fractious fiction
What exactly is Giles Goat-Boy?

The book's author, John Barth, later called it
"the first American postmodern novel." Others
have read it as allegory or science fiction or
magical realism or Cold War satire.
Life
magazine, labelled Giles Goat-Boy "a black
comedy to offend everyone."  On the other
hand, a tech savvy reader of the present day,
noting the prominent role computers play in
its plot, might laud it as the first novel of
the digital era or even a Univac-era prototype
for cyberpunk.

I'm not surprised that critics came to logger-
heads over the merits of this book. Eliot
Fremont-Smith, writing in the
New York Times,
suggested that Barth had delivered an elaborate
"shaggy-goat story,” but also wondered whether
it might not be “the great American novel, come
at last into being.” On the other extreme, Gore Vidal
attacked it as a “very bad prose work,” and Berkeley prof Robert
Alter dismissed Barth’s novel as a “failed experiment.”

Me? If forced to come up with a tweet-sized summary, I'd describe
Giles Goat-Boy as a cross between Tarzan of the Apes and the
Holy Bible.  Barth’s novel is almost as long as the King James
Version, and follows roughly the same plot line.  Clocking it at 710
pages of tiny font print, plus another 33 pages of postmodern
text-before-the-text, Barth's book is sufficiently longwinded for
Gideon's Goat-Boy status at the deconstructionists' Days Inn.  
And few novels have incorporated more theology (or perhaps
parodies of theology) into a prophetic narrative.  This is as close
to scriptural resonance as meta-fiction gets...but with a heavy
sprinkling of Burroughs (both Edgar Rice and the Unysis predecessor
corporation).

Yet Barth impart a peculiar twist to his evangelical tract (which carries
the daunting but suitably rapturous subtitle:
The Revised New Syllabus
of George Giles our Grand Tutor
). All the theology—and everything
else in this novel—gets turned into campus politics.  The universe, in
Giles Goat-Boy, is a university, and the different regimes are
competing colleges, with a a Cold War (or 'quiet riot') persisting
between West Campus and East Campus. God is the college
'Founder' and all students aspire to pass on Judgment Day, or as it
is known in these pages, ‘Final Commencement’. Failure is equivalent
to eternal damnation.

Here’s a taste of Barth’s reduction of religion to a college honor code:

Our Founder, Who art omniscient,
Commencéd be thy name;
Thy college come; Thy assignments done
On campus as beyond the gate.
Give us this term Thy termly word.
And excuse our cribbing.
As we excuse classmates who crib from us…..

And here is a blues lyric, as conceived by Barth for
his world-as-university:

I had a C, but now my grade’s gone down;
I hate to see the av’rage grade go down.
Gonna flunk, baby; never wear no cap and gown.

A university of this sort needs a prophet and savior
(or 'Grand Tutor' in the parlance of the book), and
Barth gives us a protagonist who aims to fill precisely
that exalted role.  He goes by many names: Billy
Bockfuss or George or 'The GILES' or the Goat-Boy, or simply 'The
Goat'. Our hero, like Romulus and Remus and tree-swinging ape-men,
was raised among the animals.  In George’s case, he grew up with a
herd of goats, and only realizes at the brink of adulthood that he is
actually a human.  

George decides that he is the Grand Tutor the university has long
been awaiting, and tackles a serious of challenges and tasks in
hopes of proving his credentials. In particular, he needs to fulfill
the assignments given him by WESCAC, the all-powerful computer
running the West Campus and managing the deadly defense
technology that deters its East Campus rival (EASCAC) but also
threatens to end all studentdom as we know it. Adding to the plot's
complexity and general weirdness, the computer may be George's
progenitor, and the young goatboy the abandoned result of
WESCAC’s ambitious eugenics program.

Barth works hard to sustain these farcical concepts for more than 700
pages, and his sheer inventiveness and risk-taking in the pursuit of
the absurd is breathtaking. I especially admire his ability to extract
satirical commentaries on a wide range of subjects—political,
philosophical and sociological—from his cardboard characters
and corny plotlines.  Every turn in the plot can be interpreted in multiple
ways, and I lost count of the number of myths and venerated literary
works echoed in these pages.  You could read this novel as a kind of New
Testament, as I suggested above, or as a modernized
Book of Job or
postmodernized
Don Quixote, or a reworking of the Hercules myth or
the
Odyssey. (Take note, for example, of the number of times the story
of Ulysses and Cyclops is echoed in these pages.)

Despite the author’s unflagging creative (and polemical) zeal, many
readers will bail out before the final "Footnote to the Postscript to
the Posttape," exasperated by the long-winded narrative and the
repetitions in the plotline.  I realize that a retelling of the Gospel
requires a quasi-crucifixion and for our Goat-Boy to confront
WESCAC who, like Darth Vader, may be the hero’s unlikely
chrome-and-plastic daddy. But after Barth achieves these ends,
and brilliantly in my opinion, a little after 500 pages into the book,
he repeats the formula two more times—again a comparison with
Star Wars comes to mind—with return encounters with WESCAC
and the resulting turmoil. The final 200 pages of the novel drag
along with little momentum, a joke that was never quite funny now
turning sour.

Is unrelenting cleverness sufficient to make a novel into a masterpiece?
If so,
Giles Goat-Boy is a classic.  Even if some of the interludes do
little or nothing to move ahead the story—for example, a long parody
of a Greek tragedy presented in full over the course of fifty pages—they
are so smartly conceived that they could stand on their own as set
pieces.  Another example: Barth offers his campus equivalent of
Dante's
Inferno, describing the different levels of the college 'main
detention' where university offenders receive appropriate punishments
for their crimes.  Among the damned we encounter "students who
refused to choose a major," "those who abused their dining-hall
privileges," "professors who turned their sabbatical leaves into
honeymoons or participated in faculty wife-swapping parties,"
"textbook writers who published revised editions to undercut the
used-book market," "proliferators of unnecessary footnotes," and
"teachers employed in the same departments from which they hold
degrees," among other miscreants. Yes, Barth has them on his list,
and they'll none of them be missed. In such sardonic passages we
learn that our author not only knows how to use university life to satirize
the real world, but also can rely on the real world to satirize university
life.

And I enjoyed a few of the minor characters, even if they are hardly
more plausible than comic book villains and get endlessly manipulated
as stand-ins for concepts.  Harold Bray, a competing prophet who
possesses a chameleon-like ability to change his appearance and
abilities, is the most fascinating of the bunch, and the one least
easy to interpret. (I'm not surprised that Barth brought him back in
a later book.)  But I also took some delight in the devilish Stoker, who
runs the campus powerhouse and main detention when he isn't
cruising with his motorcycle gang, and Lady Creamhair, the
Goat-Boy's mother, who becomes less coherent but more amusing
as the story unfolds.  

Let me call it straight. If you are seeking sheer, unadulterated
weirdness, you won't find a stronger candidate from that long,
strange trip of the 1960s. By comparison, Pynchon's
Gravity's
Rainbow is a realistic war novel and Ken Kesey a candidate to
drive the local elementary school bus. So let's give two cheers—
maybe even one cheer more—for the Goat-Boy's
esprit de corps.
He's a true postmodern hero with all the equivocal associations
implied by that label. Yes, this could have been a better novel if it
weren't  quite so bloated. Then again, if John Barth were the kind
of author to show restraint, he probably wouldn't have pursued
such a crazy and extravagant project in the first place.


Ted Gioia writes on books, music and popular culture. His next book,
Love Songs: The Hidden History, will be published by Oxford University Press.

This essay was published on May 29, 2014
Giles of the Goats
A Look Back at the Weirdest 1960s Novel of Them All

by Ted Gioia
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