THE END OF THE ROAD
SYNOPSIS: John Barth’s 1958 novel (revised in 1967—not sure what that means) about unconventional therapy, an unconventional love triangle, and a very conventional small-town American college.
CONDITION: Cheap Bantam paperback, bought used from the Untitled Bookshop in late 2010.
THOUGHTS: I was a little reticent to give this a shot, given Barth’s reputation as undergraduate catnip, all icy experimentation and formal hoop-jumping. I never read him in school, and figured the right time might have passed for good. But it was on my list of campus novels, and I’m nothing if not a completist… so it was a nice surprise to find out The End of the Road (which was only Barth’s second novel) is plainspoken and completely accessible.
In a way, that only made it a further disappointment. It reminded me of when I recently sat down to watch David Lynch’s Blue Velvet after being already familiar with his later, more pretzel-logicked films like Mulholland Drive—I kept waiting for a tail-swallowing twist that never came.
Here, though, Barth is deft and precise, snappy with dialogue and gives his narration just the right air of breezy intellect. This is the story of an aimless 30-year-old who suffers from a kind of mental and physical paralysis and, on the advice of his back-door therapist, takes a job as grammar professor in small-town Maryland. There’s plenty of lofty talk about living according to principles, unity of personality, and (hello, 1950s) the bizarre lengths to which one must go to get an abortion.
I admired Barth’s dramatization of these philosophical problems—he creates an almost Ayn Rand-ish figure, so committed to being true to his inner principles that he’s basically a robot with an above-average grasp of rhetoric. He and the protagonist talk what-ought-to-remain-just-abstractions far into the night. And it works; turns out you can both show and tell at the same time.
Underneath that, however, is a surprisingly ugly portrait of misogyny run rampant. (Hello, 40-year-old spinster who’s so desperate for a man that she tries to blackmail the protagonist into marriage.) And yet the book remains fascinating in its own way, even if it turned out to be both smaller and more conventional than I’d thought. Some traditions are good. Others—say, misogyny—not so much.
* * * * *
WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL?
SYNOPSIS: Lorrie Moore’s 1994 novel about a dissatisfied married woman in Paris reminiscing about her enigmatic childhood best friend.
CONDITION: Lightly used Warner Books paperback. Powell’s.
THOUGHTS: Lately my reading material has been packed with narrators lamenting their childhood best friends pulling away from them. It happened in Ticknor. It happened in The Adults, and in I Pass Like Night. And it happened again in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? At this point, it’s a little exhausting.
Lorrie Moore is an author who means a lot to me, even if I’m slowly realizing I’d only wholeheartedly endorse two of her books: the novel Anagrams and the story collection Birds of America. Luckily, those are two of my all-time favourites—crushing and hilarious and written as if with a scalpel.
This novel, Moore’s second, is about a woman using her unhappy marriage as a filter through which to reminisce about her lost best friend, Sils. As teenagers, they worked together at a fairy-tale theme park. They were inseparable, until Sils got pregnant from her new boyfriend, and the narrator had to steal from her register to pay for Sils’s covert abortion in the next town over—and after which their friendship is never the same.
Weird, but I’m only realizing now that both of these novels involve covert abortions. I’m also struggling to distinguish between the instinctive sass of Moore’s narrator, and that of Emily in The Adults (on which, it should be said, Moore is a definite influence). Shoot. There are phrases from Anagrams that are absolutely burned into my brain, several years later; this slight novel, however, I can already feel slipping out of my head.