The MacLamity

The News That Stays News, Reported Live

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

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I've been reading The Sot-Weed Factor for the past month, and every hundred pages find something that makes me laugh out loud and recount it later to someone who couldn't be interested less. For instance: one pirate threatening to kill another pirate if he doesn't let him buy him a drink (hysterical! I swear), John Smith escaping execution by wowing Indians, not with beads, but with pornographic playing cards (much funnier than it sounds, I promise), a captain of a barge desperately trying to signal to Indians that he means to come ashore in peace while his dyssentry-ridden crew can't stop themselves shitting over the side of the boat, signalling to the Indians that they don't care how many arrows the Indians fire, they fart in the Indian's faces (I was laughing over this in a tram FULL OF BELGIANS), and a scene in a notebook store, first recounted to me by Ron Rosenbaum.

This book is so funny, and so well written, that it seems to me an outrage that Barth got (and went for) a reputation as literary avant-gardist. He's fine as a novelist. The book as as traditional as "Tom Jones," which is to say, it's as radical as "Tom Jones." It's also as funny. The Sot-Weed Factor is copiously generous to the reader and far more entertaining than anything by John Gardner (And why mention John Gardner (whom I had to read in Journalism School, and was one of those authors who attacked Avant-Garde Unworkable Theories of the Novel Current in Universities with Even More Irritating Unworkable Theories of the Novel Current in Grumpy Idiots Like BR Myers)? Because:). It turns out Gardner set himself up as the anti-Barth during a debate with him in the 70s, at the point when no one really knew what was exciting in American literature any more. What seemed New in the 60s now seemed old. In fact New-ness itself seemed old fashioned. But, obviously, so was oldness. This account of the debate captures that atmosphere of discontent well:
Both men suffered the fate of standard-bearers. Barth spent decades afterward trying to explain that in his essay on "exhaustion," he wasn't saying that literature was "used up." Gardner, meanwhile, in a way that probably only Ian MacKaye would understand, was hounded by the would-be acolytes who had seized on him as the William Bennett of literature.
P.S. You can read the original The Sot-Weed Factor by the actual Ebeneezer Cook, here. And here's the moment in London and Maryland's history which the novel plunges its way through.