In "The Floating Opera," Todd Andrews has spent his life consciously trying out new personalities; we're told in detail (by himself) how he has rationalized each step of his way towards destructive nihilism, and in the end how this personality fails him as well. The book is an entertaining story about law and childhood and relationships, but the focus is Todd's calm and methodic inner struggle to decide who he should be.
"The End of the Road" takes this one step further, giving us a man (Jacob Horner) whose personalities come and go so fast that they're referred to as "the weather." Sometimes he's caring and considerate, and at other times he's a violent mysogynist...but at ALL times he can rationalize his activities. This time around the focus is on Jacob's arguments with Joe, a painfully methodical empiricist who has his own philosophy so rigidly defined that he finds a man with no personality to be absolutely fascinating...and a challenge, both to himself and to his poor wife. What better way to test his wife's developing "rationality" by exposing her to a person who can justify ANY position?
So the book is about forming a personal philosophy, and the way that -- at the center of it all -- our philosophies are based on unprovable assumptions. The really tragic characters are those who have so much invested in their philosophies so as to be completely unable to deal with the realization that their beliefs (and the beliefs of others) are, ultimately, equally silly. Such people can survive only if they can adapt the world's behaviour to mesh with their own philosophies; Jacob Horner survives by constantly adapting himself to the changing philosophies of the world around him. Horner understands that, sometimes, people do things without ever knowing WHY. He can survive no matter what, but he has no "personality." He doesn't "exist."
This is a fascinating character conflict and, coupled with the harrowing events of the book -- spousal abuse, and the attempt to get an abortion in a small conservative town during the 1950s -- it's a wonderful read. It's written in Barth's characteristic style: amusing, flippant, and well-paced, with frequent meditations on the nature of writing itself. It's statements like this that made me uncertain about my own writing, once upon a time:
Assigning names to things is like assigning roles to people: it is necessarily a distortion, but it is a necessary distortion if one would get on with the plot, and to the connoisseur it's good clean fun.Since Jacob Horner is (like Barth) an English professor, this is a theme he occasionally explores in his classroom as well, and he teaches his students the old addage about needing to know the rules of writing before breaking them...but it's uncertain whether Horner really believes this (as much as he believes anything) or if he's just saying it to get out of a tricky jam engineered by one of his more annoying students.
I finished "The End of the Road" a few weeks ago and I'm now making my way through his fourth novel, "The Sot-Weed Factor." It is -- surprise! -- partially about how we choose and manifest our personalities. Sound familiar? I'faith, 't'is!