I did it. I actually read the old thing again. I suspect that most people who receive a Master’s degree park their bound copy on a shelf — perhaps next to the primary subject matter. For me it was the early fiction of John Barth back in the ’70’s when he was an edgy metafiction writer and I was a lowly grad student. Next to my copies of Giles Goat Boy, The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, and The Sotweed Factor, I stashed my monograph, “The Heroes of John Barth: Mockers of Heroism.” The only other copy sat for awhile on a shelf in the Idaho State University Library. I assume it has been copied since to microfiche and the hard copy recycled. Perhaps by now it has been flushed into the infinite Cloud — just a little more space junk amidst the Twitter tweets and Facebook detritus. I am only mildly curious to know if anyone ever checked out my thesis. I doubt it. The only manuscripts deader than old Master’s theses are senior English papers in high school and all those brilliant essays to all those professors back when — products of the late-hour muse.
I sent an extra copy of my thesis to my father and stepmother. My opus was beyond Dad, the engineer. Judith, a reader, teacher and liberal arts graduate (sometime after the First World War), was flabbergasted that her stepson could be associated with “filthy trash” like Giles Goat Boy. The sodomy was too much for her.
Other than this familial dissemination only I have read it two or three times. For awhile even I wondered why, but now forty-two years later I know. I’m not going to mention the subject matter much. My literary composite of Barth’s four heroes was highly abstract and esoteric in 1970 and now its even more arcane. Barth has written thirteen more works since Giles including his last, Every Third Thought. I have not read all of them by any means and my interest here is more the personal significance of my experience. I don’t know that every English major should revisit his applied intellect of an earlier time, but there has been some personal value in it for me. And I know that John Barth’s work will continue to amuse me.
For me 1968 through 1969 was an exhilarating year of “doing my own thing” which amounted to a late adolescent trip. By 1968 the hippie culture was on the wane and I was removed from the world. I had gone from college into two new bubbles: the Navy and then into the corporate world, but I had a need to “let it all hang out.” By the time I arrived at Idaho State I had visited Czechoslovakia in the wake of the “Prague Spring” after the Russians had squelched Dubcek, I’d passed eight weeks studying French in a joint university program at the University of Pau.
I’d sldo come home to California, rented a cheap studio and dived into making up credits at Hayward State for an English major. I worked as a corral hand and study hall monitor. I had a girl friend in Berkeley, lived on cube steaks, macaroni and cheese — all washed down with beer at 89 cents per six-pack. My transportation consisted of a used Honda Trail bike which I destroyed on the Nimitz Freeway by throwing a rod clean through the crank case; and then I bought a ’61 VW and switched in a ’60 junkyard engine. The old 34-horse power plant got me across the Sierras and Rockies up to Pocatello. These were two unforgettable years and as far as the prodigal son was concerned — welcome and way overdue.
Arriving in Idaho I bought a nice pair of snow boots and even checked out the slopes — whereupon I destroyed my knees except for cycling.My Master’s marked the culmination of this passage. I immersed myself in intellectual adventures, scholarly masquerade and a second romance — all of it atop the world in Big Sky Country. My mind and spirit was as expansive and free as the Great West itself. In all this time I never popped a pill. I tried pot once. I didn’t need any more for my highs became Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, W. B. Yeats, Ken Kesey, Gunter Grass, Shelley, Keats and of course the Bard himself. Prospero and Lear in particular stirred my imagination. Funny, I seem not to have read a lot of contemporary poetry — too busy meeting the requirements of academe.
When I opened my thesis a few days ago, I leaped over forty-two years, the bulk of my active working career, I was there again on the top floor of the business administration building in a room full of study cubicles. I was with the new woman I would marry; then later I was drinking beer with her at Buddy’s listening to “Hey, Jude.” Down below, some 5000 feet into the real world, the US still continued the social progressivism of the Sixties. Political and economic awareness, particularly the liberty of women were going strong. Opposition to the Vietnam War was growing and on May 4 the Kent State violence occurred. There was hostility to both big business and big government. The first Earth Day happened. The Me decade continued. And one former Naval officer I know sent President Nixon a telegram demanding our departure from Cambodia. The Beatles disbanded. Long live The Who! There was 6% inflation and the average income was $9400, monthly rent $140, and gas @36 cents, The AMC Gremlin was going for $1879. Apollo 13 was aborted. That was the external reality — as seen from 5000 feet in Pocatello, Idaho.
Internally in the imagination it seemed a great time for a John Barth to write an allegory about an innocent boy raised with goats on a farm run by New Tammany College. He is George Giles, Grand Tutor, novelist, avatar, human. It seemed a great time for a fabulous, metafictional allegory in which University=Universe, Founder=God, Enos Enoch=Jesus, New Tammany=America, Chancellor=President, Informationalism=Capitalism, Student Union=Communism, Campus Riot I and II=World War I and II, and Cold Riot I=Cold War. WESCAC and EASCAC are two huge computers representing the West and the East blocs. Ironically they share the same power supply on Founder’s Hill(God’s Hill). Maurice Stoker is in charge of the furnace room which resembles the Inferno. Dr. Strangelove and the Doomsday Machine have their counterparts in New Tammany — and on and on it goes, never ever that simple in total, comprehensive, complicated, sometimes tedious — this fictional reality.
Pervading it all was a haunting sense that if Something Doesn’t Happen, It Will Soon Be All Over. Giles Goat Boy is the Barthian bible, a fabulolus, fabulated romp that never gives up its secret. It gives us no new fact or discovery about what we call reality. It is the work of Prospero and it is good entertainment and like The Tempest, an epic parody. And I haven’t been able to let it go. These days, when I ask around, few have heard of The Giles (The Grand-Tutorial Ideal, Laboratory Eugenical Specimen). We learned about human specimens in the 70’s.
The young man, the graduate student at Idaho State was a little like George Giles: naive, looking for a calling — perhaps even a mission. Most likely he was in literature not for its own sake, but hoping to find philosophical and metaphysical understanding of life itself. Difficult to judge his work in assessing Barth, he was 28, under the pressure of getting a thesis done; plus even Barth had said that the avant garde of metafiction writers didn’t know what they were doing. No one knew whether they were right or wrong; or whether or not the novel as we knew it was truly dead. Besides, in times of economic, social, political and artistic turmoil who really knows how to judge anything? In the late 60’s and 70’s even the University from Berkeley to Kent State groped for answers in matters of curriculum and scholarship. Oh, what to do, what to do! It was a good time and a terrible time to be in graduate school.
After forty-two years though, as I read slowly and thoughtfully through the ninety pages of my thesis, I felt that the amateur scholar who wrote this tract knew his material. To the walls of my basement cell I said aloud, “I can’t believe I wrote this. It even sounds intelligent. Feels like someone else wrote it. Nice job.” And given the fact that I now know more about Barth than I did in 1970, the old thesis held up pretty well — considering the nature of the universal floating opera itself.
S. David Milliken