Tarantula, Bob Dylan's first and only "novel," is, unquestionably, unlike anything you or I have ever read before--except, of course, the liner notes that accompany his 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited. Verbally and grammatically it is foreign--there are no periods and no punctuation, save a few sprinkled ellipses and ampersands, showing an overall thought change or something. The first part of the novel, entitled, "Guns, the Falcon's Mouthbook, & Gashcat Unpunished," is as nonsensical--so to speak--as the rest of the book seems to be. The first thought imparted in the novel is the following: "aretha/crystal jukebox queen of hymn & him diffused in drunk transfusion would would heed sweet soundwave crippled & cry salute to oh great particular el dorado reel & ye battered person god but she cannot she she the leader of whom when ye follow, she cannot she has no back she cannot..." So there you go. If that thought does not interest you, and you do not plan to spend any time thinking about, I say, "don't buy this book." If you are not interested in studying Dylan's written word, again, I say, "don't read this book." Though Tarantula is sometimes refuted as nonsensical--a silly game [much as was Joyce's "Finnigan's Wake"]--I don't see how it is possible to write it off as such without devoting to it much time and thought. Sure, if you study this book or Finnigan's Wake for days upon months upon years and can never find any pattern or sagacity in it whatsoever, than you can write it off as nothing. You'd never be able to do that, and I'll try to tell you why [but will probably tire before finishing, so brace yourself]. The thoughts in Tarantula are labyrinthine--one blending into the next with no transition; a thought ending without ever, seemingly, being started. The pages are full of archetypes, events, symbols, and famous figures wandering aimlessly about--no direction, no purpose, but with no meaning, either? The thought processes in Tarantula are very much in line with another of Dylan's poems, Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie--a piece that he wrote in approximately the same time period and which, somehow, seems to explain Tarantula and Highway 61 Revisited: "There's something on your mind you want to be saying, that somebody someplace ought to be hearing. But it's trapped on your tongue and sealed in your head, and it bothers you badly when you're laying in bed. And no matter how you try you just can't say it, and you're scared to your soul you just might forget it."
Whatever it is that Dylan is trying to say, it obviously is very important to him--why would he dedicate one hundred and sixty pages to an idea that he didn't care about? Though I'm not holding that I think that Tarantula is as accessible as his albums are, it seems to me that anyone truly interested in his music would also be interested in his written words. The albums are pared down--split into lines, verses, and songs. Tarantula, however, is split into a few sections, but it is far more "take it as it is" than the albums are, though the layout of Tarantula is similar to the layout of Dylan's albums--sure, if you look at them for a few moments they seem hollow and pretentiously inaccessible--but you must read them and reread them and reread them once more before they start to resemble something you've known or thought of yourself--anything that matters to you. The thoughts that come to you when considering Tarantula are undoubtedly similar to the feeling you get when reading the liner notes of his Highway 61 Revisited after listening to the album--it all interlocks, and you know it and your mind knows it. This is one of the greatest things about Dylan and his writing; Dylan's writings and music are the closest to a literal labyrinth that I've ever seen. He can supply you with a picture, for instance, "Cinderella sweeping a lane," and add as many materially different, but ideologically comparable, portraits as needed to complete one large thought [like "Desolation Row"]--abstract and tangible at the same time--and that's what true intelligence is, yes? This is what "Tarantula" is, this is what "Highway 61 Revisited" is--these are the themes that constitute the bulk of Dylan's memorable work. Unlike the mythical labyrinths that one is stuck in until the end of time and can never emerge from, Dylan's labyrinth is one where each of the proverbial sideways, quarries, and secret passages all lead--however long the journey--to a single point of discernment and, if I may be so bold to say, a real nice place--like heaven or something.