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 casting directors a great deal of the time, if not always, and he is wise who realizes that his role-assigning is at best an arbitrary distortion of the actors’ personalities.”
WE MAY THEREFORE expect to find Mr. Barth’s novels operatic; as The Sot-Weed Factor is opéra bouffe, the style consistent with the fact that buffare means to blow with puffed cheeks. The story of The Floating Opera ends happily because the impresario prefers that kind of ending. “This is my opera,” he says, “and I shall lead you out of it as gently as I led you in.” So the scene on the showboat, at the end, is the formal correlative of the narrator’s life. Todd Andrews lives by shifting from one role to another; now rake, now saint, now cynic. He plays each part until the circumstances, the decor, and the spectacle, make it untenable. The comic principle of the book is that the shift from one role to another is not a matter of intrinsic preference. In a vaudeville or revue every turns is what it is; if one turn happens to be better than another, that is the nature of human frailty, not a formal requirement. So Todd Andrews lives by taking the same degree of interest in everything, rather than by choices, preferences, or commitments. The degree is necessarily small. The strategic advantage is that what other people do with passion or conviction, he does more effectively with disinterest. The philosophic version of this is set out in Wittgensteinian aphorisms near the end of the book. (1) “Nothing has intrinsic value.” (2) “The reasons for which people attribute value to things are always ultimately arbitrary.” (3) “There is therefore no ultimate ‘reason’ for valuing anything.” (4) “There is no reason for action in any form.” (5) “There is, then, no ‘reason’ for living.” Aphorism (6) is posited at the end. “There is, then, no ‘reason’ for living (or for suicide).” A marginal gloss reads: “If nothing makes any final difference, that fact makes no final difference either, and there is no more reason to commit suicide, say, than not to.” So on with the motley.
Thus garbed in The Sot-Weed Factor, Ebenezer, who protests that he wants to live by rule of choice and option, cannot do so, because all the possibilities seem equally enticing; as he fails to buy a notebook because the vendor, Benjamin Bragg, offers him a selection so dazzling as to defeat choice. All the novels exhibit a sexual motley, on the operatic principle that choice is an arbitrary impoverishment: if it exists, buy it. In Giles Goat-Boy Billy the Goat Kid swives Anastasia on her husband’s orders. In The Floating Opera Janie is shared by Todd as her husband’s best friend. In End of the Road a similar arrangement joins Rennie to Jacob and Joe. In The Sot-Weed Factor the only true lovers are Ebenezer and Anna, brother and sister: At the end we see them installed with Joan, Ebenezer’s old whore, all kindness and gonorrhea, whose child Andrew is now deemed their very own. To round out the symmetry, the impotent Burlingame is in love not with Anna, solo, or with Ebenezer, solo, but with their twinship, for which he burns in lust.
BUT IF THE INDIVIDUAL LIFE is an opera, a vaudeville, a revue, what is History? The short answer is that Clio is a whore. The only way to refute the heroic poem of history is to tell a mock-heroic tale of Clio’s craft. This is The Sot-Weed Factor, a scurrilous account of colonial Maryland featuring an apocryphal Secret Historie of the Voiage Up the Bay of Chesapeake by Captain John Smith, the Rape of the Cyprian, and excerpts from the Privie Journall of Sir Henry Burlingame. Call it a parody of In the American Grain, William Carlos Williams travestied. In Barth’s operatic history Sir Isaac Newton appears as a Cambridge sodomite and Thomas More as a master of the same art only less accomplished because of the extremity of his Platonism.
Mr. Barth’s problem is to hold this comic perspective. He is remarkably gifted in the word, the phrase, the line, but often insecure in the large economy. In The Floating Opera he tries to square the vaudeville with a plot, an unfortunate decision which makes him supply a factitious conclusion to a story hardly serious in its inception. Aphorism (6) could have been penned at any moment after a minute’s thought: There was no inherent obstacle to its announcement. Mr. Barth produces this rabbit two pages before the end; just as he causes Todd’s daughter to fall into a convulsion so that her father may decide to go on living. The Floating Opera is a lively book, but it would have been much better if Mr. Barth had played the vaudeville for all it was worth. When the comic perspective is lost, as in End of the Road, the result is neither fish nor fowl; that is, it is trash. Here the violence of the plot, such as it is, is wretchedly manipulated against the sophistical style:
A turning down of dinner damped, in ways subtle past knowing, manic keys on the thin flute of me, least pressed of all, which for a moment had shrilled me rarely.
The first pages of Giles Goat-Boy contain the “Publisher’s Disclaimer,” wherein the Editor-in-Chief gives the office-history of the manuscript, letters from Editors A, B, C, and D (the D-man being the Chief Editor’s “only son”), and the heartrending considerations, palpably financial, which caused Chief to publish the book. Then we have “Cover-Letter to the Editors and Publisher,” signed J.B., explaining how the ensuing manuscript came into his possession. At the end, 700 pages later, there is a “Posttape,” and the book drifts away with a “Postscript to the Posttape” and a “Footnote to the Postscript to the Posttape,” urging the spuriousness of the Posttape. These prologomena and addenda may be of interest to those who wonder how books are sold and reputations floated. Buffare, as I said before, means to blow with puffed cheeks.
ANYWAY, BELIEVE IT OR NOT, Stoker Giles comes along to J.B. with a copy of the Revised New Syllabus, a new Sacred Book produced by George Giles with the intervention of a computer named Wescac. It appears that Wescac is in the habit of fornicating with sheep and cats in behalf of the Animal Husbandry Department, and men and women in its own behalf. Billy Bocksfuss the Kid is somehow born, perhaps Lady Creamhair’s son by Wescac. Reared among goats,he reverts to human society, calling himself George. The book tells of his Herculean labors to penetrate the belley of Wescac and alter the computer’s programmed aim. On the way, he has sundry adventures. He falls in love with Anastasia, another of Wescac’s children, their siblingship an ingenious complication. At the end they copulate in Wescac’s belly. It seems unnecessary to give more of the story. The basic principle of the book is to extend the comic shifting of roles outside the human frame, as the narrator is successively Billy Bocksfuss (goat-boy), George the Undergraduate (human), and George the Heroic Grand Tutor (man-god). The opera is still floating. At one point George the Undergraduate says:
Little wonder I looked upon my life and the lives of others as a kind of theatrical impromptu, self-knowledge as a matter of improvisation, and moral injunctions, such as those of the Fables, whether high-minded or wicked, as so many stage-directions. A fact, in short, even an autobiographical fact, was not something I perceived and acknowledged, but a detail of the general Conceit, to be accepted or rejected.
Much of the book reads like a parody of the New Testament, where the universe is a crazy university, the world is the campus, God is the Founder, faith is the curriculum, Heaven is Matriculation, and the copulation of Billy and Anastasia is a Commencement exercise. This permits Mr. Barth the pleasure of composing sentences such as the following, all italicized lest the reader miss the point. “Many are Registered but few are Qualified. Unto the Chancellor that which is the Chancellor’s; unto the Founder that which is the Founder’s. Our Founder, Who art omniscient, Commenced be Thy name. Thy College come; Thy Assignments done On Campus as beyond the Gate…” The book begins promisingly enough as if it were a comic pastoral, a dream of a new law, simple and profound, issuing from those gentle goats; as in Gulliver’s Travels, where a proper humility is enforced by the clash of rival perspectives. But the drift into highbrow SF is a bore. The best parts are in the idiom of The Sot-Weed Factor, neo-Elizabethan pastiche in which Mr. Barth is your true wordmonger. Peter Greene’s story of how he lost his eye is a case in point, a hilarious set-piece twenty pages long. But one good turn in a vaudeville deserves another as soon as possible. In Giles Goat-Boy there are vistas of unbroken tedium where Mr. Barth’s invention goes, as the book says, kerflooey. The Floating Opera is an extremely interesting first book and The Sot-Weed Factor a remarkable achievement. But End of the Road is not good, and Giles Goat-Boy, sprightly in rare paragraphs, is too long, too tedious, a dud.