JOHN: Wanting to do more for Big Other summer reading, I reached out to Amber Sparks. She’d agreed to take on the next assignment, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. A tome of about 700 pages, Sot-Weed has enjoyed heady praise since its publication in 1960; William Gass, for one, is a staunch champion. Yet that very combination — wild praise, great length — can intimidate. It can, in fact, relegate a book to the dreaded status of unread classic.
To free up Sot-Weed, then, Amber and I take a tandem approach. See, she’s the newcomer, a young whippersnapper coming to the book for the first time. I’m the wizened fuddy, who’s now romped two or three times with Barth through early colonial America, his general subject here. I’ve even taught the text. We thought a dialog would be the best way to air out these musty library stacks. For starters, then:
AMBER: I read the first couple hundred pages of Sot-Weed Factor, and so far it’s really entertaining — even a page turner, which definitely surprised me. It reminds me of Candide, which I suppose is not surprising.
JOHN: What an exciting response! It reminds me all over again what sheer story fun the book is. William Gass, in On Being Blue (1975) examines a stretch of Sot-Weed and hails Barth as “a master of narrative art.” That’s a more sedate way of saying “page-turner,” isn’t it? As for Candide, I can only chime in again — hell yeah. Who else could we think of, given Sot-Weed’s time-setting, combined with this high-energy opening:
“In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebeneezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly…”
and we’re off!, for a whip-cracking opening sentence and paragraph of ten lines.
AMBER: I’m not sure that I’m reading it yet as a parody, or at least if it’s a parody it’s a very subtle one. But this is my fault and not Barth’s, no doubt — I don’t have much knowledge of the literature from the period he’s aping and I assume if I did, I might get more of the jokes and pointed barbs that are no doubt sprinkled throughout. As it was, if I had no knowledge of Barth or of the book prior to coming in, I’d probably have assumed it was a very funny, very bawdy narrative novel, not a parody.
JOHN: As even the brief quote above demonstrates, Sot-Weed indeed mimics 17th– into 18th-Century English prose and poetry. The very title, which makes 20th– and 21st-Century readers wonder, is a term from the era, defined in the text, naturally. I’d say the parody here is respectful, celebratory, like when the Weezy parodies Kanye. Barth is tipping his cap, with a grin, to the early tyros of the English novel, novels many would established the medium. Henry Fielding would be a case in point. He set the bar high in Tom Jones, 1749, a narrative full of knockabout action and sharp about social pretense.
Since Sot-Weed, I should add, others have tried their hand at revisiting the 18th-Century novel. Even Erica Jong tried, but the best effort was Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, 1997. When Pynchon published that novel, he sent the author of Sot-Weed a signed copy: “To John Barth, who’s been there, done that.”
AMBER: Oh, Pynchon. Love that. Tip of the hat, by the way, seems like a perfect description to me. I did get a few of the jokes — the ridiculous grandiosity of Eben over his Marylandiad is very funny, for example. (I was just reading, actually, about a French revolutionary writer who wrote a piece called The Columbiad, which sounded absolutely hilarious. It wasn’t supposed to be, of course. a tribute to Columbus civilizing the savage natives and all of that.) But I think I probably need to be better read in the 18th Century novel to get this fully. However, it’s an extremely entertaining read even if you’re not “in” on the joke, as it were.
JOHN: Amber, first, I’ve got to say, you’re so obviously in on it! You get it! The butt of the joke in Sot-Weed is humanity in general, and in particular the writer’s vanity. You’re quite right Ebeneezer’s poems (“Hudibrastics,” of all the silly forms) do invite a snigger — with I’d say one telling exception, towards the end. See what you think.
AMBER: I love the Joan Toast character and hope she’ll return; I suspect she will. I found the bedroom scene between her and Ebeneezer hilarious, very witty, salon-worthy philosophy and wordplay. (I also loved Joan as written no doubt in part because I would have certainly played her in a stage production of this book. 95% of the characters I played during my acting years were some variation on Joan Toast, the whore with a silver tongue.)
I also enjoyed hugely that inconsistency, rather than adventure, is in fact the heart of this story. All springs from Eben’s indecision rather than his love of travel and romance. It’s a postmodern approach and a funny idea that I suspect Barth will continue to make good use of throughout.
JOHN: Joan Toast will indeed return, she’s the book’s tragedy and also its heroine. Your response, in other words, is exciting again. I could say more, but let’s get a look at the woman, in another early example of Barth’s sharp observation and fine-turned idiom.
All spirit, imagination, and brave brown eyes, small-framed, large-breasted, and tight-skinned (though truly somewhat coarse-pored, and stringy in the hair, with teeth none of the best), this Joan Toast was his for the night who’d two guineas to take her for, and indignify her as he would, she’d give him his gold’s worth and more…
As for Eben’s inconstancy, right on. The question of identity, and in particular the artist’s identity, is central to Sot-Weed. As Barth says of his wannabe poet (no longer young, note!): “When a situation presented itself he could never choose one role to play over all the rest he knew.” The issue’s a moral one, ultimately: if the artistic sensibility is a chameleon, what color should it take on, and when?
AMBER: I did wonder at the decision to make Eben older. It really works here. The only thing I haven’t loved about this book so far is Charles Calvert’s rather long and dreadfully boring history of his family’s possession and dispossession of Maryland. Again, others may not find fault with this part; I’m a huge history buff but I’ve always found the American Colonial period rather snoreworthy. This may be the fault of my elementary school teachers — I think it’s the only history we learned back then and we learned it over and over and over again. So I confess I sort of skipped over much of Calvert’s speech, trying to read only the pertinent information.
JOHN: Well, “dreadfully boring,” that’s harsh. I could point out that Calvert’s himself a figure of fun, snobbish and simmering over old hurts. Also we have Eben in the scene, as the reader’s confused surrogate. Still, this is the draggiest bit in the whole book, suddenly introducing us to a number of old grudges. Could Barth be exemplifying, in this one quick sample, the sort of bloodless history that stands in contrast to the rest of his story? A story filled with hot blood indeed, as well as other excretions?
AMBER: Ah. I DID appreciate Eben’s responses, which sounded exactly like when I’m talking to my mother on the phone about something she’s absolutely uninterested in. “Uh huh. Really. You don’t say.” So actually, if he is our surrogate, then that totally works. Maybe I’m overthinking things here. I usually do.
Have you read the original Sot-Weed Factor? Do you know if it this book is in fact a direct parody? Do you happen to know WHY Barth wrote it? I’m very curious as to what would possess a modern author to write a long, serious parody of a period novel. Very interesting.
JOHN: I’ve read some of it, the original. It’s okay for what it is, but as light-verse social critique it can’t hold a candle to this novelistic reinvention of the whole dawning, struggling society.
Barth grew up near Cooke’s old plantation, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and he learned about the poem in school. But what he does here flies free of sentiment. He raises a far-reaching questions about feminism, identity, morality — and especially about language and story and what we do with those tools, tools of the artist, in working out where we stand and whether we’ll fall.
AMBER: Anyhow, looking forward to Eben’s adventures in America.
JOHN: Hell yeah.