Wednesday 6 July 2011
To wit, I have been approximately 300 pages into Vanity Fair for weeks now; I have been almost done Silence for almost as long. I had to abandon both to re-read Cold Comfort Farm, which made me wish everything were as British and silly as that book. Nothing could be more British or silly than that, not even Wodehouse, so I have finished it and am back to Silence which I have promised both myself and the unforgiving interwebs that I will finish TODAY (i.e., Tuesday).*
I received a concerned email from a friend about my radio silence recently, which has forced me to sluggishly and damply force myself to sit before the newly adopted and christened Hamish Tinycomputer (my new tinylaptop, purchased for the sole purpose of taking my word processing activities outside, and perhaps solving my disgust with sitting indoors during the June/July/August trifecta of seasonal awesomeness, the awesomeness being just how very late it is before the sun goes down, for the most part) and write something in the Toronto's summer signature hellish hot heat. So, here I am, making excuses but really seguing awkwardly into an entirely insufficient review of John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor.
This book was gifted to me about a year ago by Cyberspatial Tom, during my last summer reading/writing famine. It took me a year to get to it, which sounds bad, but is actually pretty good for me. Also, this was the novel most asked after in my bookstore by 20-something young men possessing large vocabularies, intense respect for the Importance of Reading and Thinking About Important Things, and partially completed philosophy degrees. I never had the book, of course. But this is the thing: now that I've read The Sot-Weed Factor, I think I know why these Thoughtful Young Men wanted the book, and I like them better for it.
First of all, it is a remarkable work of art insofar as it is ridiculously well-written and Barth clearly knows A Lot about A Hell of A Lot of Things, particularly things which occurred in the 17th century. At least, his ability to set context via historical signposts and surprisingly convincing Olde Timey language is the most laudable I've seen. His vision – of young and shockingly naive young poet Eben |Cooke striking out from England for the New World to make his fortune and reputation, as well as the insane laundry list of adventures and disasters he experiences – is as vast as the night sky, as broad and deep as Eben's capacity for self-deception and Hudibrastic rhyming, and as varied as Burlingame's taste for perversion. It is, in other words, epic in both the formal and colloquial senses of the word.
Thoughtful, epic, learned, brilliant – all these adjectives can describe The Sot-Weed Factor. But so can hilarious, ridiculous, and juvenile. You see, Barth's favourite Olde Timey word may very well be “beshit”, as in “But say, thou'rt all beshit”, which Burlingame observes of Eben after the latter fouls himself in response to dire threats received at the hands of some real, live pirates (yaaarrrrrr) (p. 171). That's right, The Sot-Weed Factor is perfect for the highly intelligent but immature 12-year old boy stuck in the mature casing of a third-year Humanities student. It's also, apparently, perfect for intelligent but immature 12-year-old boys stuck in the mature casing of a third-year Humanities student stuck in the middle-aged body of an English PhD and former book-seller, for I think that, having read this novel, I may want John Barth to marry me - or, at the very least, to watch 30 Rock with me.
Now, if I haven't made it clear, this book is terribly funny. It is an insane festival of unrelenting hilarity, of the mostly low-brow sort. If you are squeamish or very mature, you might skip this. If unrelenting hilarity wears you down, you might also not read it; and I get it, for reading this book can cause the mental equivalent of a face made agonizingly sore from too much laughing.
On the other hand, if you like the rude and loud literary bon temps to roulez in 700-page stretches, The Sot-Weed Factor is for you. I think that this book is more compelling for its silliness than its obvious intelligence (although I enjoy that as well). But where, you may be wondering, resides this intelligence I am claiming but not providing evidence for? It’s satirical, of course; at least, the NYTBR claims on the back of my copy that The Sot-Weed Factor is a satire on humanity as a whole. Nay, friend, thou’rt lazy and short-sighted! Penning a satire on humanity as a whole is too easy; ’tis less work than shooting fish in a small barrel with a cannon!
If, indeed, Barth is engaging in some delightfully mean satire here it is, I think, aimed at the following (and with a weapon rather more subtle than a cannon): Poets, Earnestness, and Readers who think they understand what an author ever meant in the first place – which yes, means that I am as much a subject of his finger-pointing and japing as those who read Literature for what is Real and True are. Which is fine, as I no doubt deserve it. I do, after all, bestow ridiculous monikers like "Hamish Tinycomputer" on inanimate electronic devices.
*Mission accomplished. Please, restrain your applause.