It is striking … to see how much Barth's fiction has been moving toward the fulfillment of an idea—the idea being the repudiation of narrative art…. That is the paradox of Barth's novels: they are about paralysis, they seem even to affirm paralysis, yet they have more narrative energy than they know what to do with. (pp. 95-6)
Each [of Barth's four first novels] is generally longer, wilder, more ambitious, more outrageous than its predecessor, and at the core of each is a greater nihilism…. Nihilism is merely a quirk of character in The Floating Opera and End of the Road; it is not much more than a setting for comedy, a device for irony. But nihilism is what The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy come to. It is the moral, meaning, and upshot of experience in these novels, and it is embedded in their very form. The Sot-Weed Factor, disguised as an eighteenth-century novel, is really a radical definition of the novel of the twentieth century. Giles Goat-Boy, disguised as cosmic allegory, keeps undercutting its own allegorical premises by denying the possibility of meaning, identity, and answers in a world in which these things are always shifting, masked, and unattainable. The deeper nihilism of [these] … novels comes from their proclaiming not so much the impossibility of life but the impossibility of narrative.
All this talk about nihilism suggests the greatest paradox of all. Barth is most immediately a humorist…. The comedy in Barth's novels is the mockery of emotions and moral values: what his characters feel and perceive is only further grist for hilarity…. [For example, his ménage à trois situations are] a kind of touchstone. The ordinary moral and psychological implications don't count here at all. What immediately counts is, on the level of plot, the entanglements; on the level of meaning, the nuttiness. But what also counts, beyond immediate laughter, is a lingering sorrow, an underlying disgust, and a metaphor for the impossible strain of human attachment and commitment. (pp. 96-7)
Fine black comedy. End of the Road seems at first to be much like the other comic monuments of the decade. It has the right ingredients: a psychotic therapist, an identity crisis, a wild ménage à trois, ironic views of our crippled society and trivial culture—a groovy corroboration for the disaffected. But something happens to this novel: its ending is appalling. End of the Road repudiates itself, or rather it repudiates what would seem to be its glib ability to deal with, and therefore dismiss, ugliness, pain, and despair. Rennie's pregnancy is initially part of the incongruous comedy: the problem is that she doesn't know whose baby she is carrying…. Rennie decides to have an abortion. More madcap exasperation for Jacob who has to hunt down an abortionist. But Rennie's butchering on the operating table is the shattering fact of End of the Road. The ugliness is sudden, undisguised, unironic. The emotional crisis preceding it … was only the game. Rennie's hemorrhaging corpse cannot be transformed into comedy, nor does Barth try. That is the second stage of undercutting: having reduced everything to comedy, the book suddenly reduces its comedy to loathesomeness. (p. 98)
Roles are the motif of all Barth's novels. Todd Andrews' life is a succession of identities—rake, saint, cynic—the search for a character appropriate to his ailing heart. Henry Burlingame reappears in different guises throughout The Sot-Weed Factor…. George the Goat-Boy, wavering between goat and boy, seeking the proper stance in which to assert his Grand Tutorship, keeps changing his advice to the people around him with each new modification of what he takes to be his gospel. But most of all it is John Barth who emerges as the seeker of self. He is an author in search of a disposition. The novels are not only about roles—they are roles. Barth's novels are comic masks for a tragic face. Barth is an inveterate comedian because he depends on the masks, and not only to hide his face but to discover it, and not only his face, but ours.
That doubtlessly is what makes Barth at once so interesting and so irritating. The comedy which seems to be everything is really nothing: it exists to announce its own inadequacy…. Giles Goat-Boy is Barth's best novel and his worst—a paradox which somehow accords with the tentative theme of the book: that passage and failure are really the same thing.
Giles Goat-Boy is almost impossible to describe, summarize, or account for. Above all, it presents a problem of understanding that is its most unsettling feature. The problem of understanding Giles Goat-Boy is the problem of understanding Barth, and more precisely, the extent of Barth's seriousness. In this book Barth wears not one mask but several. Philosophically, the book keeps undermining itself and shatters its own testamentary message in a series of editorial comments at the beginning and postscripts at the end. Giles Goat-Boy is a peculiar blending of frivolity and profundity. It often seems to be simultaneously both (a duality we have come to expect from Barth); but at various...
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