A dual post by John Domini and Amber Sparks on John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.
Part Two: our Hero & Heroine Attempt Some Further Understanding, Distracted by Much Laughter, Astonishment, & Musing Aloud, of the NOVEL’S Next —is’t Two? is’t Three? — Hundred Pages.
JOHN: Above is my lame attempt to mimic John Barth, in his guise as 18th-Century novelist (say, Henry Fielding or Tobias Smollett), for his late-20th-Century masterwork The Sot-Weed Factor. For the Big Other reading list, Amber Sparks and I decided it was to treat it via correspondence—and come to think, weren’t a lot of those early novels, the texts that defined the form, epistolary?
Our colloquy on the book’s opening is here. Now:
AMBER: My thoughts on the middle third of the book are intentionally vague in places because I don’t want to give anything away. But I am enjoying Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor tremendously. It’s cracking along like a fabulous adventure novel now and I see no reason why it should stop being riveting and thrilling anytime soon. It’s like Barth was trying to write this parody, started really enjoying the form and decided on homage, and then decided oh, the hell with it, I’ll throw away the meta conceit (except on brilliant occasion) and just write the hell out of this thing. It’s clear he was having a grand time writing it, and it’s a grand time reading it as a result.
JOHN: “Cracking along,” I love that. There’s so much going on, hijinks and low scrambling, plots and counterplots, a thousand disguises and a lot of sex. Thus the novel invites old-fangled praise, like the word “swashbuckling,” one John Madera used in his recent mention of Sot-Weed, here. I’d say you’re providing one answer to a key question you raised last time, namely, why? Why did a contemporary writer give himself over to a style from 200 years before? One answer, surely, is the reinvigoration you describe. Barth’s notorious 1967 essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” argued against exhaustion, in art and artists; rather, it warned how forms could get exhausted, a point he expanded on in “The Literature of Replenishment.”
In fact, this very summer he’s returned to the argument, in the fiction issue of The Atlantic, with a brief but erudite meditation, “Do I Repeat Myself?”
In this latest piece, again Barth reaches back: to Dante, the Aeneid, the Sanskrit Ocean of Story, and even Old Egypt, c. 2000 BCE. Yet in reaching back, he affirms again the power of language and story — of “cracking along.” (Just as having a young reader like you coming fresh to the text, and getting so caught up in it, reinforces the excitement of my first encounter, decades ago).
Then there’s this core point, an exchange been Ebeneezer Cooke and Henry Burlingame, his chameleonic teacher, friend, gadfly… and much more:
“Thou’rt a glutton for adventure,” Ebeneezer said.
“Mayhap I am, or better, a glutton for the great world, of which I ne’er can see and learn enough.”
AMBER: But of course it’s not ‘simply’ an adventure, not at all. The post-modernist in Barth is all over the place, making wry little observations and twisting the form. The “adventure-springs-from-uncertainty-rather-than-adversity” through line is, indeed running consistent and strong through the novel, as is the idea you mentioned previously, John, about the role of the artist–what is it?–and Barth is playing with both of these still. You get these dry, funny almost-stock routines every now and again (the one where Bertrand and Eben think they’re drowning comes to mind) where Barth is reminding us he’s not really writing from the far-off 18th century, but rather from a place after Beckett, after Abbott and Costello, after Charlie Chaplin. And he makes these stock pieces WORK for the novel.
JOHN: How about I abandon thought balloons and get down to cases? Here’s one of Barth’s booby-trapped “routines,” as you aptly put it. Ebeneezer starts out speaking about virtue (“innocence,” and the havoc it causes, is a major theme), and then makes an intriguing correlation:
What I meant was, that sundry virtues are — I might say plain, for want of better language, and some significant. Among the first are honesty in speech and deed, fidelity, respect for mother and father, charity, and the like; the second head’s comprised of things like eating fish on Friday, resting on the Sabbath, and coming virgin to the grave or marriage bed, whiche’er the case may be; they all mean naught when taken by themselves, like the strokes and scribbles that we call writing — their virtue lies in what they stand for. Now the first… are matters of public policy, and thus apply to prudent men, be they heathens or believers. The second have small relevance to prudence, being but signs, and differ from faith to faith. The first are… guides for life, the second forms of ceremony; the first practical, the second mysterious or poetic —
AMBER: Another example. The exchange at the printer’s, when Eben goes to buy a notebook, is a brilliant little scene and showcases not only Eben’s spectacular inability to make up his mind — here he is bragging up his Poet Laureate title but he can’t even decide on a writing notebook — but also, centers around the question of the artist and fame: are you good if no one knows who you are? It’s also a very very funny scene and the beginnings of the great mystery which is to anchor the rest of the novel.
JOHN: I’d say it’s one of the wellsprings for that mystery of identity. Our hero has many scenes where he’s paralyzed for lack of knowing what he’s about. Some of these veer towards the chilling; the most dangerous disguises are those that prevent as artist from seeing himself. Still, I too will bring up something comic. Perhaps delicacy restrained you — but what about the three pages Eben spends with his pants off, wondering what he’ll use to wipe his ass? Leaves you gaping, no? And gasping with laughter, and yet also (with a nod to Rabelais) thinking about the sheer uselessness of texts like the one in your hands:
Literature too, he concluded with a heavy heart, availed him not, for though it afforded one a certain sophistication about life and a release from one’s single mortal destiny, it did not, except accidentally, afford solutions to practical problems.
AMBER: That part definitely had me on the floor. It’s like Eben’s almost aware of how funny life is–if only he could loosen up a little. But at least we can laugh at him.
I loved the great mystery here. Every great narrative epic has to have a great mystery at its heart. And often, often having something to do with a foundling child (ever since I read Pippi Longstocking as a kid I wanted to be a foundling child), a sea captain, far-off lands, native peoples, dubious parentage, etc, etc. It’s like a formula and Barth uses all the elements beautifully. Pirates, wenches, ships, ransoms, ravished maidens — all these thrown in a blender and whipped, pureed into an adventure tale all Barth’s own.
JOHN: Right on. Your engagement feels like evidence of the novel’s feminist sympathies. Sot-Weed features a number of Pippi-like figures, in general more sexually adventurous — and in some cases tragically abused. In these cases (while as always there’s a lot else going on), Barth raises his feminist argument via its reverse, a classic method. He’ll have a character speak of some horrific abuse against women, and suddenly a dead-serious face appears behind the fiction’s many masks. Seriousness on that point pervades nearly all of his work, starting with End of the Road (1958), which anticipates Neil LaBute in its excoriation of macho posturing and its dangers. Then too, Barth has often cited Schererazade as the greatest storyteller ever, and featured her and her work in Chimera (National Book Award, 1972) and other books. Rumor has it he’s posted her name, in calligraphic form, over his writing desk.
AMBER: Interesting. You can certainly feel his feminist sympathies throughout the novel, whether the woman in question is Ebeneezer’s sister or Joan Toast. Women as objects, never subjects, fully aware that they are in fact objects and trying as best they can to take advantage of that.
As I’ve been reading Sot-Weed, I’m actually reminded of nothing so much as (this will seem odd, but) David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Lynch is doing his own soap opera, right? And you can see him taking all of these traditional set pieces, stock characters, standard elements from the soap opera and mixing them up in his own way, his own style—in a way that’s commenting on the genre and mocking it but also showing how much enjoyment he must get out of the genre and how much fun he’s having playing in it. That’s how I imagine Barth must have felt, worked, writing The Sot-Weed Factor.
JOHN: Twin Peaks seems entirely apropos, especially when you consider the surreal elements in Barth, like the unbreakable hymen on Barth’s Pocahontas. The way Sot-Weed revels in its genre game speaks for itself:
…[The husband] scowled a fearsome scowl. ‘Whore!’ he cried at Betsy, and with the flat of his sword he fetched her a swingeing clap athwart her seat. Nor stopped he there, but made to run me through, and ‘twas only the nimblest of legs that saved my neck. I snatched up my breeches and dashed for the door, with the fiddler in hot career behind, nor durst I cover my shame… — Better lose pride than hide, sir, as they say. As for my tatling Betsy, the last I saw her she was springing hither and yon about the room, sir, hands on her buttocks and hollowing like a hero…
AMBER: Final thought, or rather, question: is Henry always kind of mocking Eben? Does he know Eben’s poetry sucks? I thought that we (the readership) were Eben, but I feel like sometimes we’re Henry as well, or rather Henry is our surrogate in poking fun at the chaste and clueless Eben. I’m still a little bit in the dark about Henry, but I think that’s the point as well. Maybe. Henry not only is at the center of the mystery, he seems to be the mystery, as well.
JOHN: Henry Burlingame III, whew. He keeps us all in the dark, doesn’t he? What I’d point out is that he’s a perfect foil to Ebeneezer, whose dilemma is always indecision, the absence of commitment or core — even as he remains, despite himself, a virgin and a (lowgrade) man of letters. Burlingame presents a mirror reversal. He knows exactly what he’s about, he lives to find his father — yet the quest makes him a chameleon, a master of dissembling, so you never know what form he’ll take. In Barth’s 1979 novel, LETTERS (my pick for his best) he recycles elements of Sot-Weed and suggests “Burlingame” puns on ame, the French word for “soul.” A boiling soul? Divided like Berlin?
AMBER: Anyhow, very much enjoying the second brilliant installment and on to the last bits of the novel!
JOHN: Right on. Since today’s the birthday of William Gass, I’ll close with some another of his thoughts on Barth, from his Paris Review interview: “Several of his books, in particular The Sot-Weed Factor, are the works which stand to my generation as Ulysses did to its.”