Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Barthathon: "The Floating Opera"

Like many of my favourite authors, I first discovered John Barth in David Wade's second-year "Short Story" course. I read "Lost in the Funhouse" (the story) and, over the next ten years, leisurely read most of the rest of Barth's fiction.

What's special about Barth is the way he mixes "metafiction" with good old-fashioned storytelling. His books are about writing, sailing, authorship, biography, sailing, mythology, and sailing, but even when the narrator is getting all tricky with the fiction, a gripping story is unfolding, with characters you can care about and plots that really grab you.

Then I read his "Coming Soon!!!" and -- like many other Barth fans -- I was so disgusted with it that I vowed never to read him again. By parodying his "hip post-modernist" style, he became everything that is ANNOYING about that style...and a parody's no good if you can't stomach reading it. "Coming Soon!!!" soured me. To hell with Barth.

So I was down in the basement sorting books into chronological order, and I stumbled upon my Barth collection, and I found myself thinking about all the great times I had reading his, I wasn't simply satisfied with his books; I found them to be entertaining and enlightening and everything good books SHOULD be, with just enough challenging material to make them all worthwhile. How dare I write him off because one of his experiments blew up? Golly, I should track down and read the Barth books I missed out on: his two new novels, and his older "Chimera" and "Letters."

The problem is, his books are endlessly self-referential. He doesn't just go over the same biographical details repeatedly (to the point where you're not sure which book you're reading at any given time), but he also resurrects old characters. "Letters," I hear, is actually a sort of dialog between all the characters in his first series of novels.

The only option: start at the beginning. Read them all again.

"The Floating Opera" (1956)

His first novel, dismissed by some fans as too conventional. I say phooey, it's a brilliant work, particularly as a debut. It's Nabokov at his most relaxed. Already Barth is giving us an off-kilter plot that matters: why does the narrator protagonist (Todd Andrews) decide NOT to kill himself at the end of the day?

This is the implicit plot at the beginning, but as you read you begin to realize that the more important (and substantial) storyline is: why does Todd Andrews decide to kill himself in the FIRST place? Where did this strange, nihilistic character come from? Andrews reflects on himself (and the book he's writing) and he contrasts himself with his friends and neighbours; we move easily through the different "masks" and rationalizations he's adopted throughout life, and when we finally hit the core of his being it's almost too raw to look at.

Barth makes us care about this nihilistic, destructive, obnoxious character...not because of his traumas, but because we UNDERSTAND how he developed...and so does the character himself. "The Floating Opera" is a microscopic analysis of one man's life throughout a single day, and an analysis of the fake attitudes we all present in everyday life, and the story of a writer writing his first novel...

...but it's also funny, inventive, and flawlessly written. Every lesson -- especially those about avoiding literature cliches -- is a painless one. Describing his doctor friend:
Marvin was (I'm late saying it) a beefy little man with sparse blond hair, flushed skin, and tiny red veins in his cheeks. His arms and hands were so full of meat that it seemed as if the skin of them were ready to burst, like over-boiled frankfurters. It would be pleasant to be able to go on and say of Marvin's great hands that, awkward as they appeared, the moment they were slipped into surgeon's gloves they assumed the deftness and delicate strength of a violinist's. This is the sort of thing one usually hears. But the truth is that those clumsy-looking hands, once slipped into surgical gloves, remained rather clumsy, depending as they did from slightly clumsy arms and ultimately from a somewhat clumsy brain.
Planning on reading "The Floating Opera?" Have a look at John Clarke's annotations; they'll get you up to speed on sailing, legal procedure, 1930s politics, Maryland geography, and minstrel shows. Not strictly necessary...but helpful.


Eric Little said...

"The Sot-weed Factor": one of the funniest books I have ever read--and hey, it's been so long, I'll have to reread it!

And "Night-Sea Journey"--I just learned that James Blish wrote a story with the same premise--I'll have to check who was first.

Adam Thornton said...

In typical Barth fashion, he reprised the Night-Sea Journey at least one more time...a similar event is in "Tidewater Tales."

Yes, "Sot-Weed Factor" is one I'm looking forward to reading again! I remember it being shockingly dense and complicated; "Giles, Goat Boy" is very similar (though a bit dippy).