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Giles Goat-Boy

February 19, 2012

Another odd book. I greatly enjoyed reading it, but I enjoyed the early stretches much more than the later ones, and after turning the last page, I was left completely unsure whether to declare the book good, bad, or otherwise. I don’t think I would recommend it to anyone, yet at the same time I want to run around breathlessly telling people about its many virtues.

In any case, I need to read more stuff by John Barth. All I knew about him before reading Giles Goat-Boy was that he was one of the early “postmodernists,” that he had something to do with the development of the movement called “metafiction,” and that he was commonly deemed to have had less lasting appeal than other postmodernists like Pynchon and Gass. (“Barth is a relic of the ’60s,” I read somewhere — a claim I still do not understand. Anyway Giles Goat-Boy, which makes fun of hippies — or at least of such hippie-like creatures as existed in 1965 — along with pretty much everything else, feels less dated to me than most of the cultural artifacts from that era that haven’t been forgotten.) What I didn’t know is that Barth is just a really, really good writer, both on the micro-level of sentence construction and on the macro-level of plotting, characterization and thematic patterning. It’s funny that Barth’s reputation (or the version of it that had managed to filter through my dense skull, anyway) is mainly as an experimentalist and underminer of traditional narrative, when Giles Goat-Boy (ostensibly one of his less inviting books) reveals him to be a fun, charming, and consummately skilled storyteller. I had never thought Barth sounded particularly interesting, and I only checked this book out from the library because its premise sounded so weird and I was idly curious; now I want to read everything else he’s written (which is a lot).

Plot/premise summary and scattered thoughts under the cut.

Giles Goat-Boy takes place in an allegorical alternate world in which the whole of earth is a single university, with colleges instead of countries, chancellors and deans instead of presidents and kings, and “Grand Tutors” instead of religious leaders. The western and eastern worlds are “West Campus” and “East Campus.” Wars are “riots,” and after weathering Campus Riots I and II, the university has found itself enmeshed in the “Quiet Riot,” i.e., the Cold War. God is “the Founder,” and salvation is “Commencement” or “Graduation,” both supernatural notions subjected to considerable doubt on the modern campus. But there is another Godlike being in the story: WESCAC, the West Campus Automatic Computer, a supercomputer of superhuman intelligence that exerts almost totalitarian control over the people of New Tammany College (the United States) and controls its arsenal of this world’s version of nuclear weapons, a type of electromagnetic pulse called the “EAT-wave” which is capable of “EATing” — driving permanently insane — large groups of people in a controlled and targeted fashion. (It was interesting in a way to read this right after Anathem, a much worse book set in a similar alternate-universe-via-rigid-replacement-scheme.)

Weird enough already, right? Get this: the plot is a semi-parodic version of a Joseph Campbell-style heroic journey, starring a boy with a limp who was raised until adolescence as a goat (!) and who turns out to have been sired by WESCAC and born to a virgin, and who is (possibly) destined to become a messianic Grand Tutor and lead the students of the university to Passage and Commencement. Accompanied by his mentor and former goatherd Max Spielman — a liberal Moishian (Jew) and sort of Albert Einstein / Carl Jung figure who designed WESCAC and developed a theory synthesizing cosmology and proctology — he ventures out toward the building that houses WESCAC in a quest to reprogram it and end the Quiet Riot. Over the course of eight hundred pages, he meets a variety of stereotypical and broadly comic characters, has a series of increasingly bizarre and lewd adventures, witnesses a performance of “Taliped Decanus” (Barth’s parody of Oedipus the King, a full play in verse placed at the center of the novel), and eventually reaches some sort of spiritual enlightenment.

I haven’t even mentioned the introduction, in which four fictional editors argue over whether the novel deserves to be published. Their description of the book — which makes it sound nihilistic, tedious, and nearly unreadable — made me fear the worst, even keeping in mind that their opinions are of course the creations of the author himself. The book’s critical reception didn’t help (representative quote from an Amazon reader review: “reading Giles Goat-Boy is a bit like having one’s mind EAT-en by an all-embracing cybernetic parasite”). So I was surprised to find that the book was engaging, readable, and entertaining. If I had to pick one word to describe the reading experience, at least of the first 2/3, that word would be pleasant.

Barth’s charming, pseudo-archaic prose hits every note perfectly — it’s the kind of book where you can almost see each well-chosen word clicking into place (and in which this experience tends to happen almost once per sentence, at least). Since these words are put in the mouth of a naive and innocent protagonist, George the Goat-Boy (whose ignorance of human customs and mis-extrapolations from goatly life Barth milks [pun intended] continually for laughs), the effect is to endear the reader immensely to this earnest kid (okay, okay, the puns stop now) who knows so little of the world, yet speaks so brilliantly about it. The story is cribbed fairly rigidly from Joseph Campbell’s account of the heroic monomyth, though read of course through Barth’s comic and idiosyncratic spectacles. The effect, oddly but I think intentionally, is to produce a story that basically works as an exciting tale of adventure, full of revelations, reversals and cryptic destinies. The goat-boy may be intended as a ridiculous figure, but he talks better than most “heroes” one finds in the works of modern authors writing in earnest, and Barth’s parodic approach to the hero myth does not so much undermine it as extract it from an unnecessary atmosphere of suffocating straightforwardness — and the specimen so extracted is in fact easier to take seriously in the absence of its treacly husk.

Plus, there’s something enjoyable about the neither-here-nor-there quality of the book’s conceptual edifice. Its world is not self-consistent or self-sufficient enough to be “fantasy,” yet if it’s “allegory,” the allegorical point remains unclear. The various inventions — the university-universe, the goat-boy, the Godlike supercomputer — jangle weirdly against one another, neither forming a coherent system that stands for something else, nor quite standing on their own. The resulting feeling, of several different symbolic systems interlocking while also being their own entities and not quite symbol systems at all, feels to me less like fantasy or allegory than like mythology, which is pretty obviously Barth’s intention.

Still, all is not right. The book is extremely long and eventually grows repetitive. The early passages I loved, with their gorgeous and quaintly amusing accounts of the goat-boy’s animalistic innocence, give way to an interminably escalating sequence of ironic reversals. The characters tie themselves up in circular debates again and again until the point, if there ever was one, has long since been made. Much of the second half of the book is consumed by this material. Worse yet, the last few hundred pages are spent repeating essentially the same set of actions in three different states of mind. George, having become sure that he is the Grand Tutor, goes around dispensing advice to movers and shakers in New Tammany. His advice has disastrous results, and he eventually has a kind of spiritual awakening and subsequently goes around advising his tutees to do the exact opposite of what he had said before. That doesn’t quite work either, and he then has a second spiritual experience, goes about professing a third creed that is some sort of synthesis of the first two, and, in the book’s climactic scene, achieves a kind of transcendent mystical unity with all things, one which is supposed to blend “Western” ways of thinking (“everything is different from everything else”) with “Eastern” ways of thinking (“everything is the same”). Although all the mystical stuff is kind of cool, these scenes come off as too programmatic — it’s sad to see George, so intelligent and articulate up until this point (if very innocent and single-minded), get reduced in turn to a mouthpiece for a series of caricatured philosophies. And the continuity of this chain of events with the rest of the book is never quite clear, since the first 2/3 of the book show no pre-occupation with this sort of individuation/unity stuff. Like the rest of the book, it’s lovable in its enigmaticness, but it’s also awkward and unsatisfying.

(And it also needs to be mentioned that the obscene and burlesque comedy is tiresome at least as often as it’s funny: finding out that almost every character in the book is a pervert is a routine that gets old pretty fast, for instance. Let’s not even touch the bizarre ironic [?] racism. As with some other literary “comedies,” the comedic edifice here seems more useful for its overall atmosphere — often in fact a disheartening or frustrating one — than as an instrument for actually producing laughs. Maybe I’m missing the point, and Barth is just a puerile jokester, as some of his critics would attest. But what I’ve read of Barth’s nonfiction writing-about-writing [admittedly not much, at this point] suggests that I have at least a pretty good handle on what he’s trying to do.)

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