John Barth's fourth book and second tome, first published in 1966, was written for the critics who had softly pulled threads of Joseph Campbell and allusions to the Hero With A Thousand Faces from Barth's previous work The Sot-Weed Factor. Barth had not read and was not familiar with these references and so spent the next six years consuming them and spitting them back out in an intricate literary heap. That heap is a rambling complex of allegory and allusion set in a quasi-futuristic and deeply symbolic University system, one that flaunts the linearity of the wandering hero's tale by forking it at every turn and always taking both paths at once.
The West Campus New Tammany College and the East Campus Nikolayan College have each independently developed super-computers that have the power not only to evolve sentience beyond human cognition, but also to EAT students with powerful bursts of airborne mind-rays. Feuding and farming and plays and parties and graduations and grades all take place against the background of a terrible threat: that of impending war between the campuses. But in the experimental farm of New Tammany a goat is born, a goat that is a boy, a goat-boy that may be (maybe) the Giles of myth, come to save all of student-kind from its own (literary?) devices. Giles is no ordinary hero, not as long as there is the possibility that he is the GILES, or Grand-Tutorial Ideal, Laboratory Eugenical Specimen, in which case he would be a hero born of the unnatural conjunction of maiden and machine.
Hundreds of myths and plays and fables and follies have their part, each throw in their two cents just to see John Barth's hand. It is a particular skill Barth has: juggling the possibilities of narrative outcome and turning this street-corner act into a rich and variegated story line. This skill seems to lie in his never closing himself to possibility or allowing the story to amble along in a traditional direction. The following passage, a conversation between Giles and campus Security Chief Maurice Stoker, is worthy of reproduction as a parable in the studies of Erving Goffman, but serves to illustrate many of the book’s comedic and stylistic tones:
-"You're telling me you tricked me before so I'll think you didn't, but the joke's on you."
-"I knew all along that Pass and Fail aren't opposites- didn't I tell you Passage is Failure?- But I also knew you knew I'd try to trick you into flunking. So I told you they were the same so you'd believe I thought they were different and come to think so yourself. Why else do you think I pretended to take your advice?"
-"I know why you took it," I replied, and grinned, hoping to confuse him with inversions-of-inversions long enough to work out the right ones for myself. "What you don't know, when I tell you Failure is Passage, is whether I want you to believe it because it isn't or isn't because it is?
-Stoker grinned also and added as though carelessly: "-or is because it is, eh? Or isn't because it isn't. . ."
If defying conventional structure is the mark of postmodern fiction, Barth is perhaps the best of his kind. He manipulates so many tattered remnants of convention that we believe he might have been first into the breech. He will most certainly be one of the last standing. Giles Goat-Boy is ridiculous, fabulous. Whosoever looks to writing in search of Bacchus will recognize in this work an unimaginable excess.