Jacob Horner, stressed beyond belief, sat down at a train station one day and was unable to move for the entire night. He sat there unwilling to admit paralysis. In the morning, a Doctor passed by and immediately knew what to do. He recruited Jacob to attend a meeting with him at his clinic, and there, began prescribing various absurd but effective forms of therapy – one being to teach prescriptive grammar at a local college. These events begin the proceedings of The End of the Road, where John Barth uses Jacob Horner to explore the idea of choices and of fiction being a true representation of reality.
There are three main things the struck me about The End of the Road after finishing it. The first is that while the philosophy and ideas behind the novel are decent, the execution of expounding on them in the story is highly overrated by those who praise them. The second is that the plot was actually quite great and is highly underrated by those who dislike the novel. And finally, there’s the problematic nature of the novel itself – rooted in the 1950s upper-middle-class white America, this isn’t surprising, but it still seems to surpass other novels from the same period in terms of these issues.
First – the philosophy. Horner’s character escapes this form of paralysis through many types of therapy, most importantly of which are constant movement and of mythotherapy – putting on new masks and becoming someone new. This will allow him to bypass the issue which led him to his original paralysis: the struggle of making a choice. Through assuming the personas of different characters that he comes across throughout the novel, Horner is either able to easily make the choices he wishes or to not worry about the action altogether. From the other standpoint, we see the character of Rennie being forced to not make choices. She is a willing slave to her husband’s will and has been brainwashed into thinking that his philosophy is the only true form. Then, what does this inability to choose for oneself lead to? Death, or at best unhappiness, in the case of Rennie. Or as Barth seems to state, the ability to make choices is what makes us human. It is of course observed in different ways than that but is unfortunately uninteresting and relatively pointless. It’s as if he found some philosophical idea and wrote a novel based around those themes, rather than the other way around.
Second – philosophy aside, the plot was truly great. Barth is clearly a master storyteller despite the many problems he had in his first two books. His pacing of the affair from the pregnancy to the abortion itself was perfectly executed and wholly exciting the entire way. Each event seems to have a purpose in moving the events of the story forward. Barth created some of the most comically and tragically realistic scenes I can recall reading – Horner calling various doctors trying to find one who will perform an abortion, the discussion between Rennie and Horner about their guilt after sleeping together, Joe’s confrontation with Horner after the discovery of the affair, and the tragedy and outcome of Rennie’s death. All of these scenes were excellent, moving, or hilarious, or even a combination of the three. However, that did not save it from the book’s poorly done philosophy, or even worse, the problematic nature of it that I’ll be talking about next.
Finally – what I believe makes this book almost worth not reading. John Barth is not his character, so I don’t assume or even believe that he himself would advocate for hitting women or anything even close to the sort (I mean, one of the novel’s points is actively against controlling others via force or persuasion). Yet, he still makes light of this idea and uses it in an almost comic way which, even with his advocation for the opposite, is absurd that he would use it as a joke. There is also much misogyny towards female sexuality and the stereotypes associated with this, mostly in the character of Peggy. Barth seems to make fun of her high desire for sex but her inability to be fulfilled because no one will love her. All she wants is to find someone to marry and care for her, yet she can’t seem to get away from Horner’s massive sex appeal. It’s all quite cringy and ends up feeling greatly misogynistic in the sense of a typical conservative who makes racist jokes but insists that he is in no way racist – why can’t we just take a joke?
So with all that, is the book good or worth reading? It’s entertaining surely and I found myself occasionally in awe at his ability to write emotional passages of guilt and how he so perfectly crafted the plot. Yet, philosophically and morally, the novel is a complete mess and could even be harmful to someone reading it from the wrong point of view or at the wrong time of their life. It is about on par with his previous novel, The Floating Opera, the difference being that the first novel was pretty meh all the way through where this one had higher highs and much lower lows. As I also said with his first novel, I would really only recommend this book to someone looking to explore Barth’s evolution as a writer. It could also teach some good writing tips when it comes to plot and dialogue; however, other books out there do it just as well without resorting to the problematic material in this one.
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