Monday, October 15, 2012

Thoughts on The Tar Baby

The term "tar baby" has many meanings, and one of them is racially offensive.  Perhaps that's something to keep in mind.

The book The Tar Baby is Jerome Charyn lampooning of academic pretensions.  It takes the form of a literary journal whose latest issue is a tribute to a recently deceased contributor.  The lampooning takes the shape of the many different opinions and stories about this dead man, the squabbles that arise between contributors and the conflicting interpretations they hold of local lore.

A lot of what fills in the weird shape of Tar Baby will be familiar to Charyn fans who have at least read Johnny One-Eye, set during the Revolutionary War and featuring a central figure who ends up caught between large egos and the home setting of a brothel.  It would not be a stretch to assume Charyn had Tar Baby in mind when he wrote Johnny, disentangling one narrative to form another.  That's a part of the author's genius.

I haven't read too much of Charyn, but at this point I can now with some additional confidence state that he's among our most vital novelists, a sort of more vulgar version of Thomas Pynchon.  Like the sad subject of Tar Baby, however, his legacy has been obscured by the peculiar means in which he has chosen to express himself.  Perhaps Tar Baby itself has played a part in the lack of popular momentum he's met, critics who saw too much of themselves in the skewered blowhards who inhabit the landscape of Galapagos (a name that resonates to Darwin and Vonnegut, though any significance is downplayed).

Part of the phantom in the middle's tale revolves around the famed philosopher Wittgenstein, an interpretation that seems to leave out any historical accuracy for the sake of fictional expediency, which causes its own tizzy, naturally a reflection of the many mirrors within the book.

If you're a fussy reader who needs a lot of convention, think of Tar Baby as a collection of inter-related short stories.  Even if you have trouble swallowing one installment, there are plenty of others to choose from, and parts of Charyn's work summarizes helpfully anything that might have slipped your attention.

It's a wonderful exercise, though perhaps best understood as an ancestor of the more successful Johnny One-Eye.  That would make sense in the world of The Tar Baby, too.

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