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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Giles Goat-Boy (1965) by John Barth

Book Review
Giles Goat-Boy (1965)
by John Barth

  John Barth himself called Giles Goat-Boy the first "meta-fictional" novel.  A half-century later, it's hard to imagine anyone caring enough about which was the "first" meta-fictional novel to debate the claim.   Amazingly, Giles Goat-Boy was not just a critical but also a commercial success, i.e. best-seller list, mass-media coverage, book-of-the-month level marketing.  Today, that commercial success is hard to imagine.  I can only surmise it was a combination of several "right place, right time" factors having to do with the plot (an elaborate cold war allegory set on a fictional "campus" that took the place of the world), the style (learned in a way that was comprehensible to an college-level audience) and the novelty of some of the meta-fictional techniques to a mid 1960's American audience.

   Today, Giles Goat-Boy is hardly read, even by people who have read John Barth.  Having now read this 710 page book (in hardback) I can now safely opine that there are many reasons for Giles Goat-Boy having fallen out of favor with critical and popular audiences.  First, there is the heavy handed Cold War/Campus allegory which dominates the narrative.  You can't hope to follow the allegory without a thorough understanding of the struggle of East and West in the Cold War.   The relevance of this allegory in it's Cold War context is debatable two decades after the conclusion of the Cold War.

The second part of the allegory is the equation of the Campus of the novel with the entire world.  This is likely to appeal most to audiences that think that the culture of the university campus is the center of the cultural/intellectual world.  This attitude was wide-spread, and expanding in 1965, the year Giles Goat-Boy was published.  Today, that world of the university has much less universal appeal.

 Loosely put, Giles Goat-Boy is about the eponymous hero doing his Joseph Campbell Power of Myth style meta-quest towards spiritual and temporal power.  This takes the form of his progress from a human child literally raised by goats by a professor who has been banished from the main university to the role of the "Grand Tutor" a Christ-figure whose manifestation is a apocalypse triggering event for the world of the campus.

  Upon the way he does the typical thing a hero does in a Western hero quest: he has to solve impossible problems, have sex with a sister he doesn't know is his sister, meet his parents and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.  The villain in Giles Boat-Boy is an evil ENIAC style computer called WESCAC that may or may not be Giles father.   Perhaps the theme that provides the most enduring interest to a modern reader is the role of computers and technology as a force for evil.

  Writing before the computer era had properly begun, Barth correctly inferred the dehumanizing impact of turning over much of our decision making process over to machines.  It's a well traveled theme in 2016, but in 1965, not so much.

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