It's annoying enough that the 800+ page novel features dozens of characters who interact in extremely complex ways. But then the characters begin to impersonate each other (in the case of Ebenezer Cooke, the protagonist, there are at least 4 different people claiming his identity at various times, sometimes simultaneously) and change their identities and stated motivations every few chapters...and THEN their histories and relationships begin to combine, twist, and alter radically right up until the end.
Keeping track of who is who, and who knows what about who, is like playing a month-long game of "Clue" where Colonel Mustard suddenly turns into Mister Green, discovers he's Miss Scarlet's twin, and unmasks Professor Plum as the REAL Colonel Mustard, who either never existed OR once saved Mrs. White and Mrs. Peacock from a pirate who was actually Mister Green in disguise, without realizing that Mrs. White was his illegitimate daughter. Only more complicated, and consistently written in wordy, hysterical 17th century vernacular.
This is done deliberately. Not only is Barth having fun with the nature of identity, he's also having fun with the "picaresque" style of historical novel, full of ridiculous twists, adventures, and coincidences. Barth can barely restrain winking at the reader now and then as if to say "you know I'm kidding, right?" As Cooke says at one point:
"What a shameless, marvelous dramatist is Life, that daily plots coincidences e'en Chaucer would not dare, and ventures complications too knotty for Boccacce!"It helps to know a bit of early American history. There really WAS a poem called "The Sot-Weed Factor," written by a very real (but somewhat mysterious) Ebenezer Cooke, and many of the politicians and rogues in the novel were actual wheelers and dealers during the founding and establishment of Maryland. Plus you've got the character of Henry Burlingame, who not only was the lover of both Henry More and Isaac Newton, but also -- during a novel-length search for his origins -- exposes the REAL story of John Smith's adventures, both with Pocahontas and many other native women thanks to the magical eggplant ritual.
While Barth carries over many of his obsessions from his previous two novels, this is the first time he gives us Joseph Campbell's "elementary ideas" of mythology, sending his characters on an archetypal heroic quest. Ebenezer Cooke starts out as an innocent prig who -- through countless tribulations and quests -- finally becomes a "hero" in the end. For this reason, "The Sot-Weed Factor" is readable despite its constant digressions and game-play; you may not care for Ebenezer and Henry's arguments about justice, identity, and virginity, but you DO get a thrill out of their search for scattered documents, pirate abductions, shipwrecks, and attempts to save Maryland from a native/slave uprising. It helps that it's all very, very funny.
The book actually suffers from TOO MUCH plot, though Barth can skillfully hook you back in the nick of time. By page 400 you're tired of Ebenezer's endlessly tangled accidental interactions, but it's at that point when he finally becomes an active character and you begin to LIKE him. By page 600 the revelations are coming fast and furious; long-standing mysteries are solved and you begin to get a sense -- finally -- of a distant but satisfying conclusion.
The main weakness at that point, however, is that he -- NOOOOO! -- introduces NEW characters and NEW mysteries. Seriously, by that point I'd had enough and couldn't handle any more complications. But in the last 100 pages, Barth throws out the theorizing and the preaching and just gives us a good solid resolution. Thank goodness. If there's one thing Barth knows how to do, it's to weave complex themes and rollicking adventure into a single strand.
"The Sot-Weed Factor," imitating the books it's satirizing, is vulgar. Whereas "the" is the most common word in most books, in this case the most common word is "swive." Women are CONSTANTLY being "swived," in more ways than you could ever imagine. Men are repeatedly fouling their trousers. And yet, except for a few harsh scenes with rapinous pirates, it's difficult to be disturbed by the rough sex and the scatology...the 17th century language is so CUTE. "I'faith, I am beshit!"
Anyway, by writing this critically-acclaimed book, Barth had proved his mettle and given us the first of his many "heroic" novels (not to mention the first with substantial nautical terminology). It's a rich, impossibly creative, overly-complex work that is both satire and serious. And when you're done reading it you'll need a long, long rest.
"Giles Goat-Boy" (1966)
I'm sadly skipping this one because I just re-read it last year. It's a "twin" to "The Sot-Weed Factor," once again exploring concepts of identity, civilization, motivation, and heroism, as well as having another ridiculously complicated plot. Unlike "The Sot-Weed Factor" it has aged poorly, partly due to its Cold War subtext but mainly because it sounds a bit hippy-dippy-idealistic to today's jaded ears. It's very much "right on, daddy-o."
Since "Sot-Weed" and "Giles" are acknowledged twin books, here's a strange coincidence: the BACK cover of my copy of "Giles" went missing a long time ago, and the FRONT cover of "Sot-Weed" fell off last week. So they REALLY match up nicely now!