August 3, 1966
New York Times
The Surfacing of Mr. Barth [Laughter]
By ELIOT FREMONT-SMITH
review of GILES GOAT-BOY: Or, The Revised New Syllabus.
by John Barth.
Doubts, doubts, doubts! What is one to do about John Barth? Is he, as so many people interested in original, funny, creative and brilliant writing agree he is -- the most original, funny, creative and brilliant writer working in the English language today? Or merely, as these same people hasten to add, the most impertinent and long-winded? Is "Giles Goat-Boy or, The Revised New Syllabus" (a decipherment of this peculiar title follows anon) the great American novel, come at last into being, or just a long, though expert, shaggy-goat story? And if so -- or, indeed, if not so, or both -- whose beard is being pulled? Mr. Barth is clearly a genius -- the word everybody strums when talking literarily about him -- but what does that mean? Intoxicated by "Giles Goat-Boy," I would suggest that it applies to someone who, by force of will and wild connections in the mind, intoxicates.
More precisely, the word is useful to describe someone whose work is so on-the-ball, so stimulating and so attention-getting through artifice so obvious that it comes full circle and rivets us with its honesty (eccentric is another word for this), that one is compelled -- if by sheer nervousness alone -- to discount all sorts of faults, shortcomings, non-originalities, clever but not really very funny, yet nonetheless delightful, and certainly long-winded, embellishments and asides, not to mention the possibilities of suffocation by words, themes, aspects, ironies, similes, metaphors, riddle-me-this's and the detailed history of everything.
Whew! Clearly, Barthism is catching. Nonetheless, and through it all, two immediate conclusions suggest themselves: (1) to recognize the genius, one must indulge the pedant; (2) John Barth is a pedant.
Mr. Barth, who teaches English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is the author of three previous novels, "The Floating Opera" (1956), "The End of the Road" (1958) and "The Sot-Weed Factor" (1960), an epic-parody on the history of Maryland that ran 806 pages and established Mr. Barth's credentials for underground appreciation and incubation. With "Giles Goat-Boy," which runs nearly as long, including the roman-numerated front-matter, Mr. Barth surfaces to public respectability: the book is going to be reviewed all over the place, talked about at length and possibly even read.
All of this Mr. Barth himself waggishly explores in the aforementioned front-matter, in the opinions of four "editors" about whether or not the book should be published, from the points-of-view of profit, prestige, moral effects and office politics, and in an explanatory "covering letter" that delves into the ambiguities of title, authorship and inspiration.
The "covering letter" is signed "J.B." The initials may refer to Mr. Barth or may refer, not inappropriately, to Job, of Biblical and Archibald MacLeish fame. It tell show the "manuscript" came into J.B.'s hands, and was authored by (either or in combination) Stoker Giles (or is it Giles Stoker?), his father George Giles and/or a giant computer named WESCAC. The manuscript's formal title is then revealed as "R.N.S.: The Revised New Syllabus of George, Giles, Our Grand Tutor; Being the Autobiographical and Horatory Tapes Read Out at New Tammany College to His Son Giles(,) Stoker by the West Campus Automatic Computer, And by Him Prepared for the Furtherment of the Gilesian Curriculum."
There follows the novel proper, which tells how George Giles was born (possibly a computer accident) into a goat herd, made his way into New Tammany College (the world of men), became Grand Tutor and prophet of the West Campus (the Western world as opposed to the Eastern) and, like Don Quixote, Candide, Leopold Bloom, etc., sought the meaning of good and evil, innocence and existence, action and identity, passion and thought.
The message of the syllabus is ambiguous -- except perhaps that absolutes are noncognizable, that thinking is a passion and most passionately expressed in humor, and that, except for these, the world is going to hell. Fortunately, it won't get there because -- Mr. Barth proves once more -- old jokes never die, they just lie in wait for resurrection. The jokes here -- sexual, scatological, gastronomical, existential, political, linguistic, literary conventions and parodies -- can be traced to Rabelais, "Tristram Shandy," Lewis Carroll, Joyce, Nabokov, the Beatles and Bennett Cerf, among others, which should given an idea of the truly astonishing flavor of this lemon meringue pie of a book.
An idea, but not a complete or even very accurate idea, for "Giles Goat-Boy" is far more engrossing and curiously more moving than I'm afraid this indicates.
What is one to do about John Barth? Well, first of all, partake, eat quaff, enjoy. Whatever the doubts and recriminations, they will keep till morning; I'm not sure they matter in the slightest.