In John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, a small, abstract decision to remain “innocent”—whatever that means—propels would-be poet Ebenezer Cooke to flee London for colonial Maryland, largely because he refuses to “swive” a prostitute thanks to his sudden love for her and then refuses to pay for her time, causing her pimp and maybe boyfriend (except for his lack of, um, ability, as we later learn), to threaten him. In turn, Burlingame—who formerly tutored Ebenezer and his twin, Anna—miraculously reappears in a variety of guises. Identities are constantly mistaken, and the shifting desires of characters revolve around Ebenezer like planets around the sun, and yet Ebenezer’s attempts not to be part of what he first sees as degraded life that causes him much pain and us much mirth.
There is something about vast, extraordinary novels like The Sot-Weed Factor that makes it hard to begin writing about them, for, if done poorly, a warning is sufficient, but if done well, they contain such multitudes that to dwell on only one seems foolish, like describing only the Northeastern cities of the United States as representing the whole country. To write about The Sot-Weed Factor as a whole would take a book half as long again as the 750-page book already in hand. The Sot-Weed Factor almost defies summarization by casting a mocking eye on the ability to simplify a hopelessly entangled world. Ebenezer’s hopeless attempts at stability certainly to fall apart:
“The world can alter a man entirely, Eben, or he can alter himself, down to his very essence. Did you now by your own testimony resolve, not that you were, but you’d be a virgin and poet from that moment hence? Nay, a man must alter willy-nilly in’s flight to the grave; he is a river running seawards, that is ne’er the same from hour to hour. What is there in the Maryland Laureate of the boy I fetched from Magdalene
“The less the better!” Ebenzer replied. “Yet I am still Eben Cooke, though haply not the same Eben Cooke […]”
Is he? He seems quite a different Eben Cooke at the end, doubting not only the beliefs of the earlier Eben Cooke but doubting beliefs altogether, indicating that the world has quite altered the man or vice-versa. It’s probably not a coincidence that one chapter title says Ebenezer “reflects a reflection,” and one character tells him to “Speak literally, an’t please you, if only for a sentence, and lay open plainly what is signified by all this talk of death and midwives and the rest of the allegory.” Eben can’t, naturally, and calls of “contrivance!” and “S’heart!” He chastises his servant, Bertrand, for Bertrand’s unusual take on morality that’s worth quoting in full to give some flavor of the novel:
“The fact is, sir, my Betsy, who is a hot-blooded, affectionate lass, hath the bad luck to be married, and that to a lackluster chilly fellow whose only passions are ambition and miserliness, and who, though he’d like a sturdy son to bring home extra wages, is as sparing with caresses as with coins. Such a money-grubber is he that, after a day’s work as a clerk’s apprentice in the Customs-House, he labors half the night as a fiddler in Locket’s to put by an extra crown, with the excuse ’tis a nest egg against the day she finds herself with child. But ‘sblood, ’tis such a tax on his time that he scarce sees her from one day to the next and on his strength that he hath not the wherewithal to roger what time he’s with her! It seemed a sinful waste to me to see, on the one hand, poor Betsy alone and all a-fidget for want of husbanding, and on the other her husband Ralph a-hoarding money to no purpose, and so like a proper Samaritan I did what I could for the both of ’em: Ralph fiddled and I diddled.”
“How’s that, you rascal? The both of ’em! Small favor to the husband, to bless him with horns! What a villainy!”
“Ah, on the contrary, sir, if I may say so, ’twas a double boon I did him, for not only did I plow his field, which else had lain fallow, but seeded it as well, and from every sign ’twill be a bumper crop come fall.”
Bertrand, the novel implies, might be more right than Ebenezer in the topsy-turvy morality that life tends to inspire. Notice within that passage the clever echoes and doublings within: the alliteration of “tax” and time,” the repeated “l” sound in “lackluster chilly fellow,” and the “sturdy son.” Rhymes play a role too: “Ralph fiddled and I diddled!” Doubling (and tripling) plays a role throughout the novel: Anna’s dedication both inspires and causes great trouble, while Burlingame switches sides so many times that one ceases to know which “side” is which.
“Miraculous” should appear in any attempt at describing The Sot-Weed Factor, as coincidences abound enough to make crossing the suspension bridge of disbelief as perilous as that the ocean in a colonial ship. For Ebenezer, the ship crossings certainly are perilous. Oh, and all this happens in the late 1600s, a time more given to delicate evasions of savagery, lust, lasciviousness, and violence in Barth’s reading than any other I know. Seldom have more attributes more normally found in tragedy employed in comedy comedy. The “French Pox,” also known more recently as the clap and many other nicknames besides, is extraordinarily amusing, even in a time when it more commonly led to death and disfigurement. And the heroic explorers of the “New World,” turn out about as heroic in many circumstances as Ebenezer is a poet. At the same time, the taboo attraction between Ebenezer and Anna might not be as dark as one expects it to be, and the only so caught up in sibling relationships I’ve found is John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire.
A vast and improbable web forms between characters, like the web so well described in All the King’s Men:
Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping.
For Ebenezer, that web is infested with voracious and lascivious spiders, and in his attempts to stay off the web Ebenezer only becomes more trapped in it. He touches those strands, sending vibrations ricocheting outwards even when he doesn’t mean to. There can be no onlookers in life and stories, only players, and trying to sit out is itself a play, as Ebenezer discovers to his displeasure and our glee.