Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Edward Champion

By posted at 1:02 pm on December 16, 2007 3

Edward Champion’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Philly Inquirer, Newsday, as well as more disreputable publications. He blogs at Return of the Reluctant and podcasts at The Bat Segundo Show.

I’m reserving my hosannas for this year’s lit for another place, another time, another Bizarro universe, another silly excuse to rip off my clothes, dive into the almighty ocean, and shout (“Holy shit, it’s freezing!”) the ten names of the ten greatest books to the heavens and presumably Xenu himself. There was one writer I rediscovered this year after a ten year absence, a guy who knocked my socks off, a man who I understand was passed up for a special National Book Award because he was considered too experimental, too out there, too not right for the vox populi. Never mind that his instinctive perversion of carnal and literary conventions is exactly the apposite kick in the ass the American public needs right now and exactly the kind of subversive thrust that can galvanize today’s young writers.

That man is John Barth, who, at 77, is indeed still alive and still writing and may face a Gilbert Sorrentino-style shutout in his last years if we’re not careful. You’ll even find one of his tales, “Toga Party,” in this year’s Best American Short Stories. And this story of anxiety and distress and growing older demonstrates that the old guy still has it.

covercoverBut if you need convincing in novel form, start with his first three books, all of which I reread this year. The Floating Opera and The End of the Road were each written in three months, amazingly during the same year. Each volume is a glorious decimation of Puritanical values, whether they be sex, psychiatry, the legal system, or even the manner in which one obtains employment. But the piece de resistance is Barth’s third book, his masterpiece, The Sot-Weed Factor, a picaresque 17th century monster that befuddled and delighted even the great Darby M. Dixon III! Not only is this book an immensely entertaining satire of a real-life Maryland poet named Ebeneezer Cooke, but it features lengthy explanations on arcane historical topics, perfectly fabricated notebooks that rethink the John Smith-Pocahantas relationship, and a sustained examination on how absolutist ideologies are inextricable thorns in the grand American rose. This is a book that a capsule post cannot do justice to. That it is not uttered in the same breath as Gravity’s Rainbow or The Recognitions or Gormenghast is a sure sign that literary standards have fallen.

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3 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Edward Champion”

  1. The Modesto Kid
    at 5:48 pm on December 16, 2007

    Sot-Weed is indeed a great book; but is it as neglected as all that? It seems to me like if I'm talking with somebody who is aware of (say) Pynchon's work, they are pretty likely to be aware of Barth as well. (Though that said, Sot-Weed is *all* I'm aware of by Barth; I should broaden my horizons a bit.) Maybe I'll take a look at that Floating Opera.

  2. Anonymous
    at 12:13 pm on December 18, 2007

    Champion says,"That man is John Barth, who, at 77, is indeed still alive and still writing and may face a Gilbert Sorrentino-style shutout in his last years if we're not careful."

    What is meant by this? I'm aware of Sorrentino and his works, ones that make James Joyce look like John Grisham.

  3. Muffy St. Bernard
    at 8:50 am on December 25, 2007

    Yes, Barth's first three novels are brilliant and worth multiple readings. I'd also give a shout-out to "LETTERS."

    This year I made it a mission to read all of his books, and I did so from July to December. Let's just say that I had a wonderful summer, but by winter I was ready to explode.

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