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In praise of John Barth's 'The Floating Opera'

June 30, 2009 |  3:10 pm

Floatingopera

As part of our monthly, ongoing and fractured discussion of postmodern fiction, George Ducker praises John Barth's 1957 novel, "The Floating Opera."

John Barth is the guy who wrote the big long novel about the goat-kid and another big long novel about an epic poem set in the late 1600s. And those are certainly good books; important and worth reading and quite funny, both of them. Unfortunately, the sheer size of "Giles Goat-Boy" and "The Sot-Weed Factor" -- combined, more than 1,500 pages -- is enough to strike fear into the heart of anyone who's had their patience worn thin by the Internet or who just doesn't happen to have the next two months handy.

But here's the thing. Although Barth went on to earn a lifetime's worth of free lunch at the postmodernist cafeteria, he had to start somewhere. "The Floating Opera" was his first novel, published in 1957. In its 1967 introduction, he wrote, "I had picked up from the postwar Zeitgeist some sense of the French Existentialist writers and had absorbed from my own experience a few routine disenchantments. ...  I discovered by happy accident … how to combine formal sportiveness with genuine sentiment as well as a fair degree of realism.”

One of the joys of "The Floating Opera" is that it is a rambling, overstuffed first novel bearing as much ambition and stylistic frothiness as the more physically daunting case studies that came later. It feels comfortable and easily familiar, especially to anyone who's ever enjoyed "A Fan's Notes," Richard Ford's holiday trilogy or even Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men." Basically, you can add it to the top of your Middle-Aged White Man Looks Back In Awe And Bemusement list.

Written when John Barth was 24, "The Floating Opera" is a first-person reminiscence of the day Todd Andrews decided to commit suicide. Somewhat confusingly, Todd himself "writes" from the vantage point of his 50s, but the story itself all takes place during one single day in Todd's 37th year:

So. Todd Andrews is my name. You can spell it with one or two d's; I get letters addressed either way. I almost warned you against the single-d spelling, for fear you'd say, 'Tod is German for death: perhaps the name is symbolic.'

The ending is spoiled almost immediately. Todd Andrews isn't going to off himself. All the better, as we get to spend the next 249 pages reading about drunken sea captains, love triangles, farcically entangled lawsuits, Hamlet's indecision, Johns Hopkins' frathouses of the 1920s, and the lingering behaviors of the old-money class of Dorchester County, Maryland.

Is there anything to gain from a happily verbose narrator? That's after the jump.

As a happily verbose narrator, Todd is winking and avuncular. He's always conscious of the story he's narrating. He even takes the time to mention (on a couple of occasions) the peach baskets from which his carefully compiled notes on the event have been stored. He's a writer writing about himself and the act of writing.

So then: suicide. But why? On the downside, Todd has prostate troubles and a bad heart that might cause him to die at any minute. On the upside he has an "excellent friend" in pickle magnate Harrison Mack and a "fine mistress" in Jane Mack, Harrison's wife. And then there’s the boat. Adam’s Original and Unparalleled “Ocean-Going” Floating Opera has pulled into town. A last chance for amusement? A reminder of the boat he tried, years before and unsuccessfully, to build himself? The boat (like this one, in the very same photo, perhaps, that Barth unearthed when he began writing “Opera”) will play its part, but will do so in the book’s final, climactic pages. Even though the ending might be spoiled by the very first page of the book, I’m going to put an end to anymore plot spoiling right now and wrap this up. From Page 6:

Ah me. Everything, I'm afraid, is significant, and nothing is finally important.

OK. So. In brief, we have a successful writer (Barth), still very much alive and still writing books (the latest is 2008's “The Development”) that have him covered as one of the great practitioners of a form of fiction that folks have dubbed postmodernism. Does “The Floating Opera” work as postmodern novel, or as a snapshot of youthful beginnings towards that end?

Whichever the answer, it’s a good story. An engrossing one, even, that plays into the idea of the author as a “writer” telling a very specific tale, even if the “writer” does end up digressing and winking and leading the reader occasionally astray as he goes along. Sounds about right to me.

Here, I’ll let him define the term for himself, and then I’m going to get off this horse and go look for another:

Postmodernism is tying your necktie while simultaneously explaining the step-by-step procedure of necktie-tying and chatting about the history of male neckwear -- and managing a perfect full windsor anyhow.

John Barth's "The Floating Opera" is available as a reissue with his second book, "The End of the Road."

-- George Ducker

Photo: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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