Three Books

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Mass market paperback by Bantam, 10th ed., 1986. No designer credited, but the cover illustration is a 1981 painting by Doug Johnson, and it is the sole reason that I’ve held onto this copy for over a decade now, since I first used it as part of a class set for an eleventh grade English class I used to teach. Perhaps from a technical standpoint, I stole this book.

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Chimera by John Barth. Mass market paperback by Fawcett Crest, 1973.  No designer credited, and the cover artist isn’t named in the colophon or on the back–but the cover is signed. Perhaps the original hardback, which shares this illustration, credited the artist. I read this book in the right place and at the right time—I was a junior or senior in college, obsessed with postmodernism as a technique (rather than postmodernism as a description), and Chimera’s intense gamesmanship enchanted me. I’m pretty sure I read it after Lost in the Funhouse, and that after Wallace’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way. I bought this copy eight or nine years ago (having read it first as a library book), and attempted a reread and was…less impressed. Still, it would be hard for me to overstate how much Chimera did for me—how much it showcased the possibilities of literature and storytelling.

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The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers. Mass market paperback edition by Bantam. No designer or cover artist credited—which is too bad because I love the image. The most recent date on the colophon is 1971 but I am pretty sure the book was published in 1996. I bought it in 1997. It was assigned reading for a creative writing class, and that—along with Johnson’s Jesus’ Son—were the only good things to come out of that misery. (My instructor would not shut the fuck up about “craft,” and he singled out the simile I was most proud of in one of my stories as “a bit much”).

Today’s Three Books’ mass market paperbacks are part of a small cadre of a once-large selection, winnowed away over the years, usually given away to students, etc. (I have an extra copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my car, should you need one).

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Donald Barthelme’s short list

Screenshot 2016-01-17 at 4From Michael Thomas Hudgens’s Donald Barthelme, Postmodernist American Writer

“Good-bye to the Fruits” — John Barth

“Good-bye to the Fruits”

by

John Barth

I agreed to die, stipulating only that I first be permitted to rebehold and bid good-bye to those of Earth’s fruits that I had particularly enjoyed in my not-extraordinary lifetime.
What I had in mind, in the first instance, was such literal items as apples and oranges. Of the former, the variety called Golden Delicious had long been my favorite, especially those with a blush of rose on their fetchingly speckled yellow-green cheeks. Of the latter–but then, there’s no comparing apples to oranges, is there, nor either of those to black plums: truly incomparable, in my opinion, on the rare occasions when one found them neither under- nor overripe. Good-bye to all three, alas; likewise to bananas, whether sliced transversely atop unsweetened breakfast cereal, split longitudinally under scoops of frozen yogurt, barbecued in foil with chutney, or blended with lime juice, rum, and Cointreau into frozen daiquiris on a Chesapeake August late afternoon.
Lime juice, yes: Farewell, dear zesty limes, squeezed into gins-and-tonics before stirring and over bluefish filets before grilling; adieu too to your citric cousins the lemons, particularly those with the thinnest of skins, always the most juiceful, without whose piquance one could scarcely imagine fresh seafood, and whose literal zest was such a challenge for us kitchen-copilots to scrape a half-tablespoonsworth of without getting the bitter white underpeel as well. Adieu to black seedless grapes for eating with ripe cheeses and to all the nobler stocks for vinting, except maybe Chardonnay. I happened not to share the American yuppie thirst for Chardonnay; too over-flavored for my palate. Give me a plain light dry Chablis any time instead of Chardonnay, if you can find so simple a thing on our restaurant wine-lists these days. And whatever happened to soft dry reds that don’t cost an arm and a leg on the one hand, so to speak, or, on the other, taste of iron and acetic acid? But this was no time for such cavils: Good-bye, blessed fruit of the vineyard, a dinner without which was like a day without et cetera. Good-bye to the fruits of those other vines, in particular the strawberry, if berries are properly to be called fruits, the tomato, and the only melon I would really miss, our local cantaloupe. Good-bye to that most sexual of fruits, the guava; to peaches, plantains (fried), pomegranates, and papayas; to the fruits of pineapple field and coconut tree, if nuts are fruits and coconuts nuts, and of whatever it is that kiwis grow on. As for pears, I had always thought them better canned than fresh, as Hemingway’s Nick Adams says of apricots in the story “Big Two-Hearted River”–but I couldn’t see kissing a can good-bye, so I guessed that just about did the fruits (I myself preferred my apricots sun-dried rather than either fresh or canned).

Read the rest of “Goodbye to the Fruits” — and two other John Barth shorts — in the Spring ’94 issue of Conjunctions.

An Interview with Evan Lavender-Smith

Evan Lavender-Smith is an American writer who has published two books, Avatar and From Old Notebooks.

I really really really like his anti-novel (or whatever you want to call it) From Old Notebooks, which has recently been reissued by the good people at Dzanc Books.

(Here is my review of FON). I still haven’t read Avatar.

Evan talked with me about his writing, his reading, and other stuff over a series of emails. He was generous in his answers and I very much enjoyed talking with him.

Evan lives in New Mexico with his wife, son, and daughter. He has a website. Read his books.

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Biblioklept: Do you know that first editions of From Old Notebooks are going for like three hundred dollars on Amazon right now?

ELS: Here at the house I have a whole drawer full of them. That’s how I’m planning to pay for the kids’ college.

Biblioklept: I read that Cormac McCarthy won’t sign his books anymore because he has this reserve of signed editions that are for his son to sell and corner the market on. Or I think I read that.

Speaking of your kids: the parts in From Old Notebooks about them are some of my favorites, perhaps because the moments you describe seem so real to me, or that I relate so strongly to the feelings that you express. (My own kids, a daughter and son, are about the same age as your kids are in the book). Is it weird if I ask how your kids are?

ELS: Glad to hear some of that stuff resonates with you. No, I don’t think it’s weird. I believe the book even sort of self-consciously anticipates a certain reader’s empathetic engagement with it. There’s that passage somewhere, for example, in which we get something like an interview answer, something like “The real Evan Lavender-Smith has never made it past the first section of Ulysses, the real Evan Lavender-Smith has no children,” which I think maybe winks at the possibility of that type of readerly engagement. So no, it’s encouraging to hear that parts of the book seemed to work for you. My kids are great, by the way. Sofia’s at her violin lesson, Jackson’s doing an art project with his mom.

Biblioklept: The faux-interview answers crack me up. I think we’ve all done that in some way—that we go through these little experiments of interviewing ourselves, performing ourselves, imagining how others perceive us. You write your own obituary; at one point we get: ” ‘With my first book I hope to get all the cult of personality stuff out of the way’.” You remark that you don’t put dates on anything as “an act of defiance” against your “literary executors.” Moments like these seem simultaneously ironic and sincere.

I’m curious as to how closely you attended to these disjunctions—From Old Notebooks seems incredibly, I don’t know, organic.

ELS: At a certain point I became very aware that I was performing some version or versions of myself in the book, and I think the book tries to find ways of grappling with problems I perceived as bound up with that performance. One way was to insist on a narrative tone or mode somewhere in between irony and sincerity, or to regularly oscillate between or conflate these competing modes. Something like “I am the greatest writer in the history of the world!” might later be countered by “Gosh, my writing really blows, doesn’t it?”; or “My kids are so beautiful, I love them so much,” might be followed by “I wish those little fuckers were never born.” While the function of this variability is, in From Old Notebooks, probably mostly an apology or a mask for a kind of subjectivity I worry might come off as cliche and naive, that particular representation of the thinking subject — cleaved, inconsistent, heterogeneous — does strike me as truer of human experience and perception than the more streamlined consistency of expression and behavior we tend to associate with the conventional narratological device called “character.” When I try to look deep down inside myself, to really get a handle on my thinking, for example, or on my understanding of truth, I end up facing a real mess of disjunctive, contradictory forces competing for my attention. For me — and likely for the book, as well — the most immediate figure for this condition might be the confluence of sincerity and irony, the compossibility of taking a genuine life-affirming pleasure in, and exhibiting a kind of cynical hostility toward, the fact of my own existence.

Biblioklept: That contest between sincerity and irony seems present in many works of post-postmodern fiction. It’s clearly a conflict that marks a lot of David Foster Wallace’s stuff. You invoke Wallace a number of times in From Old Notebooks, but the style of the book seems in no way beholden to his books. Can you talk about his influence on you as a reader? A writer?

ELS: Wallace hugely influenced the way I think about any number of things. I think his most immediate influence on my writing is this blending of hieratic and demotic modes of language when I’m dealing with pretty much anything that requires the serious application of my writing mind; the hip nerdiness of his language was and still is very empowering to me. He made it seem super cool to geek out on books — “The library, and step on it,” says Hal in Infinite Jest — and back in high school and college that example was so vital for me, as someone entirely too obsessed with being both cool and well read. He served to guide my reading of other writers in a way that only John Barth and Brian Evenson have come close to matching; I poured over his essays for names, then went to the library and checked out and read all the books he mentioned, then reread his essays. His fiction’s most common subject matter — addiction, depression, the yearning for transcendence, the incommensurability of language and lived experience, problems of logic vis-a-vis emotion, metafiction’s values and inadequacies — all of this stuff hit very close to home. To my mind there’s little doubt that Infinite Jest is the best English-language novel published in the last 25 years. His advocacy for David Markson has got to be up there among the greatest literary rescue missions of the 20th century. In “Good Old Neon” he wrote what may be the most haunting long short story since “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” He galvanized young writers everywhere right when the internet was taking off and unwittingly served as a touchstone for emerging online literary communities that thrive today. I think for a lot of young writers, myself included, he was, maybe next to the emergence of the internet, the most important force in the language’s recent history. The list goes on and on. And also he helped me out personally, providing encouragement and advice that was so generous and inspiring. I was extremely troubled by his suicide and wasn’t able to write much or think about much else for quite a while.

With all that said, there are some things he says that bother me a bit. The synthesis of art and entertainment he espouses as it pertains to the role of the writer in the age of television — which I think in many ways corresponds to his striving for a new aesthetic in which the cerebral effects associated with 60s and 70s postmodernist fiction are complemented by or synthesized with the more visceral effects associated with 70s and 80s realist fiction — strikes me now as existing very much in opposition to what I believe in most passionately about writing: that it can and in the most important cases should exist in a state of absolute opposition to our entertainments. I’ve come to better appreciate, years after reading Wallace, the writing of people like Woolf and Beckett and Gaddis, those writers who are uncompromising in their vision of narrative art’s most radical and affecting possibilities and who necessarily, I believe, pay very little attention to any sort of entertainment imperative. The books I love most make me feel things strongly, and think things strongly, but rarely do they entertain me. If I want to be entertained, I know exactly where to go: a room without books. I’ve come to think of certain books as my life’s only source of intellectual solace; when I’m not despairing over the futility of everything under the sun, that unflagging commitment to a truly rigorous and uncompromising art that I perceive in a writer like Beckett seems to me a matter of life and death, just as serious as life can ever get. When Wallace talks that shit about art and entertainment, or about the need to add more heart or greater complexity of character to Pynchon or whatever, it makes me feel like I want to throw up. I heard him say once in an interview that he felt he couldn’t write the unfiltered stuff in his head, that it would be too radical or something, and the admission really upset me; it felt like in some serious way he had allowed his projection of an imaginary target audience’s desire to determine the form of his writing. I often feel something similar in the essays; I find many of them to be merely entertaining. I suppose I often judge the essays in relation to the fictions, which I find far superior in their attempt to overcome the strictures and conventions of language and form. Wallace was always at his best, to my reading, when he was really bearing down — when he was at his most difficult.

But no doubt he’s been monumentally important to me, more so than any other recent fiction writer, and in more ways than I can name. There’s something in From Old Notebooks where the methodical awkwardness and wordiness of so many of his sentences is likened to the affectation of bumping up against the limits of language. That’s probably what I take away from him more than anything: when I sit down at the laptop to face the language, I often feel myself struggling with the words as well as struggling to demonstrate that I’m struggling with the words. That’s pure Wallace: word-by-word, letter-by-letter self-consciousness. (There’s another thing in From Old Notebooks about how I’m always talking shit because I care for him so deeply … which is why the paragraph before this one). Continue reading “An Interview with Evan Lavender-Smith”

The Special Pleasures of Guest Room Reading

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A few years ago, The New York Times ran a little wisp of an article describing the pleasures many readers take in reading “the moldy, dog-eared paperbacks found on the shelves and bedside tables of summer guest rooms.” The article features writers explaining how, staying somewhere, they reach for books they’d normally never pick up, like Wells Tower describing how he ended up reading The Bridges of Madison County. Like most ardent readers, I take a book (or two or three, or, more recently, a Kindle loaded with hundreds) with me anywhere I’m going to stay a night—but I’ll invariably read something I find in the room I’m staying if possible.

Sometimes I’ll end up reading something terrible—once, staying at a beachfront condo, I read an entire serialized Annie Oakley novel even though it was awful. Other times a stay prompts me to pick up a book I’d never reach for in my civilian life. For example, in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains a few years ago I read a naturalist field guide for the area, written and published in the 1950s. More often than not, guest room reading leads me to read much faster and stay up reading much longer than I normally would, simply because I’m trying to finish the book before I leave. This is how I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores in one long sitting (the book was my uncle), and how I ate up John Barth’s novel The End of the Road in friend’s mother’s childhood room—the book was hers, she had lots of cool books, and I wished I could’ve read more.

The other night, staying with some longtime friends, I reached for a brittle yellowed Peanuts collection on the nightstand by my bed. There were a few volumes of prose and poetry there, but Charles M. Schulz’s comics seemed more likely to make it through the haze of half a dozen beers. Plus, I’ve always loved Peanuts. I read the book entire, an arc beginning with the gang heading off to summer camp and ending, more or less, with Snoopy’s failed attempts at writing.

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Like many kids, I grew up with Peanuts, reading Schulz’s work in the paper and also in collected volumes that my grandparents would give me (my grandfather was an especially big fan). The comics were often funny—not funny like my favorite at the time, Gary Larson’s The Far Side to be sure—but they were just as often full of melancholy or even despair, a despair that was mediated, but not necessarily assuaged by, the consolations of friendship.

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I read as gently as possible, trying (and not always succeeding) to prevent any more pages from falling out of the collection. I mentally bookmarked several panels and a few entire strips to photograph the next day to maybe share on the blog. The next morning it occurred to me that I own almost a half dozen Peanuts collections—but I probably hadn’t picked them up in years. And I suppose this is one of the strange pleasures of guest room reading—that it might reintroduce us to an old favorite—but that seems like too pat a conclusion to me. I’ve found over the years that I’m just as likely to remember an awful book I read at random as a guest—and that for some reason the experience of reading someone else’s books—in a guest room, at a river house, in a cabin, at a hostel—is somehow always heightened. I don’t have a distinct explanation, other than the very obvious and simple one that I usually read in the same few places—a chair in my living room, a couch, my office, the bed, the bath, my back porch—and that reading other people’s texts in unfamiliar places estranges what I think of as reading—and that estrangement is invigorating. And pleasurable. 

Book Shelves #23, 6.03.2012

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Book shelves series #23, twenty-third Sunday of 2012

Okay. So, a bit later than usual getting this in. It’s the daughter’s birthday and I’m recovering from a Saturday party and I’ve been out in the garden other day and some other excuses.

Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor—and then some books that seem misshelved. Calvino used to hang out with Umberto Eco but that shelf got too crowded. The John Barth should be with the other John Barth books, but they’re all mass market paperbacks in shabby condition.

I like the cover of the Breece D’J Pancake collection:

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Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales is this secret awesome book that almost no one has read. It was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog and the review is so woefully short that I’ll just cut and paste it below:

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In a sublime synthesis of traditional folklore and imagistic surrealism, Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales questions the normative spaces occupied by bodies. Deriving from animist tradition, her characters exist in an impossible multiplicity of spaces, being at once animals and plants, humans and gods. Cabrera’s characters endure trials of biological identity and social co-existence, and through these problems they internalize authority, evince taboos, and create a social code. Cabrera’s trickster characters provoke, challenge, or otherwise disrupt the symbolic order of this code. In “Bregantino Bregantín,” a story that recalls Freud’s primal horde theory, as well as the work of more contemporary theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler,  narcissist Bull kills all the males of his kingdom and takes all the women for himself.  The sadistic titular turtle of “Papa Turtle and Papa Tiger” uses the power of his dead friend’s antlers to shame, torment, and torture the other animals of his community. And in the magical realism of “Los Compadres,” Capinche seeks to put the horns on his best friend Evaristo by sleeping with his wife–a transgression that ends in necrophilia. This union of sex and death, creation and destruction is the norm in Cabrera’s green and fecund world; the trickster’s displacements of order invariably result in reanimation, transformation, and regeneration—the drawing, stepping-over, and re-drawing of boundaries.

Candide — Voltaire

I liked pretty much all of the assigned reading in high school (okay, I hated every page of Tess of the D’Ubervilles). Some of the books I left behind, metaphorically at least (Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye), and some books bewildered me, but I returned to them later, perhaps better equipped (Billy Budd; Leaves of Grass). No book stuck with me quite as much as Candide, Voltaire’s scathing satire of the Enlightenment.

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I remember being unenthusiastic when my 10th grade English teacher assigned the book—it was the cover, I suppose (I stole the book and still have it), but the novel quickly absorbed all of my attention. I devoured it. It was (is) surreal and harsh and violent and funny, a prolonged attack on all of the bullshit that my 15 year old self seemed to perceive everywhere: baseless optimism, can-do spirit, and the guiding thesis that “all is for the best.” The novel gelled immediately with the Kurt Vonnegut books I was gobbling up, seemed to antecede the Beat lit I was flirting with. And while the tone of the book certainly held my attention, its structure, pacing, and plot enthralled me. I’d never read a book so willing to kill off major characters (repeatedly), to upset and displace its characters, to shift their fortunes so erratically and drastically. Not only did Voltaire repeatedly shake up the fortunes of Candide and his not-so-merry band—Pangloss, the ignorant philosopher; Cunegonde, Candide’s love interest and raison d’etre and her maid the Old Woman; Candide’s valet Cacambo; Martin, his cynical adviser—but the author seemed to play by Marvel Comics rules, bringing dead characters back to life willy nilly. While most of the novels I had been reading (both on my own and those assigned) relied on plot arcs, grand themes, and character development, Candide was (is) a bizarre series of one-damn-thing-happening-after-another. Each chapter was its own little saga, an adventure writ in miniature, with attendant rises and falls. I loved it.

I reread Candide this weekend for no real reason in particular. I’ve read it a few times since high school, but it was never assigned again—not in college, not in grad school—which may or may not be a shame. I don’t know. In any case, the book still rings my bell; indeed, for me it’s the gold standard of picaresque novels, a genre I’ve come to dearly love. Perhaps I reread it with the bad taste of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor still in my mouth. As I worked my way through that bloated mess, I just kept thinking, “Okay, Voltaire did it 200 years earlier, much better and much shorter.”

Revisiting Candide for the first time in years, I find that the book is richer, meaner, and far more violent than I’d realized. Even as a callow youth, I couldn’t miss Voltaire’s attack on the Age of Reason, sustained over a slim 120 pages or so. Through the lens of more experience (both life and reading), I see that Voltaire’s project in Candide is not just to satirize the Enlightenment’s ideals of rationality and the promise of progress, but also to actively destabilize those ideals through the structure of the narrative itself. Voltaire offers us a genuine adventure narrative and punctures it repeatedly, allowing only the barest slivers of heroism—and those only come from his innocent (i.e. ignorant) title character. Candide is topsy-turvy, steeped in both irony and violence.

As a youth, the more surreal aspects of the violence appealed to me. (An auto-da-fé! Man on monkey murder! Earthquakes! Piracy! Cannibalizing buttocks!). The sexy illustrations in the edition I stole from my school helped intrigue me as well—

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The self who read the book this weekend still loves a narrative steeped in violence—I can’t help it—Blood Meridian, 2666, the Marquis de Sade, Denis Johnson, etc.—but I realize now that, despite its occasional cartoonish distortions, Candide is achingly aware of the wars of Europe and the genocide underway in the New World. Voltaire by turns attacks rape and slavery, serfdom and warfare, always with a curdling contempt for the powers that be.

But perhaps I’ve gone too long though without quoting from this marvelous book, so here’s a passage from the last chapter that perhaps gives summary to Candide and his troupe’s rambling adventures: by way of context (and, honestly spoiling nothing), Candide and his friends find themselves eking out a living in boredom (although not despair) and finding war still raging around them (no shortage of heads on spikes); Candide’s Cunegonde is no longer fair but “growing uglier everyday” (and shrewish to boot!), Pangloss no longer believes that “it is the best of all worlds” they live in, yet he still preaches this philosophy, Martin finds little solace in the confirmation of his cynicism and misanthropy, and the Old Woman is withering away to death. The group finds their only entertainment comes from disputing abstract questions—

But when they were not arguing, their boredom became so oppressive that one day the old woman was driven to say, “I’d like to know which is worse: to be raped a hundred times by Negro pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the guantlet in the Bulgar army, to be whipped and hanged in an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to be a galley slave—in short, to suffer all the miseries we’ve all gone through—or stay here and do nothing.

“That’s a hard question,” said Candide.

It’s amazing that over 200 years ago Voltaire posits boredom as an existential dilemma equal to violence; indeed, as its opposite. (I should stop and give credit here to Lowell Blair’s marvelous translation, which sheds much of the finicky verbiage you might find in other editions in favor of a dry, snappy deadpan, characterized in Candide’s rejoinder above). The book’s longevity might easily be attributed to its prescience, for Voltaire’s uncanny ability to swiftly and expertly assassinate all the rhetorical and philosophical veils by which civilization hides its inclinations to predation and straight up evil. But it’s more than that. Pointing out that humanity is ugly and nasty and hypocritical is perhaps easy enough, but few writers can do this in a way that is as entertaining as what we find in Candide. Beyond that entertainment factor, Candide earns its famous conclusion: “We must cultivate our garden,” young (or not so young now) Candide avers, a simple, declarative statement, one that points to the book’s grand thesis: we must work to overcome poverty, ignorance, and, yes, boredom. I’m sure, gentle, well-read reader, that you’ve read Candide before, but I’d humbly suggest to read it again.

The Sot-Weed Factor — John Barth

I finished the audiobook version of John Barth’s novel The Sot-Weed Factor last week. I’d tried to read the novel a few times in the past, never getting past page 56 of my Bantam mass market edition, which runs to 819 pages. That’s a long book. The unabridged audiobook runs just over 36 hours. That’s a long time. Too long, really, for what Barth has to offer here, but before I get into that, I’ll give a tip of the hat to the excellent production values and the wonderful voice talent of Geoffrey Centlivre, who is by turns expressive, wry, pathetic, bathetic, or understated, depending on what Barth’s prose calls for. He understands the novel and does an estimable job translating it.

The Sot-Weed Factor enjoys the reputation of being Barth’s finest work (although let me just go ahead and disagree with this generalized assumption that I’ve attributed to no one in particular and say up front that the novel is ultimately a boring overlong drag and anyone interested in Barth is better off starting with Lost in the Funhouse). The novel parodies a number of literary styles — Bildungsromans, picaresques, Künstlerromans, adventure stories, histories, romances, and serialized narratives in general. Adopting the language (diction, tone, syntax, form and all) of 17th century prose, Barth tells the story of Ebenezer Cooke, a real historical figure whose 1708 poem “The Sotweed Factor, or A Voyage to Maryland, A Satyr” is considered by some literary historians to be the first American satire.

Barth’s Ebenezer is an innocent soul à la Voltaire’s Candide (hero of another picaresque that has the decency to be funnier, sharper, and, ahem, much, much shorter), a would-be poet whose spurious claims to being “Poet Laureate of Maryland” come constantly under fire. Ebenezer attributes his artistic powers (which are dubious at best) to the metaphysical virtue of his virginity; one of the major conflicts of the plot of The Sot-Weed Factor is poor Ebenezer defending his cherry from the various whores and ne’er-do-well who populate the book. And there are a lot of these whores and ne’er-do-wells: rascals and pirates and pimps and thieves and slavers and sluts of every stripe shuffle through The Sot-Weed Factor, underscoring several of Barth’s themes — innocence versus experience, perception versus reality, virtue versus vice, and stability versus flux.

In my reading, this last theme — the instability of identity, particularly American identity — is the major thrust of The Sot-Weed Factor. But before going into this idea, I suppose I should share at least some of the plot, or at least try to summarize it, which is almost impossible, as it shifts and slants and reverses in every chapter. In the interest of making a (very) long story short, dear reader, and making my job a bit easier, I’ll borrow from Don D’Ammassa’s summary (he’s got a great Barth page for those inclined)—

The story is set during the 17th Century.  Ebenezer Cooke is the son of a well-to-do British gentleman who owns property in the Maryland colony in the New World.  Ebenezer and his sister are tutored by Henry Burlingame until his sudden dismissal while they are in their late teens.  Ebenezer is sent off to boarding school, where he finds it difficult to form a bond between himself and his environment, eventually retreating into poetry.  He is also afflicted by an extreme form of indecisiveness in which he is literally frozen in place, some times for hours on end, incapable of making a decision.  His abstraction from the world is reminiscent of Jacob Horner and Todd Andrews, although exaggerated even further.

The plot grows rapidly more complicated.  Ebenezer is apprenticed in London, where he fails to prosper.  He becomes infatuated with a prostitute, despite his own militant virginity; his poor prospects are then conveyed to his father, who ships him off to the family holdings in the colonies.  Ebenezer decides to request a commission from Lord Calvert, governor of Maryland, to become its official Poet Laureate, believes that he has been awarded that honor, and sets out for the new world.  In the course of that journey, he rediscovers Henry Burlingame, who has taken on another identity, is kidnapped by pirates, walks the plank, and eventually reaches land.

The complexity and twisted humor that ensue cannot be adequately described in a few words.  Secret identities are revealed, coincidences flourish, absurd situations follow in rapid sequence.  Ebenezer is honored and disgraced, is captured by angry natives and threatened with death.  He discovers pieces of a secret journal of the adventures of John Smith and Pocahontas, and helps Henry Burlingame discover the truth about his own origins.  There is considerable bawdy content, much of it surrounding the mysterious process by which John Smith managed to sexually satisfy Pocahontas.

I’m impressed with D’Ammassa’s concision here—he neatly puts together the major elements of a sprawling, fat novel. As you may see from D’Ammassa’s summary, The Sot-Weed Factor is all about the instability of place, the lack of solid ground in swampy Maryland, the discontinuity of historical narrative, the inability of art to overcome reality, and the rapid reversals of fortune and identity that might occur in a New World. It’s all “assy-turvy,” to use one of the character’s terms. The Sot-Weed Factor here shows its post-modern bona fides; there’s a constant inconstancy, a doubling of people, places, things, and then a trebling. Ebenezer’s Old World romantic virtues—his insistence on the metaphysical value of his virginity and the power of his feeble poetry—are not just contested but obliterated (only poor Eb’s too blind to see this). Barth reworks American history, dismantling and satirizing the Pocahontas narrative, and emphasizing the plight of the native Americans, enslaved Africans, and indentured Europeans in this brave new world.

The book is also a dismantling of literary history, a jab at metaphysical poetry and identity narratives like Tom Jones or the work of Dickens. While Ebenezer spouts the loftiest supplications to his airy muse, Barth keeps his humor stuck sloppily in the toilet. The Sot-Weed Factor surpasses any ribald work I’ve ever read. The book is larded with dick jokes, fart jokes, jokes about diarrhea, jokes about sex and venereal diseases and so on—it culminates with (as D’Ammassa points out above) a riff on 17th century Viagra. In short, Bath focuses most of his keen literary powers on the kind of sophomoric japes that might keep Bevis and Butthead’s attention. Again, it’s all “assy-turvy.”

Barth’s toilet humor is at times funny, but it becomes tiresome over the book’s long duration, especially when it’s often the sole reward for long expanses of poorly-conceived exposition. I found myself bored to tears at times listening to The Sot-Weed Factor, and had to force myself to continue in its final third, a challenge that became easier when the narrative finally picked up a bit. Just a bit though. The book’s major problem is not its bloat though, or its saggy exposition, or even its redundant fart jokes. No, these feel more a symptom than a cause, and I think they are symptom of a too self-satisfied (or self-satisfying) author; over its 800+ pages (or 36+ hours), The Sot-Weed Factor reveals itself as the literary equivalent of a very bright writer jacking off to his own research. In what must be the worst case of unrestrained writing I’ve ever seen (or heard, I suppose), Barth allows two of his characters, catty women arguing, one English, one French, to trade insults with each other, all various euphemisms for “whore.” This process goes on for minutes in the audiobook version and for six goddamn pages in my Bantam edition and, like much of the details in this fat beast, does little or nothing to add to the narrative. It’s as if in his research Barth has dug up dozens and dozens of lovely little antiquated slurs and can’t bear to edit a single one. If  the process rewards Barth, it does little for the reader.

But if literary diarrhea is the mode of the book, then I guess it mirrors one of The Sot-Weed Factor’s many rude motifs. Personally, I wish I had my time back. There’s great value in reimagining the origin of America (I think immediately of Terence Malick’s The New World or Toni Morrison’s A Mercy or even some of William Blake’s work), but Barth’s narrative seems too self-indulgent and unrewarding to make any real claims to democratic (or, if I’m feeling harsh, artistic) insight. Perhaps The Sot-Weed Factor is the kind of novel that remains indivisible from its form, and perhaps to a contemporary reader like me this form is just too flabby and flaccid to spark spirit. As I’ve tried to communicate here, Barth has a sharp intellect and he’s more than capable of performing a wry, wise, and often funny analysis of early American history. But he indulges too much in his own sophomoric games and winks too often at the reader. It’s amazing that such a long book could feel so hollow.

The Joys of Random Reading

The New York Times published a little piece yesterday on the pleasures of finding–and reading–random books in vacation spots. From the article: “There is fate in the moldy, dog-eared paperbacks found on the shelves and bedside tables of summer guest rooms. When the masterpiece we’ve dutifully brought along stalls five pages in, the accidental bounty of other people’s discarded reading beckons. Like conversations with strangers on a train, these random literary encounters can be unsettling, distracting or life changing.” They ask eight authors, including Wells Tower and Dave Eggers about some of their random reading encounters. Here’s Tower on The Bridges of Madison County:

“The Bridges of Madison County,” by Robert James Waller, found in a beach house in Brooklin, Me. Strenuously unrecommended as a novel, but if you strike every third verb and noun it converts into a superb volume of Mad Libs with which to pass idle hours by the sea.

I’ve picked up many weird books over the years, at guest houses, hostels, and other places I was staying: a cheap novelization of old Annie Oakley magazine serials (at a beach condo); H.G. Wells’s A Short History of the World (at a river house); too some mild shame, sundry trashy V.C. Andrews novels (they must have been my older cousin’s); any Stephen King novel I’ve ever read. Probably the best random reading experience I’ve had though was when staying at a friend’s grandfather’s house in Miami. I stayed in his mother’s old room–she had all kinds of cool books, including John Barth’s slim second novel The End of the Road, which I devoured in one sleepless night. I did not steal it.

Where the World Navel Intersects the Threshold of Adventure

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Hey you. Yeah, you. Were you the guy that borrowed my copy of John Barth’s Chimera and never had enough human compassion/decency to return it? No? Not you? Never mind. I picked up another copy last weekend specifically for the diagram above (I also wanted to re-read “Perseid.”) Now that I look at it again, I’m not sure that it’s so much enlightening as it is mystifying. In any case, it’s an intriguing bit of navel gazing. Fun stuff.

Lost: Lost in the Funhouse

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a stolen book (ostensibly, this blog is all about book theft. But we’re easily distracted here). John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse is one of my favorite short story collections ever and it’s been MIA from my library for a couple of years now. The collection starts with “Frame Tale,” a one-page (front and back) meta-commentary that informs the whole text. “Frame Tale” is essentially a marginal strip which says “Once upon a time…” on one side and “there was a tale that began…” on the other. The accompanying directions (a number of the stories come with directions; some are to be read aloud, some are to be tape recorded and played back, some are to be read aloud along to looped recording) direct the reader to cut out a strip of paper and connect the opposing ends, creating a Möbius strip, a commentary on the infinite and cyclical nature of story-telling (Barth expanded on this theme in the three linked novellas of Chimera).

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My favorite story in the collection is “Petition,” a letter from a distraught Siamese twin, but the most lauded tale in LITF is the title story. “Lost in the Funhouse” recounts the adventures of young Ambrose as he navigates a bizarre amusement park funhouse during a family vacation to the beach one summer. The story is shot through with sexual anxiety and familial tension; Ambrose’s confused (and sometimes confusing) narrative loops discursively, unwinding and then condensing as he trips over his own thoughts. David Foster Wallace riffs off of “Lost in the Funhouse” in his long short story “Westward the Course of Empire Goes” (from Girl With Curious Hair). Ambrose, a semi-autobiographical stand-in as Barth’s pubescent alter-ego, appears as a a much older writing teacher in DFW’s novella. Clever, hunh? And to think, some people hate post-modernism! I feel bad for these folks.

I think that this collection paired with DFW’s Girl With Curious Hair (or, even better Brief Interviews With Hideous Men) makes a great introduction to post-modern writing. The major tropes, themes, and devices are explored in these books in short, digestible chunks full of humor and (surprise!) emotion. Highly recommended.