The last time I had anything to say about ‘The Golden Barge’, the year was 2011 (only just though…) and my thoughts went along the lines of…
‘With certain stories in ‘The Time Dweller’ the problem for me was that whatever Moorcock was trying to say was drowned out in a mass of admittedly beautiful but overall stifling imagery. Don’t get me wrong, I love Moorcock’s use of imagery and settings but I love it far more when there’s a story happening against it all. I’m sure that there was something going on in these stories but I couldn’t see it (a re-read would probably take care of this but, in the meantime, I’ve got to go on first impressions). Take ‘The Golden Barge’ for instance, what was all that about? I liked the exploration of Jephraim Tallow’s character but why was he chasing the Golden Barge? And considering this pursuit was made out to be such a big deal, why did he stop for a break? There’s something to be said for stories that have you asking questions (and you end up re-reading them) but there is also such a thing as being too obscure and alienating the reader entirely...’
Fast forward a few years and it was time for a re-read of the strange adventure of Jephraim Tallow; a man who lost his navel and promptly went in pursuit of a strange golden barge so he could get some answers. Yep, that really is the whole premise of the book and I was hoping that a few questions of my own would be answered in a book that just had to expand on what I originally read in ‘The Time Dweller’. While ‘The Golden Barge’ does expand on certain themes, it is still a book that poses more questions than it answers. It does this in a good way though, leaving its reader chewing on questions out of interest rather than frustration.
‘The Golden Barge’ is a ‘quest’ story perhaps unlike any you have ever read. Tallow knows full well what he is looking for, and why, but has no idea how the barge will help him if he ever catches up with it. Tallow can’t bear to be hindered in his quest and will actively go out of his way to wreck nations in order that he can continue looking for a barge that no-one else can see. As a character, Tallow comes across as fairly simple to read but he is self-aware enough to be a little more interesting than that. Tallow frequently debates his actions and this approach invites the reader to join in that debate and either side with Tallow himself or with the people who seek to hinder him (albeit with the best intentions).
For me, ‘The Golden Barge’ was all about Tallow seeking to define himself while resisting others attempts to define him (it’s what life is all about in a way). A man with no navel to contemplate has to look elsewhere, for his contemplation, and that is exactly what Tallow does. It’s interesting to note that as his quest draws to a close, the slightly weird and baroque landscape (which I loved at the beginning, especially the little nods to what would become the wider multi-verse) becomes more vague and blurry round the edges as Tallow finds his answers and comes into focus. The world is an interesting one to ponder on, hints of an apocalypse and people trying to impose their own order on what is left, but it is Tallow’s view of this world that carries the tale and it is only right that he should feature prominently.
Does the end justify everything that has gone before? Well, for Tallow it does but ‘The Golden Barge’ is clearly a book that is all about the journey rather than the destination. I liked the hint of uncertainty, at the end, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Tallow’s final decision was in keeping with his character. It’s that journey though (I kept thinking of it as a post-modern agnostic ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’) that makes the book, full of incidents that have you questioning the characters and yourself. If you saw the Golden Barge travelling down the river, would you follow it?
P.S. I don't know if 'The Golden Barge' will feature in any of the new Moorcock collections but you can get it on Kindle (via SF Gateway) and there are loads of second hand copies doing the rounds. Worth checking out.