Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done. There’s no shame in this. Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.
All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”
I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth’s language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious. Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I’d heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer. Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America’s mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600’s, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors. One such man is Barth’s protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father’s tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place. Ebenezer describes himself as “a morsel for the wide world’s lions.” What a gorgeous set-up for a satire.
It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth’s foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition. From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke. Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth’s third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a “nihilist trilogy.” But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: “I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I’d been too innocent myself to realize that fact.”
This realization led Barth to a far richer one: “I came better to appreciate what I have called the ‘tragic view’ of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.”
The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth’s theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American. Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene’s novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can’t hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon. He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise. Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can’t get any more quiet than dead.
While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor. And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. It’s one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I’ve ever read.
While I believe it’s best to let fiction speak for itself, just as I doubt that an understanding of a writer’s life sheds useful light on his work, I itched to know more about Ebenezer Cooke’s creator and his methods. A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as a young man he switched from studying jazz at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petronius’s Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story. This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, “my favorite navigation star.” She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories.
And Barth’s musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor. “At heart I’m still an arranger,” Barth once told an interviewer. “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody” – a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style – “and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”
This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries. A few stand out, including James Joyce’s magisterial Ulysses, which I’d dipped into many times but never read wire to wire until a few years ago. (What was I thinking to wait so long?) Another was James Crumley’s crime novel, The Last Good Kiss. I broke down and read it after I got tired of hearing fawning references to its immortal opening sentence – “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” For once, the fawners nailed it.
And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which was once, according to Richard Ford, a sort of “secret handshake” among its small but devoted band of acolytes. For better and for worse, the novel forfeited its cult status not long after I discovered it, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were horrifically miscast as the disgruntled suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler in the big-budget movie version of Yates’s masterpiece. The movie, for all its many flaws, worked in concert with Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates to bring his work to a far larger audience than he ever enjoyed in his 66 years of life. Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books. It’s a pity Richard Yates wasn’t around to enjoy his revival.
And finally there was the curious case of Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer who, like Yates, was obscure in his lifetime and will soon receive the posthumous big-screen treatment. I first heard of Flann O’Brien (the pen name for Brian O’Nolan) when I read that Graham Greene had reacted to the humor of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” That sounded promising. So did the discovery that Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were also O’Brien fans. While browsing in my neighborhood bookstore soon after making those discoveries, I happened upon the handsome Everyman’s Library collection of all five O’Brien novels. Books find us as often as we find them. I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last. “A very queer affair,” as the author himself admitted of his life’s fictional output. “Unbearably queer perhaps.”
Or perhaps not. In the forthcoming movie version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Colin Farrell has been cast as the unnamed hero, a dissolute young Irishman who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel full of characters who come to life when he’s asleep (including one he conceived with one of his own female characters). Frustrated by their maker’s iron authority, they set out to destroy him and win their freedom. On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the director-writer David Cronenberg worked cinematic magic with it. We can only hope that Brendan Gleeson, the director of At Swim-Two-Birds, is a sharper interpreter of O’Brien’s weird proto-postmodernism than Sam Mendes was of Richard Yates’s blackly unblinking realism.
In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: they illuminated the world I live in, enriched its colors, deepened its music. None moreso than The Sot-Weed Factor, because in addition to its purely literary virtues it helped me see just how different today’s world is from the world that greeted the novel 50 summers ago. Today Americans who write “serious” fiction face what the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist Colum McCann has called “the prospect of irrelevance.” When John Barth was hitting his prime in the 1960s, “serious” American writers faced no such worries. (I place the word serious between quotation marks because no one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.)
Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowski, who, as a grad student in the early 1970s, was drunk on then-current American fiction – not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Roth, but all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Coover, very different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism. Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. “Every time I teach the class,” Guzlowski writes in his essay, “there is just a little less interest in looking at Postmodern novels.”
He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain. Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people who write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way of saying extinction.
John Barth and John Guzlowski have reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious – and funny, challenging, mind-bending – fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life. It was a time, in Updike’s phrase, when “books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry.” Those days may be gone, and gone forever, but novels like The Sot-Weed Factor will always be with us. And as I was happily reminded this summer, it’s never too late to discover them.
This winter, Millions contributors Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg both happened to pick up the first volume of M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. This 2006 novel was a National Book Award winner and a New York Times Bestseller. However, the literary-industrial complex hasn’t given Anderson the attention accorded to similarly ambitious writers – perhaps because his putative audience consists of “young adults.” With Volume II (The Kingdom of the Waves) now out in hardcover, we decided to give Volume I (The Pox Party) the adult consideration we both thought it deserved. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, which we’ll share with you this week in three installments: Form and Style; Historical and Geographical Setting; and Audience, Character, and Conclusion. In the event that it engages you as it did us, perhaps we’ll follow up with conversations about Volume II, and about other titles. As always, we invite you to join the conversation via the Comments box.Part 1: Form and StyleEmily: I was worshipfully impressed with this book. The most striking aspect of M.T. Anderson’s novel, to me, was its formal evocation of the eighteenth century, the period in which it is set and is supposed to have been written. Octavian evokes for me the feeling of being in the archives – reading eighteenth-century English and early American newspapers and magazines, private journals, reports from the first generation of scientific societies like London’s Royal Society that rose and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The form that dominates is the diary or journal. It is propelled mainly by Octavian’s diary-like first-person recollections of his life in the fictional Boston scientific society, The Novanglian College of Lucidity.Garth: I’m going to jump in at this point like Smokey Robinson and second your emotion, Emily. Octavian Nothing is one of the best-written – and most challenging – young adult books I’ve ever read. The pastiche of 18th-Century style reminds me more of The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon than of, say, J.K. Rowling (Anderson’s direct competitor). I’m tempted to say that it goes beyond pastiche: that it becomes beautiful in its own right. Look at the opening sentences, for example:I was raised in a gaunt house, with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees. I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered-out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight.There are a number of things going on here: lyricism, archaism, and a sophisticated “defamiliarization”; after all, what are these “orbs?”Emily: Anderson is also extremely adept at manipulating shades of tone. He manages again and again to reproduce the cadences of period writing, but he does not (as one easily might) get bogged down in the (sometimes) tortuous syntax of the age. Look at this, for example:The two of them dancing could not have presented a more charming scene, turning as they did upon the greensward, with the blue gloaming seeping through the pines behind them and the empty sky above, lit by the frisking fireflies against the black trunks; they could not have performed their steps more elegantly, or spun more sweetly, even when the music sped off to a furious pace, skittering wildly, so that it could not have offered a reasonable beat to any but a raging Corybante dancing horde, drugged and frenzied before rending the flesh of fleeing men.Here Anderson mimics the complicated grammatical structures so common in the prose of the day, but it is also, as the first sentence was, beautiful. And I admire this not just for its linguistic athleticism and acrobatic capabilities, but because such sentences evoke the style and syntax of Latin and so give a sense of Octavian’s immersion in that lost world, as his own world is lost to us.Garth: It’s a lost world in which the study of Latin rhetoric, with its ritualized devices (in this case, hyperbole) would have been second nature. Especially to Octavian, who, in the conceit of the book, is the beneficiary of the world’s finest education. Perhaps I should also insert, by way of summary, that when the book opens, young Octavian and his mother are resident in the College. The early going is devoted to Octavian’s intuition that there’s some mysterious difference between himself and the College’s other residents. His gradual discovery of the nature of that difference, and of how he came to be where he is, will precipitate his further adventures. Much of this is done in a first-person voice, which is why the defamiliarization I mentioned earlier is so effective: we see as Octavian sees, and discover as he discovers.Emily: But the form of the book soon grows more complex.Garth: Spoiler alert?Emily: Spoiler alert. Into his diaristic narrative, Anderson begins to patch-work clippings from newspapers (adverts for slave sales and reward notices for run-away slaves) and letters from a variety of characters. While Octavian is called a novel, it is in the strictest sense of the word, a miscellany, one of the defining literary forms of the age in which it is set. Miscellany is the Renaissance and Eighteenth-Century’s period-specific version of pastiche.Garth: Like that book Schott’s Miscellany from a few years back?Emily: Right. A miscellany is a collection of literary productions of various kinds (poems, letters, essays, illustrations) gathered in a single volume, often united thematically rather than formally. Octavian’s mentor in this first volume, Bono, keeps a miscellany filled with newspaper pictures of shackles, razor collars, and iron masks used to silence and punish slaves. And Anderson is making his own sort of miscellany. The different voices and perspectives on Octavian give a richer sense of his character and demeanor, and the many shades of public opinion about slave-holding that jostled against each other in revolutionary America. There are also psalms, maps, diagrams and scientific reports written about Octavian and his mother by members of the Novanglian Society.Garth: Here again, Anderson is so committed to his invention – so immersed in it – that it seems to move beyond pastiche. When I got to the psalm (a beautiful lament that I didn’t remember from church), I actually had to look it up to make sure it wasn’t fabricated. In general, Octavian is so well-researched that its factual trappings often fade into the background. Throughout the book, in the diaristic sections and the scientific reports and so on, Anderson inhabits the multifarious 18th Century mind: positivist yet deistically religious; egalitarian yet slave-owning. The contradictions in the language become the animating tensions of the book.Emily: The scientific reports are particularly chilling and – though I did find myself wondering how many of the readers of Octavian are really young adults – serve as a sort of Dialectic of Enlightenment for those not quite ready for Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the Enlightenment deification of rationality and empiricism. Though, is anyone, ever?Garth: I was, once upon a time. Like you, I thought of The Dialectic of Enlightenment while reading Octavian – surely a first for a young adult book. Though I should throw in here that a similar philosophical bent and ventriloquistic brilliance animates Anderson’s earlier book, the science fiction novel Feed. (Opening line from the young narrator: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”) Part of what’s amazing about Octavian is that the Adorno/Horkheimer argument, this gnarly Germanic thing that practically makes people bleed from the ears in graduate school, becomes pellucidly clear when dramatized like this. This is not to say that Anderson’s consciously rewriting Adorno. Perhaps the idea that the Enlightenment pushed rationality to the point of irrationality is inherent in the material?Emily: I think so. “The Advancement of Learning” that began in the seventeenth century in Europe had many victims. I have read horrific Royal Society proceedings that recount “experiments” such as pouring corrosive acids on dogs and lambs to see what happens. They are more horrific for their dryly objective prose. Octavian, more horrifically still, brings this dark side of the Age of Reason to life. If you’ll allow me a final note on Anderson’s interesting and evocative approach to literary form – Garth: – And I will – Emily: – I wanted to point out that Anderson’s approach is powerful even if you are not familiar with the forms and foibles of 18th-Century literature – if you’re more familiar with the fractured forms of high Modernism, like Eliot’s The Waste Land, or miscellany’s post-modern cousin (to repeat the term you’ve been using, Garth), pastiche. In the novel’s most jarring formal sequence, Octavian’s first-person voice disappears and is replaced by a succession of letters from a variety of individuals, some barely literate, some fluent in the formal niceties and flattering flourishes of the age. All of a sudden our vision of Octavian is fractured – we’re seeing him and his plight as a runaway slave from myriad, radically different perspectives at once. I was reminded of As I Lay Dying – of a cognitive dissonance, a deliberately broken, heteroglossic approach to narrative that is much more often associated with modern authors like Joyce and Dos Passos but works remarkably well here. I was also reminded of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), another work of historical fiction that uses the fractured effect of miscellany to give a more expansive account of a moment of upheaval. It’s as if some traumas are so profoundly collective that they require a narrator, or a form, that can get beyond the limited view of the first person singular.Garth: “Heteroglossic.” I am definitely stealing that for future use. And if I can add my own summary note on the form and style of Octavian Nothing: I was basically really taken with – and jealous of – Anderson’s writing. I think he might be some kind of genius. In our next installment, maybe we can talk a bit more about that trauma – about the novel’s historical and geographical setting.
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.But 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.More from A Year in Reading 2007
In this week’s New Yorker, Jill Lepore offers a bemused consideration (not available online) of the Library of America’s new edition of John Smith’s works. Collected fact, or collected fiction? she asks. In True Travels alone,Smith [claims] to have defeated armies, outwitted heathens, escaped pirates, hunted treasure, and wooed princesses – and all this on four continents, no less, if you count a little island in North America that this year celebrates its four-hundredth anniversary as the birthplace of the United States.Putting aside, for the time being, questions of veracity (not to mention morality – “outwitted heathens?”), the quadricentennial seems like a good time to touch upon the wonderful (and growing) body of fiction inspired by Captain Smith’s exploits.John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is surely a leading exemplar of the subgenre – as well as being one of the finest novels of the 1960s. Into the hilarious and strangely affecting story of one Ebenezer Cooke, Gentleman, Barth drops passages from Smith’s “secret [read: invented] histories.” Smith emerges as a liar and braggart of the first rank. But Cooke’s intrepid tutor Henry Burlingame, undaunted, seems to model himself on the Captain. In the course of the novel, he “hunts treasure [and] wooes princesses,” while bewildered Ebenezer blunders along in his wake. If you want a black comedy of high adventure (or if you want to see where Pynchon got the language for Mason & Dixon) look no further.In the 1990s, William T. Vollmann revisited the Jamestown story with Argall. Here, we get Barth’s pastiche of colonial Queen’s English filtered through Vollmann’s distinctive authorial temperament. Like Barth, Vollmann is fascinated by the violence of the early English colonists and the slaughter endured by the American Indians (a fascination he indulges throughout his unfinished Seven Dreams series). Unlike his metafictionist predecessor, however, Vollmann blurs the lines between fiction and journalism, between fact and legend… Sound familiar?We’ll pass over Disney’s Pocahontas (IMDb) in silence, but Terence Malick’s astonishing movie The New World (IMDb) certainly merits inclusion in the Jamestown canon. Malick takes a characteristically earnest approach to his subject. Even as his colonists descend into evil, Malick unabashedly evokes the romantic pull of the virgin land. He portrays the Powhatan tribe as innocents, much as the settlers did – but without the condescension that enabled so much slaughter. This movie is resolutely un-PC, and for that reason its condemnation of European conquest breaks through the familiar litany of post-colonial pieties. It is devastating, as any account of the origins of the U.S.A. should be.Now Matthew Sharpe, author of The Sleeping Father, has come along to toss his buckler into the ring. His new novel, published by Soft Skull, is called, simply Jamestown. I have not read it, but I can say that I like Sharpe’s writing a lot. Here he reimagines the Jamestown colony as a postmodern battleground, pitting settlers who travel by bus against indigenous people unskilled in the use of sunscreen. This appears to be an “ahistorical fantasia,” along the lines of Mark Binelli’s Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! or Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! It’s notable that younger American writers are fleeing the good government of the historical novel in an era that has itself started to seem dystopic…that has, as Frederic Jameson puts it, forgotten how “to think the present historically.” But Sharpe’s choice of setting seems propitious. For as the Vollmann and Barth books show, there’s nothing novel about these wild new novels. They’re part of a grand tradition of American craziness that, Jill Lepore points out, stretches back to John Smith himself – “Who told his glorious deeds to many, / But never was believ’d of any.”