Monday, December 13, 2010

377. Giles Goat Boy – John Barth

History: This book was written in 1966. It is a satire and allegory of the American campus culture of the time.
Plot: It is centered on the hero, George Giles, and his rise from farm animal to Grand Tutor of the New Tammany College. The book is set in a vast university that is a symbol for the world. The novel's protagonist, Billy Bockfuss (also called George Giles, the goat-boy), was raised with herds of goats on a university farm after being found as a baby in the bowels of the giant West Campus Automatic Computer (WESCAC). The WESCAC plans to create a being called GILES (Grand-Tutorial Ideal, Laboratory Eugenical Specimen) that would possess superhuman abilities. Billy's foster father, who tends the herd, suspects Billy of being GILES but tries to groom him to be humanity's savior and to stop WESCAC's domination over humans. His quest is singularly to be a hero, but the tale is a multifaceted one of his becoming. Numerous mythological and Christian allegories make his fate seem almost predestined, regardless of his innocence. Parallels to everything from the Cold War to 1960s academia to religion abound. A hypertext encyclopedia also figures into the novel, quite presciently given the 1966 publication.
Review: Giles Goat-Boy is a farcical twist on human history. Structured loosely around Otto Rank’s theories about the ritual wandering hero and Joseph Campbell’s “chart for a perfect mythological hero” (another obsession of Barth’s), the book tells the story of a would-be Messiah raised by goats who launches on a voyage of prophecy and discovery in a giant University, which is really the world in microcosm. the novel proper, which tells how George Giles was born (possibly a computer accident) into a goat herd, made his way into New Tammany College (the world of men), became Grand Tutor and prophet of the West Campus (the Western world as opposed to the Eastern) and, like Don Quixote, Candide, Leopold Bloom, etc., sought the meaning of good and evil, innocence and existence, action and identity, passion and thought.
The message of the syllabus is ambiguous -- except perhaps that absolutes are noncognizable, that thinking is a passion and most passionately expressed in humor, and that, except for these, the world is going to hell. Fortunately, it won't get there because -- Mr. Barth proves once more -- old jokes never die, they just lie in wait for resurrection. The jokes here -- sexual, scatological, gastronomical, existential, political, linguistic, literary conventions and parodies -- can be traced to Rabelais, "Tristram Shandy," Lewis Carroll, Joyce, Nabokov, the Beatles and Bennett Cerf, among others, which should given an idea of the truly astonishing flavor of this lemon meringue pie of a book.
Opening Line: “George is my name; my deeds have been heard of in Tower Hall, and my childhood has been chronicled in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.”
Closing Line: “Passed, but not forgotten, I shall rest.”
Quotes: “Al Chikiel my green loins called as she followed after him: poor pretty doe fretful to be bucked, hie here if it’s a beast you’re after!”
Rating: Awful. I got to page 100 and put it down.

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