Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Sot-weed factor - John Barth

This novel, written in 1960, is an extreme oddity. It is enormous, at over 750 pages, some of them in small, dense print and written in a faux archaic style. It is a satire, sending up the picaresque novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like Tristram Shandy or Tom Jones, and it has a range of rascally characters, but it retains a warm heart and the reader certainly gets the impression that Barth loved writing this and had affection for his characters.

It fictionalises the real-life (but poorly chronicled) Ebenezer Cooke, author of "The Sotweed Factor, or A Voyage to Maryland, A Satyr" in 1708. Barth builds a ludicrous history around the man with which he explains how the poem came to be written. It is impossibly dense, in the way of the early picaresque novels, with dramatic twists and turns and outrageous ill-fortune, through all of which Ebenezer, the principal character floats with his innocence and innate goodness unharmed. He is, essentially, Candide re-born, and through his eyes we see the birth of America and the duplicity with which the settlers went about their business.

Stylistically, of course, this novel is highly mannered, and as many will find this a weakness as find it a strength. It's a matter of taste. Many will be deterred by the dense prose style, but it is extremely funny and despite its length the story zips along, the extraordinary plot twists keeping the interest levels high. This is a peculiar novel, which seems to exist on its own in the canon of American literature. There are nods to the metafiction and postmodernism which was directing American literature at the time, and of which Barth himself, of course, was a practitioner, but the novel treads its own ground. Time Magazine declared it one of the top 100 English-language novels since 1920, and one could certainly construct a strong argument for that.

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