THE UNIVERSAL UNIVERSITY: On GILES GOAT-BOY (John Barth) by Joseph Suglia
With his imposing fourth novel, Giles Goat-Boy: or, The Revised New Syllabus (1966), John Barth stopped writing stories and started writing stories-about-stories and stories-inside-of-stories. The meta-fictional dimensions of the novel are apparent from its first page onward. A “Publisher’s Note” informs its readers that Giles Goat-Boy is rumored to have been generated by WESCAC, a super-computer that–as one learns later in the text–has “commenced a life of its own”  and has taken over a mythical Super-University. According to the logic of Giles Goat-Boy, the horizons of the University are the horizons of the universe, the “microcosm” stands for the “macrocosm” (a conceit derived from Joseph Campbell); it seems, then, that WESCAC, having completely taken over the universal University, would have produced the very text that we are reading. This clever meta-fictional device displaces the individual voice of the author, of course, but also reflects the sources that make its writing possible. If the author wanted to write a work that refers ceaselessly to the conditions of its production, he succeeded. A sprawling epic about mythological heroism in an age of all-consuming computerization, Giles Goat-Boy resembles the infinitely self-referring spreadsheet of a constantly self-renovating and self-activating linguistic super-computer.
Giles Goat-Boy is many things. It is a Bildungsroman that charts the gradual socialization of an individual subject. Raised by goats, messianic savage George Giles strives to become the new “Grand Tutor” of the University and reprogram WESCAC. In fact, it is George who is reprogrammed. Following the classical form of the Bildungsroman, the novel ends with the disappearance of the hero’s identity insofar as he is absorbed into the computer’s complex machinery. Deep within Axis Mundi, the belly of the computer, George submits to WESCAC his student identification card. In doing so, he loses his name and remerges as “The Founder.” Like Wilhelm Meister, George’s character is stamped by an external authority that grants him his socially reconstituted selfhood and, thereby, his validity.
Giles Goat-Boy is also a complex theological and political allegory. The University is a stage upon which various world-historical conflicts are dramatized and enacted. “The Quiet Riot” allegorizes the Cold War. The Campus Riots are the world wars. The Bonifascists represent the National Socialists; the Moishians represent the Jews. The West Campus represents the West; the East Campus represents the East in general and the Soviet Union in particular. WESCAC is the atomic bomb. “New Tammany College” represents America. Getting “flunked” is equivalent to damnation; passing is equivalent to salvation. The “Dean O’Flunks” refers to Satan; the “Old Founder” refers to Jehovah. Each of the oppositions mentioned above is dialectically synthesized at the novel’s close.
Most importantly, however, Giles Goat-Boy is an extraordinarily elaborate practical joke. As with most postmodernist works, the reader doesn’t quite know whether to take any of its meanings seriously, but suspects that one shouldn’t. Allegory, for instance, is merely one of Giles Goat-Boy‘s many language games. Perhaps one should take “J.B.” at his word when he writes–or is alleged to have written–that “language is the matter of his books, as much as anything else, and for that reason ought to be ‘splendrously musicked out'” [xvi]. Nonetheless, one of its reputed authors maintains that the book should not be dismissed as ‘a work of fiction’: “Excepting a few ‘necessary basic artifices,'” Stoker maintains, Giles Goat-Boy is “neither fable nor fictionalized history, but literal truth” [xi]. This is also doubtful. “Literal truth” might not refer to a truth on the other side of language, but rather, a linguistic elaboration or fabrication of truth. “Literal truth,” in this context, would be a truth that is composed of letters.
Giles Goat-Boy is a world of veils and yet these veils do not mask deeper verities. As authoritative as it might appear, Giles Goat-Boy abdicates its own presumptions of authority. The “Publisher’s Disclaimer” disclaims–or, at least, problematizes–all of the book’s claims. According to the “Disclaimer,” the alleged author, “J.B.” renounced his authorship. He claimed that he is merely the editor of the manuscript in question, which was tailored by one “Giles Stoker” or “Stoker Giles.” The latter claimed, in turn, that he is the editor of the manuscript, which was manufactured by the automatic computer, WESCAC. The computer also renounces the book’s authorship. Giles Goat-Boy‘s authorship, it would seem, is infinitely regressive. No one wants to admit having written the thing.
Barth’s future meta-narratives (Lost in the Funhouse, Chimera, Letters) will become increasingly more involuted, vine-like, and entangling, increasingly more extravagant, bombastic, and bloated, and increasingly more irritating, self-fascinated, and densely imbricated. Some readers, overpowered by Barth’s stale verbiage, will bow to his turgidity. Others will remember, wistfully and nostalgically, Barthes’ best novel, The End of the Road–a sour and cruel novel, to be sure, but also an infinitely more powerful and engaging one than Giles Goat-Boy. Whereas The End of the Road comes about as the shock of a physical hammer blow, reading Giles Goat-Boy is a bit like having one’s mind EAT-en by an all-embracing cybernetic parasite.
Dr. Joseph Suglia