Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

The End of the Road (1958) by John Barth

Book Review
The End of the Road (1958)
by John Barth

   The 1001 Books project has been an odyssey for me.  Starting with the utter unfamiliarity of 18th century literature, moving through the banality of 19th century Victorian prose and washing up on the shore of 20th century modernism.   Set against this backdrop, the mid 20th century feels like terra firma, walking up the beach and into the familiar terrain of a metaphorical mid to late 20th century Southern California beach town.   The world of John Barth and his contemporaries is one that I recognize.  For the first time, I'm simply filling in gaps in my formal and personal education instead of reading entire decades of prose for the first time in my life.

  Many of the books in the 1001 Books list from the 1950s onward are either books I was assigned to read in school, read on my own or saw on the book shelves of my parents and their friends.  Barth is in that third category: never got assigned his books, never got around to reading his books, but I remember seeing his name on the shelves of the Bay Area professionals and academics who tended to be the parents of my classmates (and my own parents.)

 The editors of the 1001 Books project are no Barth fans- including only the early works of The Floating Opera and The End of the Road are included.  Neither of these titles would be considered his most notable work- that would be The Sot-Weed Factor or Lost in the Funhouse.   The Floating Opera and The End of the Road are not formally a prequel/sequel/two book series type situation, but they are close enough in character, incident and theme to make their publication as a single volume in 1988 make perfect sense.

 Barth was an academic- working at Penn State when he wrote both The Floating Opera and this book.   In The End of the Road, the protagonist is a young (non tenured) college professor, suffering from a sort of obscure indecisiveness that one might call an existential dilemma.  He meets a young couple, he is a professor at the same college, she a conventional 50's house wife.  It starts as a fairly light hearted comedy of manners, but ends in a tortuously botched abortion and death for the unfaithful wife.  Jacob Horner might as well be the same guy as Todd Andrews, the lawyer-protagonist from The Floating Opera.  Both characters pretend to be indifferent to fate and eventually succumb to what one might call karmic just deserts.

  Both books are relentlessly dark, existential or nihilistic if you will.  Barth is more in tune with the French existenialism of the 1950s and I wonder how much he really influenced American authors of the early 1960s.  Did Ken Kesey read The End of the Road and The Floating Opera before writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Tropic of Capicorn(1939) by Henry Miller

Henry Miller, notorious pussy hound.

Book Review
Tropic of Capircorn (1939)
 by Henry Miller

  Tropic of Capricorn was written after Tropic of Cancer but is a prequel, rather than a sequel.  Both concern the life and times of Henry Miller.  His books are a combination of fiction, non-fiction, philosophy and obscenity.  He is the first major novelist to present a convincing, if male-centered and misogynistic view of sexual activity and the explicit sex that fills both Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn got his books banned in America until 1961.  The lifting of that ban in the early 60s ensured his immortality as an early avatar of American counter-culture.

  Tropic of Capricorn covers Millers time living and working in New York City in the 1920s.  Written at the end of the 30s, not published in the US until the 60s, Tropic of Capricorn is very much a novel about 20s New York.  Miller hints at his early ramblings in California but otherwise sticks entirely to his experience in the boroughs of New York City in the 1920s.  Miller is a famous literary asshole and his bare knuckled attitude towards life and experience is tattooed on every page of Tropic of Capricorn.  Only Miller himself is compellingly portrayed, even as the book Miller character proclaims that he quit working so he could write about the people he meets he is engaged in a fifty page soliloquy that takes up the last 50 pages of the book.  Henry Miller writes about Henry Miller and pussy.

  Miller talks more about pussy than a The Weeknd record.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Floating Opera (1957) by John Barth

John Barth, author of The Floating Opera (1957)

Book Review
The Floating Opera (1957)
 by John Barth

  American author John Barth is important both for his novels and for his criticism. He was an early theorist of post-modern literature and coined terms like "the literature of exhaustion" and "metafiction."  I'm surprised that Barth only placed two titles onto the 1001 Books list, this one and its companion piece, The End of the Road.  Absent are The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy and the short story collection Lost in the Funhouse.  One of the persistent characteristics of the 1001 Books project is favoring English authors over American contemporaries.  It makes perfect sense since 1001 Books was assembled in England by largely English editors.  You might consider that 1001 Books thought highly enough of Henry Green to include five of his titles.

  The Floating Opera was Barth's first published novel, and it doesn't feature the meta-fictional techniques that he would utilize in later books like The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy.  The main character is Todd Andrews, a second generation small-town attorney, single, in his 40s, living in a hotel down the street from his office.  The Floating Opera is written as a memoir by Andrews, recalling events leading up to his decision not to commit suicide 17 years ago.   Andrews is also concerned with the suicide of his father when he was a young man, and he weaves other reminisces about his earlier days into the main narrative of the days leading up to his decision to not kill himself.

  If, like me, you are looking for premonitions of his later writings about meta-fiction, you will be disappointing.  The Floating Opera is squarely within the realist tradition, with only the fiercely existentialist and nihilistic philosophy of Todd Andrews standing out as being cutting-edge for the time and place of publication.  Indeed, the original publication of The Floating Opera was contingent on Barth swapping out a very depressing ending for a less depressing ending.

  I personally identify with so few protagonists contained within the 1001 Books list that it was a shock to recognize myself in Todd Andrews.  The fact that this character is a white, American, solo-practitioner lawyer with no wife or family deeply speaks to how banal my own outlook happens to be.  One of the central ironies of post-war metafiction/literary post-modernism is how it failed to embrace the MAIN current in literature during the 20th century, the diversification of literary voices and perspectives outside those of upper class white men and women.   Indeed, metafictional technique remains largely a province of these same kind of writers today, if one considers contemporary authors like David Foster Wallace, William Vollmann and Jonathan Franzen.

  My own self-guided exploration of literature began with those writers some twenty years ago, but it wasn't long before I realized that these writers were swimming against the tides of history.  The thought that there would be a "next generation" of these writers seemed unlikely.  I think that I was wrong about that, looking back on my thinking of 20 years ago.  The fact is that there is an audience of people who will actually buy these sort of books and the publishing industry is set-up to locate, promote and distribute excellent examples.  You compare this to the struggle that break-through authors with a diverse or different voice face along the road to initial publication and it is clear that white, male, upper class authors who master cutting-edge literary technique still have a built-in advantage over others.

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