The first time I read John Barth's "Giles Goat-Boy" (1966) I was totally baffled. It seemed like a giant mess of confusing, cyclic plots and satirical references, spelling out a grand and almost transcendent philosophy that I was just too stupid to grasp. The second time -- a few years ago -- I was impatient to "get the point," and I skimmed the dull parts in order to achieve that elusive transcendence. I failed again...but was even MORE intrigued. All of Barth's other books were digestible, after all...why should this one be any different? And if the theme was so complex as to be almost impossible to understand, it must be a REAL piece of wisdom!
Now that I've read the book for the third time -- and very carefully too -- I can say with authority that there's a very good reason why I never understood its philosophical point before: the book is way too long, way too complicated, terribly organized, and an almost complete failure in so many ways. To use one of its own terms -- which makes me a little nauseous to see one more time -- "Giles Goat-Boy" is flunkéd.
I warn you now that I'm going to give it all away. The book's central (hidden, poorly realized) theme is that of paradoxical opposites living together in sort-of-harmony, and the paradox of "Giles Goat-Boy" is that the IDEAS are interesting, but they are too complicated to be interesting to read. So I'll spell them out here (as best as I think I understand them), to at least save you the 800 pages of the book itself.
Oh, the superficial ideas are clever. They're BRILLIANT, in fact. "Giles Goat-Boy" is presented as a computer-generated biographical reconstruction, given to a professor/author whose initials happen to be "J.B.," and then published by a reluctant publishing company. Already we have the traditional Barthian conceit of an unreliable manuscript, pieced together from multiple sources, handed down through a long line of anonymous people, and ending with a suspicious final chapter which may or may not be fraudulent.
So "Giles Goat-Boy" is a sort of New Testament (actually subtitled "The Revised New Syllabus") which tells the story of a hero-to-be, a goat-boy whose life fits the pattern of mythical heroes and prophets...yes, it's that "heroic pattern" that John Barth later explores in "Chimera."
Like Bellerophon from "Chimera," the goat-boy (George) is convinced that he is a prophet, and he tries his best to fit the archetype of the hero/prophet. Also like Bellerophon, this goes poorly, because George himself is no heroic stereotype; he's a flawed human who was raised as a goat, he is just as confused and uncertain as the people around him, and his attempts to "fit the pattern" go horribly awry: how can a REAL person ever fit into an IDEAL?
Besides the "heroic pattern" element, this book's other conceit is that George lives in a world based around a "University" idiom. The countries are all "colleges," the prophets are "tutors," the newspaper reporters are "journalism majors," the wars are "riots." Written in 1966, the major conflict -- the "Quiet Riot" -- is between New Tammany College (America) and the Nikolayan College (the "Student Unionist" USSR). George -- self-styled "Grand Tutor" -- wants to end the Quiet Riot by disarming the technological/war/political machine embodied by a computer called "WESCAC" (and the Nikolayan "EASCAC" counterpart). Then he wants to lead everybody to "Commencement Gate" (enlightenment) by showing them how to "pass" (an uncertain term, sort of "do the correct thing" or "live properly").
The people that he meets -- and tries to "pass" -- are all representations of human ideas and stereotypes: Max, his mentor, a disaffected Jewish ex-Student Unionist obsessed with his own unworthiness; Leonid, a Nikolayan spy who so desires to be selfless that he is potentially selfish; Croaker, a Frumentian (African) savage who is essentially "the body" to Dr. Eirkopf's withered and emotionless "mind"; Stoker, the crass, tempting, and misleading "dean o' flunks" (devil); Peter Greene, the necessarily blind embodiment of all American vice and virtue; Ira Hector, the selfish industrialist; Chancellor Rexford, the man who leads the "campus" with charisma but accomplishes nothing; Dr. Sear, the jaded upper-class professional; and Anastasia...errr, sort of a compendium of female traits, I suppose.
George tries to tutor these people while fending off the threat of Jerome Bray -- a mysterious, inhuman, and truly disturbing co-claimant to Grand Tutorhood -- and carrying out a set of cryptic but typically heroic tasks assigned to him by WESCAC.
The first four hundred pages of the book are LOTS of fun. You get an excellent gloss of world conflict, relgion, and sociology as satirized within the "University" idiom. As an added bonus you also get a lesson in heroic tragedy with "The Tragedy of Taliped Decanus," a hilarious seventy page retelling of "Oedipus Rex" (in rhyming heroic couplets and '60s slang).
Then, having gone through his preliminary obstacles, George begins to tutor. He believes that, to pass, everybody must learn to create firm categories and distinctions: passing is different from failing, good is different from bad, east is different from west, selfishness is different from selflessness, etc. He discusses this idea with each of the people mentioned above, and solves all of his tasks using this method: boundaries must be moved apart, people must remain unyielding in their principles. He is 100% convinced that this is the correct way to "pass"...but he has some tiny doubts now and then that he can't nail down.
We read hundreds of pages of philosophical debate. George debates everybody. He discusses all the ramifications of his theory. He manages to convince everybody (and the reader) that rigid categorization is the way to "pass"...
...and then his solutions fail. Things get worse. His "tutees" are more flunkéd than ever. Barth is, I suppose, criticizing dogmatism.
After an extended period of moping, George realizes that he was wrong: people must FORSAKE all categories: boundaries must CEASE to exist, people must accept ALL principles. Passing IS failing, and vice versa! For another hundred pages he tutors all of the above people again, teaching them this new way to "pass"...despite his tiny doubts. And once again, while sitting through these seemingly endless debates, the reader is convinced that George has finally got it figured out...
...and then his solutions fail. Things get even WORSE. George winds up getting lynched, with a goathorn stuck up his butt, the fate (Barth is telling us) of those who see EVERYTHING in shades of gray, refusing to recognize extremes.
After an extended period of moping, George realizes that he was wrong once again: people must...errr, he knows EXACTLY what they must do! For a third time he tutors everybody, but gives them contradictory advice that doesn't seem to have a purpose.He still has lots of doubts, but those doubts no longer bother him. He engages in a series of very '60s sex/conception/womb moments with Anastasia, briefly short-circuits WESCAC, and finally drives the nightmarish Jerome Bray off campus (maybe).
And what is George's grand philosophy, the one you've read 800 pages to learn? Oh jeez, you better have read close, because Barth does a piss-poor job of explaining it. The best I can understand, George has realized that the world is full of necessary contradictions and paradoxes; fighting against paradoxes is failure, but bringing yourself close enough to the paradoxes so that you can see them clearly -- and yet accept them as unsolvable or irrelevant -- is the only way to pass...which is simultaneously failure, but that's just one of life's paradoxes, that nobody really passes or fails, because we're full of contradictions, and so is the world, etc.
As you can imagine, this is NOT the resolution of a self-help book. The thing is, when you're reading "Giles Goat-Boy," you are anticipating SOME sort of return, but what you get is a concept so complicated, recursive, and difficult to live with that not even the AUTHOR can explain it properly. Since George (and Barth) seem to believe that the concept is impossible to really grasp...well, he literally seems to give up trying. The book falls flat on its face.
Infuriating. Fatally flawed. Passéd and flunkéd...but maybe THAT is the point? ARGH!
Anyway, I'm so exhausted by this book that I can't talk about it anymore, but since this is "The Barthathon," how does it fit into his body of work? This is the first time he really tries (and fails) to understand male-female relationships. The heroic pattern is also explored for the first time (intentionally at least). You've also got twins, agonized impotence, and Zeno's paradoxes (which will come up again in "On With the Story," I believe). Nobody goes to Maryland or sails a ship, and in many ways this is the most "un-Barth" of all the Barth novels, but "Chimera" later gives us both a mythology-distilling computer and "Jerome Bray" (J.B. again?)