book-reviews

The Sot-Weed Factor

by John Barth

Rating: ★★★★

A rather exhaustingly plotted book, its twists and turns so frequent and unlikely that you start to despair of ever finding a reliable path. Almost anyone new our poor poet meets or hears of is actually someone he already knows in disguise -- it would adapt marvellously as a play, since all the characters are already playing a mass of roles. All the sexual violence would probably make it a hit, too -- for all that the main character is a virgin, and the style apes the reservation of the Victorian period, this is one of the most sex-obsessed novels I've ever read. Whoring, pimping, mass rape of women, rape of men, tiny penises, anal sex, cuckoldry, bestiality, incest, sexual disease, sexual prosthetics -- you're hard-pressed to think of a sexual depravity that doesn't turn up somewhere, couched amusingly in reserved antick tongue. Not to mention the argument between two old prostitutes that devolves into four pages full of terms for a whore in English and French alternately.

Exhaustion and desensitisation seem to be the point of the novel. Our poet's detachment from life is kindled into a naive passion for an ideal, and then set upon by reality (or at least his friend, the fiendish antagonist) at every shifting step. How many false identities can a single story support? How many Ebenezer Cookes can Maryland? The absurdity is clearly intentional -- how else a story in which three times the protagonist is tossed overboard and all three times makes it to a shore? Yet the book isn't all spoof, there are lines in it that are variously clever and powerful, and a general sense of doing battle with nihilism shines through the cloud of complicated plot. Even the devilish Burlingame is made to bear some stinging blows on the subject of experience, when Ebenezer starts to show some spirit.

Nothing particularly cohesive morally comes through the narrative, but there is enough here that I am impressed by Barth as a writer, and inclined to seek out some of his other work.