Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Barthathon: "The End of the Road"

John Barth has said that his novels always come in linked pairs. The links between his first two novels -- "The Floating Opera" (1956) and "The End of the Road" (1958) -- are too many to mention. The obvious ones are the strangely consensual love triangles and the unlikeable, eccentric protagonists, but at their hearts there is something significant being considered: the nature of human rationalization and personality.

In "The Floating Opera," Todd Andrews has spent his life consciously trying out new personalities; we're told in detail (by himself) how he has rationalized each step of his way towards destructive nihilism, and in the end how this personality fails him as well. The book is an entertaining story about law and childhood and relationships, but the focus is Todd's calm and methodic inner struggle to decide who he should be.

"The End of the Road" takes this one step further, giving us a man (Jacob Horner) whose personalities come and go so fast that they're referred to as "the weather." Sometimes he's caring and considerate, and at other times he's a violent mysogynist...but at ALL times he can rationalize his activities. This time around the focus is on Jacob's arguments with Joe, a painfully methodical empiricist who has his own philosophy so rigidly defined that he finds a man with no personality to be absolutely fascinating...and a challenge, both to himself and to his poor wife. What better way to test his wife's developing "rationality" by exposing her to a person who can justify ANY position?

So the book is about forming a personal philosophy, and the way that -- at the center of it all -- our philosophies are based on unprovable assumptions. The really tragic characters are those who have so much invested in their philosophies so as to be completely unable to deal with the realization that their beliefs (and the beliefs of others) are, ultimately, equally silly. Such people can survive only if they can adapt the world's behaviour to mesh with their own philosophies; Jacob Horner survives by constantly adapting himself to the changing philosophies of the world around him. Horner understands that, sometimes, people do things without ever knowing WHY. He can survive no matter what, but he has no "personality." He doesn't "exist."

This is a fascinating character conflict and, coupled with the harrowing events of the book -- spousal abuse, and the attempt to get an abortion in a small conservative town during the 1950s -- it's a wonderful read. It's written in Barth's characteristic style: amusing, flippant, and well-paced, with frequent meditations on the nature of writing itself. It's statements like this that made me uncertain about my own writing, once upon a time:
Assigning names to things is like assigning roles to people: it is necessarily a distortion, but it is a necessary distortion if one would get on with the plot, and to the connoisseur it's good clean fun.
Since Jacob Horner is (like Barth) an English professor, this is a theme he occasionally explores in his classroom as well, and he teaches his students the old addage about needing to know the rules of writing before breaking them...but it's uncertain whether Horner really believes this (as much as he believes anything) or if he's just saying it to get out of a tricky jam engineered by one of his more annoying students.

I finished "The End of the Road" a few weeks ago and I'm now making my way through his fourth novel, "The Sot-Weed Factor." It is -- surprise! -- partially about how we choose and manifest our personalities. Sound familiar? I'faith, 't'is!

8 comments:

Eric Little said...

I just wish one-tenth of the academic criticism I read was as accurate and elegantly stated.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Wow, there must be a lot of really crappy academic criticism out there!

Eric Little said...

You don't know the half of it...

I just proofed a review I did of a book about George Orwell and three other, more obscure authors, which was basically sound. But the author's way of stating the case was so turgid, so full of justification by Theory, that it was almost unreadable at times.

But it's not only that academic criticism is so weak, so divorced from the reading experience of many lovers of literature. I reread your entry, and you are good: a vigorous, rhythmically interesting style, with just the right tone. And the content is spot on.

(I'd look up some academic criticism of Barth, but why spoil a nice day?)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Yes, my problem with most criticism is that it doesn't give anybody an EMOTIONAL reason to read a book...just a lot of intellectual reasons.

Here in the technical writing department I am occasionally having small disagreements about style with another writer. He believes in strict formalization, and I believe in occasional deviation from the rules in order to improve "the flow."

There are certainly pros and cons of both approaches...

ambrose mensch said...

Here's another similar Horner quote (perhaps my favorite):

"Articulation! There, by Joe, was my absolute, if I could be said to
have one. At any rate, it is the only thing I can think of about which I ever had, with any frequency at all, the feelings one usually has for one's absolutes. To turn experience into speech -- that is, to classify, to categorize, to conceptualize, to grammarize, to syntactify it -- is always a betrayal of experience, a falsification of it; but only so betrayed can it be dealt with at all, and only in so dealing with it did I ever feel a man, alive and kicking."

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Hey Ambrose, sent out any water-messages lately?

Whenever I read a Barth novel, I find myself dog-earing the pages whenever I run across wonderful quotes like these...but eventually I need to stop or every page will be crimped up.

ambrose mensch said...

>Hey Ambrose, sent out any water-messages lately?

Heh, havent't heard from ol' YOURS TRULY in a while, to be sure...

Come over and stir the pot here, if you're not on the list already. It could use a kick in the arese:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/johnbarth

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I'd love to join, Ambrose, but my yahoo email has been bouncing for seven years and it makes it impossible for me to manage those groups.

But I WILL continue to check out your blog! And I'll stick it in my blogroll during the next update...

PS: Almost finished re-reading "Tidewater Tales."