Friday, June 14, 2013

The Sot-Weed Factor (by John Barth)

Phew! This one took me a while to read, especially since it's 758 pages chock full of ersatz 17th-century diction. There's definitely some rough going in places, but I found that the novel gets better as it goes on, and from page 600 or so onwards, I really enjoyed it. (I think it's because we see the main character, Eben, achieve some actual personal growth, as opposed to the first 600 pages of him making the same mistakes over and over. Probably deliberately, of course, but it still can get tedious.)

This is a comic epic that satirizes picaresque novels like Tristram Shandy and Tom Jones, neither of which I have read. It is definitely witty and entertaining, god knows it would make an amazing movie (just the character of Burlingame alone, who shows up all over the place in various disguises, would be comedic gold). There is a lot that is just simply over-the-top, including the story-within-a-story of John Smith and Pocahontas, which involves a penis and an eggplant and... well, I've already said too much.

There is also kind of a lot of raping. I mean, a lot. Of raping. Comedic raping, almost entirely of men raping women, half of which seemingly leads to women being all, "oh you raped me so well, I am now in love with you!" I mean, it's a satire and everything, so it's supposed to be over-the-top and ridiculous, which it is, I mean there's a lot of pants-pooping too, but there's still arguably some overkill in the sheer quantity of it, and the lack (until the end, which, again, was my favorite section) of strong female characters. I'm sure feminist critics have had plenty to say about this book.

It is, however, very smart, well-researched (based on a real poem and the real history of colonial Maryland), entertaining, over-the-top, and at times hysterically funny. I am ultimately glad I stuck with it until the end!

"To ask a man what he thinks of gambling is as much to ask him what he thinks of life," was one of the positions he experimented with. "Doth not the mackerel gamble, each time he rises, that yonder gulls won't snatch him up, and the gulls make wager that they will? Are we not gamblers all, that match wits with the ocean on this ship of wood? Nay, life itself is but a lifelong gamble, is't not? From the moment of conception our life is on the line; every meal, every step, every turning is a dare to death; all men are the fools of chance save the suicide, and even he must wager that there is no Hell to fry in. Who loves life, then, perforce loves gambling, for he is Dame Chance's conquest. Moreover, every gambler is an optimist, for no man wagers who thinks to lose." (page 210)

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