Tuesday, January 17, 2012

#49 - "The Sot-Weed Factor" by John Barth

It's finally finished.  After 48 days, I have finished John Barth's epic, The Sot-Weed Factor.  As I've mentioned before, I'm not exactly sure as to why this took me so long to read, other than the 800 pages of course, but I suppose it no longer matters.

For those who don't know, and that seems to be everybody I've ever met (and myself before having read this book), sot-weed is tobacco plant, and a factor is somebody, a middle man, who trades on another's behalf.  Ebenezer Cooke, the book's protagonist, is sort of a dim-wit, living in 17th Century London, who is banished to the New World by his father, to look after the family's tobacco plantation.

During his journey Ebenezer, or Eben as his sister calls him, seems to run into every problem imaginable; he meets pirates, is left to drowned, is swindled of everything he owns, is drugged, is used by everybody he knows, and generally mocked by all those who cross paths with him.  If he isn't being taken advantage of by pirates, it's his man-servant. If it isn't his man-servant, it may be his only friend, Henry Burlingame, who not only deceives Ebenezer more times than anyone cares to remember, he also swindled his father, slept with his sister, forged important documents, sided with the family's enemies, and fed lowly Eben his first dose of opium.  We spend our time following his problems, following his potential solutions, and generally having a good time doing so.

But really, the plot is secondary to the satire that makes this one of the best books of the first half.  Every exchange that poor Ebenezer seems to have is funny.  And it usually isn't just a subtle smile where one's lips turn up slightly at the corners, but actually laughing out loud.  The Sot-Weed Factor is without a doubt the funniest book I've read from The List so far.  Although I have found that whenever I try to explain to somebody why it's funny, I realize that without having read the previous forty pages, the jokes don't really make any sense, and my stories usually fall pretty flat.  It really can't be discussed without having read it.
There are so many scenes that are so ridiculous, it would be impossible to take this book seriously as anything other than an outlandish tale of absurdity.  It truly is the "Airplane" of the literary world.  Take for example, Henry Burlingame's ability to assume almost any role he chooses.  Seemingly more talented than Odo, Henry is able to fool fathers into thinking he is their son, pirates that he is their Captain, and employer's that he is not their former employee.  Or how at almost every moment, Eben experiences the worst possible outcome, usually the result of the the biggest coincidence the world has ever seen.  Never before has one man been so unlucky, so helpless, or found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time so often.

But despite the absolutely unbelievable events, the outrageous dialogue, and the silly characters, it works so well, as this is what Barth has set out to create.

I'm heading to the library this afternoon to see what I can read next.  I think I need something on the quick side, to make up for the past seven weeks.  But it will also be my midway point read.  Perhaps I should make it something a little monumental.

Notes: This is easily the most unknown book from the list so far.  I have yet to run into anybody who has heard of the book or the author; it's a complete mystery to everybody.  I would never have read it either, had it not been for this list.

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