When The Opening Paragraph Puts You To Sleep
Have you ever opened a book and, after a few sentences, thought, “Oh my gosh. What have I gotten myself into?”
It’s a question I have asked myself in the early pages of reading The Sot-Weed Factor, a 700-page beast of a novel. At the outset, I was excited about the prospect of this novel. It’s a satire, and I love satires.
But Catch 22 this is not.
The Sot-Weed Factor opens its 700+ pages with this passage:
IN THE LAST YEARS OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY THERE WAS TO BE found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.
That’s one sentence.
Okay, so the narration is long-winded. But what about the dialogue? Oh, yes, the dialogue.
One morning in July of 1684 Andrew simply announced at breakfast, “No need to go to the summer-house today, Ebenezer. Thy lessons are done.’
Both children looked up in surprise.
“Do you mean, sir, that Henry will be leaving us?” Ebenezer asked.
“I do indeed,” Andrew replied. “In fact, if I be not greatly in error he hath already departed.”
“But how is that? With never a fare-thee-well? He spoke not a word of leaving us!”
“Gently, now,” said Andrew. “Will ye weep for a mere schoolmaster? ‘Twas this week or the next, was’t not? Thou’rt done with him.”
“Did you know aught oft?” Ebenezer demanded of Anna. She shook her head and fled from the room. “You ordered him off, Father?” he asked incredulously. “Why such suddenness?”
” ‘Dslife!” cried Andrew. “At your age I’d sooner have drunk him good riddance than raised such a bother! The fellow’s work was done and I sacked him, and there’s an end on’t! If he saw fit to leave at once ’tis his affair. I must say ’twas a more manly thing than all this hue and cry!”
Barth is purposefully mimicking the 17th century style as part of his satire of historical fiction. The novel was published in 1960, and—as far as I’m aware—words like “hath” and “ye” and “thy” weren’t commonly used.
I still have hope that, despite John Barth’s writing style in this novel, I’ll be able to focus on the story and enjoy the satire. That will be the ongoing tension for me as I read The Sot-Weed Factor.
Anyone reading this book with me?