John Barth Essay - Barth, John (Vol. 1)

Barth, John (Vol. 1)

Barth, John 1930–

Barth, American novelist of ideas and satirical humor, is best known for The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy. He is currently experimenting with writing for tape recorder. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Barth had the unfashionable audacity to take on the historical novel in The Sot-Weed Factor, and in Giles Goat-Boy he deliberately chooses the kind of romance most often considered flimsy or trivial—science fiction. However, the example of Huxley and Orwell, the vogue of Tolkien, and more particularly the popular earlier intrusion of fantasy on a college campus in C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength have cushioned the shock of Barth's romantic world wherein WESCAC (West Campus Automatic Computer) need be challenged and defeated before it dominates all life in the University (man's universe) or even chooses to EAT people (Electroencephalic Amplification and Transmission).

Scott Byrd, "Giles Goat-Boy Visited," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 1, 1966, pp. 108-12.

Clearly a mind like Barth's is well worth the entrance fee and at times we get a dazzling display for our money. But I am nonetheless left with a vague feeling that there is a point at which the arbitrary unimpeded sport of sheer mind damages rather than nourishes a novel, and that in Giles Goat-Boy John Barth sails, determinedly, clear past it.

Tony Tanner, "The Hoax that Joke Bilked," in Partisan Review, Winter, 1967, pp. 102-09.

Barth's brilliant linguistic caricature conjures up a world and a form so remote from us that it casts an ironic light on the contemporary issues which lie, thinly disguised, just below the surface of the narrative. He is out to explore the unreality of his mode of writing, making the language of the novel counter-point its subject matter. Facetious optimism, high farce and the existence of a happy-go-lucky comic hero make a strange match with the narrative development of The Sot-Weed Factor, in which no one's identity is certain and every character is sustained in a frenzied dance of gratuitous activity. There can be few sensibilities as remote from one another as the eighteenth-century bourgeois and the twentieth-century existentialist; Barth harnesses these two together in an incendiary contrast between language on the one hand and topic on the other.

Jonathan Raban, in his The Technique of Modern Fiction, Edward Arnold, 1968. p. 142.

With the exception of Sterne, no great writer of English fiction before the twentieth century questioned the concept of personal identity. That character can be fixed, explored in depth, understood, is an assumption shared by all novelists and it has been argued that this is the theme of the novel. Even when the novel focuses on society, the argument goes, the resultant analysis tends to define the individual's identity within it. This conception of the novel's subject may be too limited, but it is to the point here because it is what Barth concentrates on in his imitation. He praises writers like Sterne and Borges because they challenge the epistemology of realism and "remind us of the fictitious aspect of our own existence." In Sterne this challenge takes the form of parody and it does in Barth's work too, but the uses to which it is put are completely his own. He does not use the term parody in his commentary but it is implicit in his suggestion that his fiction imitates history in the mode of farce (literally in The SotWeed Factor) and it is explicit in the opening words of The End of the Road: "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner."

Daniel Majdiak, "Barth and the Representation of Life," in Criticism, Winter, 1970, pp. 51-67.

The thematic stuff of [John] Barth's preposterous fictions does not undergo enormous change from work to work. His heroes try to find a philosophical justification for life, search for values and a basis for action in a relativistic cosmos, concern themselves with the possibilities of philosophical freedom and with the question of whether character and external reality are stable or floating phenomena. His novels, in other words, abound in many of the conceptual chestnuts of a post-Frazerian, Freudian, Wittgensteinian, Jungian, Sartrian world, and they usually parody the formulations of such classical modernists. What distinguishes Barth's habitual tone is a sophisticated, self-mocking awareness of how late in the game he has come to such "inquiries" and how burned out the techniques of social and psychological realism are for handling them. Understanding that "God wasn't too bad a novelist except he was a Realist," Barth has progressively committed himself to dreaming up "fictional" (in Jorge Luis Borges' sense of the word) alternatives to the cosmos, to reinventing the whole history of the world (in Giles, the world's sacred computer tape) with a coherence that the Real Thing lacks. (pp. 8-9)

As Sot-Weed Factor and the Giles to follow suggest, a degree of emotional flatness is the price that the parodist agrees to pay for his knowledgeable artificiality and mannered thoroughness. Whether in his depletion of the picaresque mode, in his erudite catalogues of ideas, or in his name-calling contest between the prostitutes, Barth tried to convey the impression that sheer exhaustiveness for its own sake contributes to a meaningful comic order. The longer and more contrived the shaggy-dog fiction, the better. But because of Barth's intellectual passion for following a literary genre, a philosophical assumption, or a linguistic pattern to the absolute end of its road, his characters frequently do not have much emotional depth. Aware of the ancient resonances of his hero's experience, Barth can wittily and with considerable rhetorical gusto explore the meaning of the archetype. But insisting upon a mock-epic distance, Barth only rarely enters, and lets his reader enter, fully into his character's suffering and loss. For the most part he writes "novels which imitate the form of the Novel, by an author who imitates the role of Author." (pp. 29-30)

Gerhard Joseph, in his John Barth ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 91), University of Minnesota Press, © 1970 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

What makes [The Sot-Weed Factor] "real" is not the language or the accurate yet involved account of seventeenth-century Dorchester politics—indeed, they make the novel seem more fabulous than otherwise; what makes it real is the "stuff" of the "metaphors," the problems and concerns of the characters which survive to haunt us today. Rational pretensions as opposed to animalistic behavior; sexual innocence in confrontation with orgiastic excess; fixed identity in the face of cosmic elusiveness; the temptation to suicide and the need for engagement: these and more make up the novel's thematic webs. Yet these problems and concerns, for all their relevance, are subordinated to the aesthetic implications of the basic form; and the artifice becomes the basic point….

In Giles Goat-Boy, Barth shifts his lenses and read-justs his focus, but the object under examination is not new to the readers of his other works. Once again, form determines content. The most obvious—and the most complex—convention permeating the novel is the allegorical framework; but the artifact as a whole is not an allegory. Ordinarily, allegorical characters function simultaneously on levels other than the directly literal; behind them works the interplay of ideas, abstractions. Moreover, the action of the plot is important mainly insofar as it refers to the philosophical backdrop; once the reader discovers the key, the level of abstraction involved, the fiction locks neatly (more or less) into place.

The "key" to Giles Goat-Boy is simply the link between the universe and the university. This much is ponderously and superficially obvious. Within this all-encompassing metaphor, the novel parallels innumerable aspects of contemporary experience with campus terminology: mankind becomes studentdom; the countries of the western world become West Campus—set in opposition, of course, to East Campus; World War II becomes Campus Riot II; and so on…. What is essentially a linguistic game is carried, then, to grotesque levels: middle-class is translated into "midpercentile"; the man-in-the-street, into "the student-in-the-path."

Campbell Tatham, "John Barth and the Aesthetics of Artifice," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1971 (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 60-73.

The most moving thing Barth has written since End of the Road, I think, is the title piece of this latest book. "Lost in the Funhouse" is a revelation of what it means to be an artist: the inescapable anguish, loneliness, and self-consciousness: "Strive as he might to be transported, he heard his mind take notes upon the scene: This is what they call passion. I am experiencing it." At the age of thirteen a boy destined to be an artist suddenly discovers the sexual basis of the funhouse and of Ocean City itself. The funhouse becomes symbolic of life itself, and most people pass through it unknowing.

Howard M. Harper, Jr., in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1971 (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), p. 211.