Stephan's Reviews > The End of the Road

The End of the Road by John Barth
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Nov 12, 2008

bookshelves: great-short-novels, grotesque
Recommended for: paralyzed existentialists
Read in October, 2008

In 1951, on the day after his 28th birthday, with his oral exams passed but his master's thesis not even begun, Jacob Horner finds himself in a Baltimore train station, asking the ticket agent where he can go for $30. Cincinnati, Ohio? Crestline, Dayton or Lima, Ohio? He retreats to a bench to make up his mind, but there realizes he has no reason to go anywhere -- not to Ohio, not even back to his apartment. "I simply ran out of motives, as a car runs out of gas," he says. "There was no reason to do anything. My eyes ... were sightless, gazing on eternity, fixed on ultimacy, and when that is the case there is no reason to do anything--even to change the focus of one's eyes."
The following day, a doctor passes Jacob, noting his paralysis, and asks that he return with him to his Remobilization Farm for a course of therapy that includes studying the World Almanac, finding a teaching job at a university, and various other tasks.
"If you aren't courageous enough to hire prostitutes," the doctor says, "then take up masturbation temporarily. Above all, act impulsively: don't let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you're lost. You're not that strong. If the alternatives are side by side, choose the one on the left; if they're consecutive in time, choose the earlier. If neither of these applies, choose the alternative whose name begins with the earlier letter of the alphabet. These are the principles of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetical Priority--there are others, and they're arbitrary, but useful. Good-by."
An existential melodrama of sorts, with a winning and self-conscious narrator, this novel takes all 'isms to the end of the road and shows what happens when you don't see gray areas and acknowledge paradoxes in an absurd world.
In a word, great.
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