Monday, August 06, 2007

The Barthathon: "The Sot-Weed Factor" (Plus "Giles Goat-Boy")

After meditating on the nature of belief, rationalization, and personality in his first two novels, John Barth's third book -- "The Sot-Weed Factor" (1960) -- takes the "personality" motif to ridiculous lengths. This time around he's concerned with personal history: is a person just the sum of his or her experiences and deeds, and how do you know who a person REALLY is, both in terms of their inner thoughts and their actual physical identity?

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!


Eric Little said...

I first read this as an undergraduate, and I loved the scatology, the language, the farce, the disquisitions, the stylistic tour-de-forces--so much so that it spoiled me for ALL genuine British eighteenth-century novels. (The two that come closest for me are Fielding's "Joseph Andrews" and Smollett's "Humphrey Clinker.") But no classic British novel of the period has this level of excrement, effluvia, and making of the beast with two backs. If it did, I'd be teaching it.

In "SWF," Barth is having a postmodern take at the eighteenth-century British novel in general--in particular, as he warns us, Fielding's "Tom Jones." Tom is a warm-hearted character who loves to spread his emotions--i.e., his love--with almost every unattached female he meets, even though he loves Sophie ("wisdom") Western. Yet despite all his swiving, he remains innocent. Barth writes about a virgin who remains chaste but soon enough loses his innocence.

Also, Tom has problems with his identity--since he's a foundling, who is he really? This sets up the possibility, about half-way through the novel, that he's unknowingly slept with his mother. There's a faint echo of this when the miller's wife tries to seduce Eben, and then, upon learning who he is, doesn't want to see him. (A red Oedipus?) In a sense many classic novels are about learning who you are, both internally and lineally, and Barth has a field day with this, as you point out.

I only learned about SWF's literary context by reading and teaching various 18th-century novels as part of my British novels course--none of this I knew when I first read "SWF," and I didn't remember much of it (other than the eggplant and Isaac Newton chasing Burlingame through Cambridge). It's been a real hoot to reread this (I almost burst a blood vessel when I got to the part where Henry Burlingame I is in front of John Smith in the tug-of-war and...). And just think--when this was first published in 1960, it was longer.

Oh--and as usual, your review is right on the money. I'd add that too much of the novel is by necessity narrated (with Ebenezer making appropiate reactive comments so the exposition is neatly broken into paragraphs), and the ending is almost deflationary--if life can be so coincidental, why doesn't it continue to be so in the epilogue?

Btw, there is a short story based on Clue: "A Game of Clue" by Steven Millhauser (in his collection "The Barnum Museum"). Millhauser is almost a terse Barth; he mainly works in the short story, although his two novels are wonderful. The movie "The Illusionist" is based on his "Eisenheim the Illusionist," but only captures a thimbleful of the original story's magic.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

If I'd read the first version with the extra fifty pages, I would have needed to go to Maryland and strangle John Barth myself. It was all just BARELY within a readable length.

Yes, the tug of war with Henry Burlingame I was possibly the funniest part of the book, though the Chief's description of Burlingame's chase after John Smith (that he was trying to kill them, as opposed to trying desperately to get away from the island) also made me laugh.

Strangely, the funniest joke of all was also the weirdest: after the initial long list of items eaten during the Indian eating contest, Barth quietly ends with "No rabbits." That was, by far, my favourite moment in the book.

I agree that the ending was a little odd. I almost chucked the book out the window when I realized that the Epilogue contained lengthy details about Maryland's political intrigues -- I'd long since given up trying to understand who was commissioned by whom to do what. And Joan Toast was a strangely over-tragic character...if ANYBODY deserved a "happily ever after" it was her.

I thought that the excessive narration was part of the style he was emulating. It didn't bother me much, since different narrators had different styles, and I think Ebenezer's interjections were intended to be funny and to show his naivete ("I can scarce believe!" "Marry, it cannot be!" etc.)

I'm glad you've revisited the book! It certainly means much more to me on the second reading than it did so long ago, when I wasn't even sure what Maryland WAS.

You should give "Giles Goat Boy" a try. The world-as-a-University metaphor is brilliant...east campus, west campus, etc. And it's equally witty and scatological (less swiving, though).

Mr. Word Player said...

Thanks for a most enjoyable overview of Ebenezer's adventures in Maryland. I read TSWF a few years ago after taking a meeting with a producer who told me that he and Steven Soderbergh had been trying to adapt it for film for years and that it was hands down the funniest book he'd ever read. I don't know if it's the funniest book I've read, but I do remember giggling for weeks at the wordplay, pervity and general waggishness.


Muffy St. Bernard said...

Oh, if only somebody WOULD adapt it for film! But even with the extraneous material removed it would still be an eight-hour epic, and I wonder if the bombastic style would work on film (part of the joy of the book is its imitation of that particular style of novel...there is no comparable style of film it could parody, I don't think).

I'm glad you enjoyed the overview! If you ever crave more Burlingame craziness, try reading Barth's novel "LETTERS." He comes spades.

hellycopper said...

front cover of my "Sot-Weed Facotr" just recently fell off... thanks for the overview, great stuff!

PurityofEssence said...

Soderbergh is perfect - Rob Lowe for Ebenezer, Nick Nolte for Bertrand, etc. It could use emendation to 90 minutes.