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 the 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.