The third installment wherein our Hero & Heroine contemplate, to the Best of their Feeble Abilities, the NOVEL’S conclusion, its Far Reach, Revolutionary Folderol, & Altogether Righteous Fun. Or, a conversation between Amber Sparks & John Domini on One Kickass NOVEL.
AMBER: Now that I’ve finished this terrific book, I’m finding it hard to stop thinking about. It’s a stylized novel and yet Barth manages to pack so much in about the essence of what it is to be human. Capturing the human condition in a parody of an 18th century novel — that’s incredible. It’s really a towering achievement. I’ve surprised myself immensely with how much I ended up empathizing with and caring about the main characters by the end.
JOHN: Again, you’ve delivered one of the rewards I was hoping for, in our exchange. As a newcomer to the text, you reconfirm the pleasure of the text — the original pleasure, something we repeat visitors can only reconstruct. In the process, you brightly sketch the steep challenge Barth set for his storytelling. On the one hand, he wanted a wild affair, with the humanity and hijinx of old favorites like The Thousand Nights & a Night. On the other, he wanted a work of imagination that kept the fact of its dream nature squarely before us, so that every page pulls off the trick Ebeneezer and his sister Anna would play when they found themselves in a nightmare: “tis but a dream,” they’d tell themselves, in their dreaming, “and now I’ll wake.”
The dream that we call a “novel” first assumed its Anglo-American form about the same time as Sot-Weed is set (and the American Revolution began to brew. So Barth, by going back to his form’s beginnings, both grants us the pleasures of the dream and calls attention to its insubstantiality. Terrific, just as you say.
AMBER: One key themes I enjoyed was the exploration of the human sexual condition — something I would not have expected of this type of novel. This is quite possibly the bawdiest book I’ve ever read — and I don’t mean pornographic or lewd, but bawdy. Ebenezer’s guilty, repressed lust is contrasted throughout with just about everybody else, all of whom seem to be living in a state of complete abandon and natural healthy lust. Well, maybe not quite “healthy;” no doubt that’s overstating the case, since one character does express desire for a pig, and there is a lot of raping. But just about everyone in The Sot-Weed Factor is having a lot of sex. Including the Native Americans who frequent the pages of this novel in odd and interesting ways.
JOHN: The rampant rutting of Sot-Weed, yes, a surprise and a delight, in a text that wears the trappings of Serious Litcher. The pig-fucking, I should say, is only alluded to, and more than that, the fucker in question turns out to be Henry Burlingame, in disguise. Burlingame is always… wait for it… slippery. Still, no other serious novel treats what the sexologists call “animal contact” so imaginatively, unless of course it’s Barth’s own Giles Goat-Boy (1966).
Not for nothing does this huge novel’s plot hinge on a Native American trick involving an eggplant, an erection, and a stubborn hymen. Come to think, isn’t “sot-weed” itself a more lubricious and suggestive term for “tobacco?” In this book sex is, in most cases, an intoxicant that allows for discovery. It’s accepted as “the sin o’ Father Adam, that we all have on our heads.”
When it comes to rape, though, Sot-Weed drops more somber notes amid the bumptiousness. Those cases amount finally to the indictment Joan Toast spits out at the end — an argument underscored by the fact that she’s about to outwit her enemies:
“Look at me!… Swived in my twelfth year, poxed in my twentieth, and dead in my twenty-first! Ravaged, ruined, raped, and betrayed! Women’s lot is wretched…”
AMBER: Yet at the same time, another theme: live the shit out of life. Screw being polite, moral, civil. Clearly Barth thought this was an attractive idea, at least on some level. Henry Burlingame, clearly Barth’s favorite in the novel, declares at one point that he is a “glutton for the great world.” (I seriously plan to make this my next tattoo.) This is the only satisfactory reason for his behavior that he ever gives, and the correct one, I think. Those who live life to the fullest, who satiate every mortal appetite, do best. Everyone here is made deliciously equal by nature of their base humanity; no one is immune. The most pious have the farthest to fall at Barth’s hands. And indeed, though Barth seems to sympathize with Eben, he delights in the machinations of Henry Burlingame. All of Eben’s troubles (and Joan’s, too) stem from his high moral principles and his refusal to grant leeway to others, whereas Henry the great hedonist always manages to do fine for himself. Eben’s a bit of a snob, a stick in the mud, though by the end of the novel he’s lost much of his pride and arrogance and has come down a few pegs.
JOHN: Yes! There I go being admonitory and stern, lecturing on “Women’s Lot in Sot-Weed” — but then, thank God, you remind us the text’s far too wild and free for any neat fit into such a confining argument. As Ebeneezer himself admits at the climax, his great crime was living by the narrow rule of “innocence:”
“There’s the true Original Sin our souls are born in: not that Adam learned, but that he had to learn — in short, that he was innocent.”
Indeed, insofar as this novel’s critical stock has fallen some (and the market’s difficult to measure), that’s due in large part to the complexity with which Barth treats our, whaddyacallit, our urge to live fully and freely. To live like the “cosmophilist” Burlingame (or like the woman who’s something of a female counterpart, Mary Mungummory). A text at once priapic and feminist, American and anti-American, feral and ethical, not to mention experimental and traditional, this one defies easy categorization.
AMBER: The last third of the book the plot became increasingly complex, but it felt almost unnecessary to know every detail of what was really going on, à la The Big Sleep — just adds to the fun. The Sot-Weed Factor absolutely deserves the ‘classic’ label. It’s a randy, wild, sweeping take on early Maryland, a land uncouth and newborn and full of “salvages” of all kinds, before we “civilized” America; before we started writing such polite historical novels and leaving out all the best parts, the sex and blood and fart jokes and all the unsavory things that separate us from the angels — and make us a lot more fun.
JOHN: William Gass called Barth “a great narrator, one of the best who ever plied a pen,” and that’s of course a tribute to his plotting. It takes a genius, or something close, to pack so many switcheroos into a novel’s final developments and yet keep us feeling both empathetic and top of the basic conflicts. Sot-Weed remains his greatest performance in sheer narrative ingenuity, all the more impressive for how he later renounced the approach. In the late ‘60s, deeply struck by his first encounter with Borges and mired in another long, intricately plotted novel, he swore off writing fiction altogether for a year. When he returned to the art, he brought off a very different sort of accomplishment, the three linked novellas — composed at white heat — of Chimera (National Book Award, ’72).
Yet whatever the book’s meaning for its author, or its current critical standing, its fictional gene pool remains our most potent. The obvious forebear is Moby-Dick, which reveals many similarities, crossing oceans after the biggest game, striving to embrace all of young America and more— a “cosmophilist” text, just right for the wily Burlingame. More recent progeny of the same impulse would be, of course, Wallace’s Infinite Jest. One notes how that novel has now started to come in for criticism, a backlash, and ironically, the best-known complaint about Wallace, Katie Roiphe’s in the Times, took him to task for the reticence with which he treated sex. Not a problem for Barth and Sot-Weed! Nor for Wallace either, really. He wrought his own epic — but only after he paid homage to his ancestor, in his novella “Westward the Course of Empire Makes its Way,” based on Barth’s ’68 short story “Lost in the Funhouse.”
Amber, I thank you for taking me back into this pool, and refreshing myself anew.