny Hill (archaic language; long, funny chapter-headings; episodic structure); Giles Goat-Boy is a 710-page pseudo-adaptation of the Swift of Gulliver's Travels and the narrative sections of A Tale of a Tub (extended political, social, and religious allegory with a science-fiction twist). I call what Barth is doing Baconianism because, as the length itself of the two later books might suggest, one sees here a heartbreakingly obsessive patience and persistence; and yet, it doesn't work. Just as the Baconians in the end tell us nothing about Shakespeare, so Barth's laborious imitations fail to produce interesting or important works of art. An extremely talented novelist has, for motives one can only guess at, deliberately turned himself into a kind of mad graduate-student in English literature. Of course, Mr. Barth himself might relish my description of his project and its results: he is one of our black humorists. Interviews with him, as well as the novels themselves, suggest that he is quite a joker, and I have neglected to report that the last two novels are said to be riotously funny and zestfully bawdy.
But I happen to find these novels boring and not very funny, and I think they fail to accomplish the expressive effects which Barth set out to achieve. On the first two counts, I can do little beyond mere assertion. I can, however, recount what the reviewer of The Sot-Weed Factor for the New York Times called “Barth's masterstroke . . . an outrageously funny, villainously slanderous, alleged secret journal of Capt. James Smith. Its version of the Pocahontas story is truly Rabelaisian and marvelously executed.” Now this Rabelaisian version of the Pocahontas story happens to be not in Capt. James Smith's secret journal but in Sir Henry Burlingame's—but The Sot-Weed Factor is not a book that encourages accurate reading. Barth's story is that Smith, far from being rescued from death by the intervention of the noble Pocahontas, instead procured his own amnesty from Pocahontas's father because he alone, by means of a secret concoction involving an eggplant, was able to produce an erection big enough to penetrate Pocahontas's “privitie,” which was “that nice, and the tympanum thereof so surpassing stout, as to render it in-frangible.” As for Capt. Smith's journal, it in fact concentrates less on mighty erections than on “mighty” farts and faeces discharged from “mighty bums.” There is a lot of this sort of talk in the book, and it is certainly harmless enough. But this brand of humor, compared with even so mild a success as Candy—not to mention the works of Nabokov—strikes me by now as fairly predictable, and I think Barth's bawdry will be found irresistible, “outrageously funny,” and “marvelously executed,” only by those who get a mighty charge out of any use of wonderful quaint old words like “privitie” and “bum.”
If I contend that Barth's methods fail to achieve his expressive and philosophical intentions, it might be answered that my use of these terms shows plainly enough that I am taking a marvelous spoof in the wrong spirit. But this is nonsense: Barth is nothing if not thinky, he loves ideas with the cranky passion of the amateur. I shall argue later that this Philosophy-101 earnestness about ideas accounts for some of the peculiar power of End of the Road. But in that book ideas are really dramatized; in The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, Barth's episodic structure has the effect of casting a merciless spotlight on the puerility of his thinking. One of the episodes in The Sot-Weed Factor, for instance, involves the marriage of an Indian to a white Englishwoman (who turns out, in one of the hundreds of boring coincidences that are de rigueur in imitation picaresque, to be the hero's twin sister). We hear the thinking that is behind this contrived episode from Mary Mungummory, “the Travelling whore o' Dorset”:
But what I've heard o' the wretch and his English woman I can fathom to the core. Let callow folk laugh: I know his heart and hers as well! There's something in't of what Mister Cooke declared just now, and what we discoursed on once before in the Cambridge stables—that there's a piece o' the salvage in us all. 'Tis that and more: the dark of 'em hath somewhat to do with't, I know. What drives so many planters' ladies to raise their skirts for some great black buck of a slave, like the Queen in The Thousand and One Nights? V God, the things I see and hear of in my rounds! Methinks 'tis an itch for all we lose as proper citizens—something in us pines for Chaos, for the black and lawless Pit. I've seen these ladies at their pleasure and taken my share of't; the sweat of such rutting hath the cold, sweet stink o Death.
This theme is continued in the next chapter, which is titled: “The tale of Billy Rumbly is concluded by an eye-witness to his Englishing. Mary Mungummory poses the question, does essential savagery lurk beneath the skin of civilization, or does essential civilization lurk beneath the skin of savagery?—but does not answer it.” It turns out that when Anna Cooke married Billy Rumbly, she was instantly transformed into an Indian in her manners and dress (“her hair was coarse and tangled, and her brown skin greasy as a bacon-flitch”), while Billy Rumbly became increasingly civilized, learning how to speak elegant English in a few days, dressing and moving with aristocratic style, and so forth. When the hero, Ebenezer Cooke, discovers that the woman is his sister, the process is instantly reversed. Now this, I swear, is absolutely all Barth does in the way of fleshing out his dark questions about civilization and savagery (one cannot read the later Barth without keeping up a constant antiphony of “Is that all?”).
Let me take another instance from this novel. Ebenezer and Anna continually encounter their sinister former tutor, Henry Burlingame III; he appears in many disguises, he is charismatic (“he had that power of attraction—how doth a man speak of it?”), he is impotent, bisexual (having been seduced by Sir Isaac Newton), and he, too, like all proper characters in a proper picaresque, is searching for his own identity. Clearly a very large idea is in the offing: but all we learn in the true-confession scene is that Burlingame had all along been in love, not with either twin, but with their “twinship.”
Another example: Ebenezer Cooke, the poet-laureate of Maryland, having vowed chastity because of his vocation, falls in love with a London whore named Joan Toast, whom he finally marries when she is dying of the pox. But though he marries her, he does not sleep with her until the very last pages of the book, for not until then does he discover the “crime I stand indicted for . . . the crime of innocence, whereof the Knowledged must bear the burden. There's the true Original Sin our souls are born in: not that Adam learned, but that he had to learn—in short, that he was innocent.”
These few sophomoric paradoxes provide an infuriatingly small return on an investment of 806 pages. But the essential, the pure tedium of The Sot-Weed Factor remains Barth's sheer incapacity to invent interesting episodes or an interesting language. Mary Mungummory's musings on Chaos and the Pit reveal the colossal errors of tact, tone, and diction that Barth can sink to when he has heavy thoughts on his mind. (Compare this with a choice bit of historical realism from the movie Quo Vadis : “Do come visit us in Sicily. Bring Drusilla and the children.”) As these quotations show, Barth's page-by-page imitation of 18th-century English chugs along at a pretty steady B average.
Giles Goat-Boy has been praised for an even riper kind of poetic prose: “Mercy on that buck who butted me from one world to another; whose fell horns turned my sweetheart's fancy, drove me from the pasture, and set me gimping down the road I travel yet.” Actually, however, this self-conscious high-style (B-minus I'd say, this time) plays a mercifully small part in the novel. The language that really counts is the speech of the symbolic characters in Barth's Swiftian apparatus. Here is Max Spielman, one of the key characters—a brilliant atomic physicist whose guilt about the bomb has driven him to the country to raise goats—explaining to the hero, Billy Bockfuss-George the Goat-Boy-Giles Goat-Boy, why he raised him as a goat rather than as a boy:
“Every day I looked at the human school-kids that visited the barns,” he said; “they were good children, pretty children, full of passions and curiosity: I'd ask one who he was, and he'd say ‘I’m Johnny So-and-so, and my daddy's a gunner in the NTC Navy, and when I grow up I'm going to be a famous scientist and EAT the Nikolayans.' Then I'd ask Brickett Ranunculus, that was just a young buck then, ‘Who are you?’ and he'd twitch one ear and go on eating his hay. There it all was, Bill. On one side, the Nine Symphonies and the Twelve-Term Riot; Enos Enoch and the Bonifacists! On the other side, Brickett Ranunculus eating his mash and not even knowing there's such a thing as knowledge. I'd watch you frisking with Mary's kids, that never were going to hear what true and false is, and then I'd look at the wretchedest man on campus, that wrote The Theory of the University and loves every student in it, but killed ten thousands with a single Brainwave! So! Well! I decided my Bill had better be a goat, for his own good, he should never have to wonder who he is!”
Swiftian transpositions account for the bizarre surface (NTC is NYC or USA, the Nikolayans are the Russians, the Twelve-Term Riot is World War II, etc.), but apart from this there is nothing in the thinking or the writing here that one would not expect to hear in a “serious” TV play about scientists and the bomb. Occasionally, as in the last sentence above, Spielman's talk does get a little cornier in the Jewish idiom, and thus slightly more interesting, but Barth lacks the courage to raise even this familiar idiom to the pitch necessary to bring off the effect of fantasy which he intends.
Without the support of vivid language, everything depends on the Swiftian device; but the failure of Barth's Swiftian allegory in Giles Goat-Boy is more awesome than anything in The Sot-Weed Factor—it is in fact total. Everyone who has heard of the novel knows by now that the world of Giles Goat-Boy is described in terms of a university: Russia is the East Campus, the West is the West Campus, Presidents are Chancellors, other officers Deans, and Billy Bockfuss (George the Goat-Boy) believes himself to be the new Grand Tutor if not actually the Giles (that is, some kind of Christ-figure). Barth has worked this out very fully, and it certainly sounds Swiftian enough. Now, although I am not the world's greatest admirer of Books I and II of Gulliver's Travels, or of the narrative sections of A Tale of a Tub, I will acknowledge that Swift's invention of little and big men and his reduction of religious controversy to low terms do achieve his intention of offering a strange and special perspective on human affairs: the device may not yield untold riches of insight, but it is distinctly a new perspective, it works. Barth's version of Swiftian methods, on the other hand, I would again call Baconianism, because his elaborate translation of our world into a university is precisely not a new perspective. We learn nothing new about the way our world works simply by having it called a university; Barth, in fact, hardly ever actually describes the world in terms of a university, and even when he does, there is no meaningful counterpart in our world to what happens in Barth's university. It is all on the surface, all a matter of substituting one term for another. The inhabitants of New Tammany Campus do not in the least appear to be attending a university, they are simply living in a sketchily outlined version of the United States or New York City. The Chancellor of New Tammany resembles some college presidents because some college presidents in our world resemble politicians in their personality; in Barth's book the Chancellor of New Tammany does not do the kind of work a college president does but the kind of work done by the President of the United States. It is true that everybody on New Tammany Campus has to go through a ritual called Matriculation, but this too is a meaningless procedure, because there is nothing analogous to Matriculation in our world, unless one would call it something vague like “coming of age” or “joining the culture,” in which case the precisely detailed description of the Matriculation ceremony fails to offer any new perspective on a similarly precise ritual in our world. Nor are the students of the University endangered by the computer in the way students at Berkeley think they are endangered; for the computer, Wescac, is mostly a bomb, and being EATen by Wescac results in the physical destruction of the brain by radiation, which produces conventional idiocy. And so on. It is as if Barth had written a 710-page imitation of Swift just to demonstrate as convincingly as possible that he does not, in the most basic sense, understand how Swift's methods operate. (Perhaps, of course, not to understand Swift is riotously and outrageously funny, and I am again missing the joke.)
Because of this failure to operate the Swiftian machine, what we actually encounter in Giles Goat-Boy are John Barth's personal opinions on world politics, Kennedy, Eisenhower, the Nazis, the bomb, and so forth. There is no reason why the opinions of a novelist named John Barth on these matters ought to be more valuable than yours or mine, and they decidedly aren't. But then you and I haven't written 710-page accounts of our opinions.
Giles Goat-Boy also contains a moral, religious, and metaphysical allegory. George the Grand Tutor spends a lot of time wondering whether he really is the Grand Tutor, and he gradually develops his gospel (the Revised New Curriculum) only while preaching it. When he arrives at New Tammany, he finds it in a state of degenerate moral relativism and thrill-seeking; he begins, therefore, by preaching a doctrine of strict categories: passed (saved) and flunked (damned) are totally disparate states, and one must strive to rediscover and follow strict standards of good and evil. He then becomes convinced that the opposite is true—passèd and flunkèd are the same—and he proceeds to preach a gospel of being true to one's nature. Finally, he climbs to the higher paradox, in which he believes both of his former gospels at once: passed and flunked are both the same and different. But this gospel must be mystically experienced, it cannot be taught; it seems to have something to do with love, for its key word is “embrace,” and George's moment of mystical illumination takes place in the sexual act. If these paradoxes sound pretty trashy in my outline, please be assured that reading the novel itself will not change your mind about them; in fact, nothing in the dull repetitive episodes with which Barth has contrived to fill the pages of Giles Goat-Boy amounts to an imaginative embodiment of, or justification for, this gospel.
It is with relief and with a strong sense of bafflement that I approach Barth's absorbing early novel, End of the Road. Like his two later books, End of the Road is also a novel of ideas, and indeed pretty much the same ones. One of the most original things about Barth is his continual preoccupation with basic, almost naive, moral and ethical questions: How should one live one's life? How can one commit oneself to certain values, norms, categories, without losing one's basic freedom to experience life itself? If one passes “beyond good and evil,” gives up allegiance to conventional categories and hence also gives up moving toward the goals set by those categories—in other words, if one becomes alienated—how can one keep on living? Does alienation constitute freedom, or death? In End of the Road, Barth “thinks through” such questions in the way most good fiction characteristically operates—by dramatizing them in terms of complex, convincingly rendered personal relations; and he “answers” them by contriving a satisfying outcome to the drama of these relations.
The main character, Jacob Horner, represents a classical case of the alienated man who can maintain no consistent identity and therefore spends most of his time in a state of near-unconsciousness because no one thing seems better to do than any other thing. His doctor advises him to engage in arbitrary systematic work, and since Horner has done graduate work in English, he is able to get a job teaching systematic grammar at a small college on the eastern shore of Maryland. There he meets and, in his uncommitted way, becomes involved with a young couple, Rennie and Joe Morgan. The Morgans are odd enough in their own way—one must read Barth's full treatment to get even a hint of their real flavor—but the most important fact about them in terms of the book's theme is that they are dedicated to a complete mutuality of knowledge, trust, and freedom in marriage, and to unremitting self-investigation. Because Rennie is much less secure than her husband, it is easy for Horner casually to seduce her, whereupon the Morgans begin an agonizingly comic marathon to investigate the meaning of Rennie's infidelity. But Horner's characteristic response is this: “When upon confronting Joe in the hallways . . . I felt terribly ashamed of the trouble I'd caused him—when in my mind I not only regretted but actually repudiated my adultery—what I really felt was that I would not do what that Jacob Horner had done: I felt no identity with that stupid fellow. But as a point of honor (in which some Horner or other believed) I would not claim this pluralism, for fear Joe would interpret it as a defense.” Rennie becomes pregnant and resolves either to get an abortion or to shoot herself. Faced with this striking drama, Horner now feels responsibility for his actions, and it is he who tries to arrange the abortion. As a last resort, he tries his own doctor, who reluctantly consents to perform the abortion as part of Horner's therapy, but only under the condition that Horner become a permanent member of his sanatorium. Horner agrees, but since he now feels that he has acted effectively and with a consistent sense of identity, he privately intends not to live up to his promise. The abortion is a hideous failure, Rennie dies, the story gets out, and Joe Morgan is fired. Horner, left with no clear way to take responsibility for this catastrophe, decides after all to go to the sanatorium.
What this novel means, in respect to the ethical issues it raises, is, as in any successful work of fiction, identical with what we experience as we become engaged with the individual characters and their relationships; and Barth's high skill as a novelist is more than sufficient to shape our experience in original, subtle, and powerful ways. This shaping works in the direction of an almost perfect ambiguity, which is to say that, in one sense of the word, End of the Road does not “answer” the questions it raises. But this is not the job of art; a novel of ideas is successful if it accomplishes its structure and comes to a convincing end—just as a supreme tragedy of ideas like King Lear is a completed work of art even though it answers none of the questions it raises about suffering and guilt.
In view of the fact that End of the Road shows such an unusually impressive gift for embodying its ideas in the ordinary materials of fiction, Barth's decision to change his methods so drastically in his later novels amounts to a decision to stop being an artist. Why, we must ask, should he suddenly feel that the conventional dramatic plot-structure is an inadequate vehicle for his meanings and his expressive intentions? The answer to this question is far from clear. Perhaps Barth has simply succumbed to an itch to tell the answers to his questions right out loud—this is certainly what appears to be happening in The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy—but if so, he has been left on shaky ground indeed, since he is unwilling and, I would suspect, unable to demonstrate or justify his answers in conventional philosophical terms. Which is to say that he is no longer writing about identity-crises but going through one himself, and in public.
It is also possible, on the other hand, that Barth may have been convinced by fashionable modern literary criticism that the narrow bounds of verisimilitude and realism—with which conventional plot-structure is most often associated—would not allow him access to the expressive regions of black humor and surrealism to which he is clearly—and legitimately—drawn. But the facts are just the opposite. The basic mode of End of the Road is admittedly verisimilitude, and there is plenty of day-by-day realism in the book; indeed, the first thing one would say in praise of Barth's Morgans, for instance, is that they are thoroughly recognizable portraits of kinds of people important in our experience, and that they are observed with strikingly imaginative accuracy. But it has been a long time now since novelists first discovered how to modulate this kind of realism in order to allow entry to effects not strictly realistic, and at his best, Barth is highly competent at this mixing of modes. There are, to be sure, modulations in End of the Road that don't quite make it; but the larger and more important ones are successful. Take, for instance, the surrealistic image of Horner's doctor—a distorted caricature of a psychiatrist, who has to change his locale repeatedly, partly because he is a Negro and partly because he is something of a charlatan, if not actually a madman himself, with a therapeutic method that involves daily reading of the World Almanac and the practice of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetical Priority. This figure is adjusted to the realistic world of the book with considerable, if not consummate, finesse; and it is adjustments like this one that support and make plausible the nightmare ending of the novel and the strange emotions and meanings which it evokes.
The narrative methods of End of the. Road not only allow Barth to have access to strange and bizarre effects, but make his rendering of these effects more powerful and more interesting than anything in the slack, episodic structure of his later novels. I do not claim that Barth's language is good enough to bring his strange vision to the extraordinary intensity of pitch possible to a master like Nabokov. But Barth's high talents do not really lie in that direction, and, in fact, in End of the Road one feels no inadequacy of language. To apply the methods which Barth has lately chosen for his own, however—the methods of The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy—the special verbal gifts of a Nabokov are almost essential. One imagines, of course, that Barth thinks he has them—for what this very talented writer has most disastrously lost is any capacity for self-criticism.
1 Doubleday, 710 pp., $6.95.
2 Doubleday, 230 pp., $3.95.
3 Appleton-Century-Croft, 280 pp., $3.95.
4 Doubleday, 806 pp., $7.50.