Sunday, April 20, 2014

The End of the RoadThe End of the Road by John Barth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the translation of John Barth's "The End of the Road" in my mid-twenties, over thirty five years ago, and I loved the book. I have now reread it and it is a split verdict. The first two thirds or maybe three fourths of the novel are absolutely brilliant. I have been stunned by the number of sharp observations of and deep insights into human psychology and behavior. But then, there is also the last part, plot-heavy, pedestrian, and quite implausible. It seems it comes from an altogether different book. The chasm between the two parts is so deep that maybe I am just too obtuse to understand Mr. Barth's grand design.

Jacob Horner, advised by his doctor (who treats him for depression) to seek full-time employment, is hired to teach prescriptive grammar and composition at a state teachers college in Maryland. The unforgettable first sentence of the novel, "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner", tells us something about Jake. We soon find out that this self-characterization is pretty sharp. Jacob, in his own words, is "a placid-depressive", with low lows of moods and middle-register highs ("a woofer without a tweeter was Jake Horner"). He has days without moods, without personality. He assumes various roles for himself and other people tell him that he does not exist at all ("There's too many of you.")

Jacob befriends (it is hardly the right word) another professor, Joe Morgan, and his wife, Rennie. Joe is quite a strange fellow. He systematically analyzes his own and other people's behavior and is highly intolerant of stupidity in people he cares about, particularly his wife. In her words, he "thinks as straight as an arrow about everything". To sum up, Joe displays the ugly self-righteousness of the intellectually superior. Rennie is probably the most enigmatic character. Even dismissing the altogether different last part of the novel, one cannot quite figure out who she is.

I think that the reader's inability to figure out Jake and Rennie is an important part of Mr. Barth's design. He wants the reader to understand the randomness of life and the fact that there are no reasons for many, if not most decisions we make. To me, the strongest theme in the novel is about the roles people play in their lives, and the relationship between the role and the actual person. Ultimately, maybe there is no person as such, maybe only the roles exist? The "Mythotherapy" theme, based on assigning roles to other people is fascinating. Also, both Jake and Mr. Barth are hell-bent on exposing social conventions, which produces many hilarious dialogues.

The novel is extremely readable yet full of wisdom. It is deep while being funny. If not for the last part, it would be one of the best books I have ever read.

Four stars.

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