Friday, February 17, 2006

The End of the Road, by John Barth

I read The Sot-Weed Factor in college and enjoyed it a great deal, but I don’t trust my taste from those days, and looking back it’s hard to see what I thought was so great: incessant clowning around with 18th century syntax, and a whole lot of dick jokes. Yeah, they’re both funny, but there didn’t seem to be much else holding the book up (and it’s 700 pages long), since most of the plot elements—I remember the scandalous hint of the brother-sister romance—seemed to be lifted from other places specifically for the purposes of parody. It was good, but there are plenty of things I would rather read for the third time before I pick that up again.

(There’s a hooker named Joan Toast, I remember. It thought that was a riot back when I read it.)

The End of the Road is better, I think, a lot better. The only other Barth I’ve read is some stories from Lost in the Funhouse, and I get the sense that he pretty much said everything he had to say about the human condition in his first couple of books, and then blasted off into his own little world of language games and baroque plots that exist for their own sake (that is, the way things work out doesn’t tell the reader anything about the way the artist looks at the world, where we’re headed, etc. It just whirls along, wringing a few laughs out of us, delighted with its own ingenuity, until finally it loses interest in itself and ends.)

This novel, however, is fairly short – just two-hundred pages long, a damn fine length. Its main character is Jacob Horner, who identifies himself as a “placid-depressive” – meaning that instead of having manic ecstasies alternating with deep gloom, he just has the gloom with “middle-register” highs. It’s a funny paragraph, but as far as I can tell it isn’t actually true; Horner doesn’t appear to be all that depressed in the book. Instead, he has crippling issues of inertia, where he finds no reason to do anything—move, eat, sleep—and remains motionless for hours at a time. (Something very similar to this happens in Mother Night, if I recall, but again, this is not he same as depression.)

Anyway, he is being treated by a doctor, whose advice includes getting a job. Horner gets a job at a university teaching grammar, befriends a professor and his wife there, and then sleeps with the wife for reasons that are pretty unclear to everyone, including the woman. Most of the novel deals with the fallout from this incident. The professor, Joe, wants to base his relationship on pure reason, and a large part of the novel consists of elaborate, hair-splitting discussions with Jacob about whether or not this is possible. I realize that this sounds incredible tedious, but they really are thrilling in their own way. They are much more interesting than the workings of the rather melodramatic plot.

The main reason I found the novel really interesting is that it introduced a conception of character that I have never seen before in a novel. Almost all novels, even fantastical ones, depend on a character’s actions having plausible motivations and causes. Don Quixote goes crazy for a reason, and from then on everything he does has a certain internal logic. Even Kafka, once he sets up an absurd premise, has every figure act in ways consistent with some sort of motivation or goal—and the person will usually know that this is why she’s doing what she’s doing.

The interesting thing about this is that it isn’t really true. Most of the time we have no idea why we do things. We’ll invent some reasons later, perhaps in an attempt at self-justification, why we broke up with someone, kicked that girl in third grade. In literature, the only way to sort of get at this is an unreliable narrator, where the reader is given enough information to see behind his fake reasons to his real reasons, which may even be unconscious to him. The reasons are always there, though. I have never read a novel where a narrator did something and had NO IDEA WHY, and didn’t even bother coming up with reasons.

This may seem just like a lazy author coming up with an arbitrary plot. But the subject of the entire novel is really whether psychological causation can be determined, and what the limits of reason are; the plot is really an afterthought, and the book gets much less interesting when the plot starts takes over at the end. Anyway, it’s definitely worth reading; none of the people for a moment seem “real,” but the ideas they toss around do have real consequences, both for life and for art.

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