Mr. Barth is the author of The Floating Opera (1956), End of the Road (1958), and The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), three books which aspire to a condition of extreme sophistication. This condition is now reached in Giles Goat-Boy.
The Floating Opera is the place to begin. Like Bellow’s Dangling Man, it lays the materials on the workshop floor, the choice figures, metaphors, and analogies. Briefly, these start from the assumption that nothing is but what is not. If A looks like A, expect to find that he is B in one of his many disguises. In Mr. Barth’s world man is the incorrigible playboy, homo ludens. Think of Pirandello’s world loosened in farce, the self-questioning now hilarious and inconsequential. This is near enough to Mr. Barth’s idiom. So the plot of a Barth novel is merely the stage on which the intimate playlets are registered. Speaking with some sobriety, one reports that The Floating Opera is the story of Todd Andrews, middle-aged lawyer, and his involvement with a woman and her husband. But the story is merely the space in which the characters play their occasional roles. The events are bones thrown to the dogged reader to keep him occupied while the actors cavort behind his back. Reasonably enough in this world the persuasion of beginning, middle, and end as a principle or order is quietly ignored. Mr. Barth is a lord of misrule, his favorite principle is inconsequence. What follows from what is the victim of his most exquisite torture.
About halfway through The Sot-Weed Factor Ebenezer, poet and virgin, encounters Peter Sayer, who turns out to be Henry Burlingame, “the well-dressed, smooth-shaven, periwigged tutor of St. Giles in the Fields and London.” Is’t once, or twice, or thrice I am deceived?”, the poet exclaims. “The world’s a happy climate for imposture,” Burlingame admits “with a smile”:
‘Tis but to say what oft I’ve said to you ere now, Eben: your true and constant Burlingame lives only in your fancy, as doth the pointed order of the world. In fact you see Heraclitean flux: whether ‘tis we who shift and alter and dissolve; or you whose lens changes color, field, and focus; or both together. The upshot is the same, and you may take it or reject it…. If you’d live in the world, my friend, you must dance to some other fellow’s tune or call your own and try to make the whole world step to ‘t.
So Burlingame, a tireless impresario, lives by calling all the tunes, playing all the parts; in his own vaudeville he plays Peter Sayer, Nicholas Lowe, Monsieur Casteene, Tim Mitchell, Charles Calvert, to cite a few of his saltier incarnations. Ebenezer is slow to learn, but at least once he changes place with Bertrand, his valet. In End of the Road the narrator, Jacob, has a lucid paragraph about role-playing, which he associates with Mythotherapy. “Enough now to say that we are all …