Monthly Archives: April 2007

April 27, 2007

The Floating Opera (1956)

2420: The Floating Opera by John Barth.

John Barth (1930- ), The Floating Opera, written 1955, published with the ending changed at the publisher’s request in 1956. Revised edition with the original ending restored published in 1967.

The following block of text comes to you from the past:

I’ve had the good sense, in this case, to write my thoughts as I’m having them rather than some months after forgetting them.

This book reminds me of my writing, not in the usual sense that it reminds me of my aspirations or thought processes, but that it reads like the actual things I write, or at least like the things I was trying to write when I was twenty-four, which is how old John Barth was when he wrote this. That is, more than a little annoying. My own attempts at fiction, as of a few years ago, usually disappointed me – they would spool out in a stream of clever improvisation, and then upon being read would reveal themselves as irritating and limp. Far more busy than they were purposeful. I guess that’s no surprise since I usually had no purpose in mind.

The Floating Opera began by inspiring not just a “yeah, I could write this,” but an “oh, man, this is exactly the sort of annoying thing I might write.” But then after a few chapters it had developed to “I could definitely see slightly-younger-me writing any given annoying piece of this, and even coming up with the plan for the whole, but if I had actually managed to write the whole, which is seeming to me slightly but significantly greater than the parts, I’d be pretty impressed with myself.” It’s an interesting experience; usually in matching wits with a writer as I read, I am either eventually left shamefully far behind (“Once again, I have absolutely no idea what should come next on any level, and thank god I don’t have to write it”) or I win by a landslide (“Gimme a break!”). This time I find myself keeping pace but finding the sensation of distance unfamiliar. You mean if he just keeps up this college-kid gimmicky crap all the way to the end, he’s going to end up in the Western Canon? Really?

So on the one hand, hooray, maybe I could write this, but on the other hand, boo, I don’t think it’s very good. It’s better than what it threatens at first to be, which is a charmless and nerdified imitation of the Tristram Shandy meta-narrative gimmicks, which depend exclusively upon charm to succeed. But it is that, despite what else it manages to be, and the choice to give a wide berth to cute disorder is the hallmark of the young, unpracticed jerk. Someone was complaining about this in Slate, I think, recently, in re: Advanced Topics In Calamity Physics* but also applicable to the whole post-McSweeney’s phenomenon of the “wildly ambitious” “post-modern” potpourri novel with self-referential footnotes and one page that you need to read in the mirror, by some young, unpracticed jerk. I think it’s particularly damning of Jonathan Safran Foer et ilk (and of those reviewers who have gone coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs) that The Floating Opera was written in 1955 and already plays the same game of willful novelty loosely stitched into sentimental shapes. In the 50s it feels slightly ahead of its time; by 1973 when Kurt Vonnegut was writing Breakfast of Champions he had to go overboard to get it to register because the basic gag was old news. Why then are we still so charmed out of our pants by the present day that we think that it, not to mention Dave Eggers or whoever, deserves credit for confronting modern society and coming up with this stuff?

Okay, I probably didn’t deserve “coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs,” but right now I’m trying to train myself to leave in the color rather than assess it out of existence.

If there’s anything we can learn from watching old TV clips on Youtube, it’s that by the end of the 70s (i.e. by the time I was born) both cynicism and post-cynicism had been well established and explored. Better would be “insincerity and post-insincerity.” I feel like post-insincerity has been getting pats on the back for several years now, but, and here’s what I’m saying, that’s the game of young unpracticed jerks, a fact which has been known for at least 50 years if not thousands.

* I tried to parody that title but it resists by pre-emptive snark, which is part of the point here.

By the end, Barth had outpaced me, so I grumblingly credited his book for being better than just a bunch of college-kid stuff. But now, in deeper retrospect, I see it as a bunch of college-kid stuff after all. It just covers its tracks as it goes with more skill than the start leads you to expect. The book manages to tuck in its chin as it dives, making it seem like all the clumsiness at the beginning was just a piece in a well-oiled puzzle. But that itself is just another sort of gimmick.

The book was more or less on the topic of “to be or not to be?” and more generally, “what’s it all about?” That might be “deep” but it doesn’t take much to get there; and, also, anything at all can potentially relate to that topic. It doesn’t really excuse sloppiness for it later to be revealed as part of a well-oiled tapestry of sloppiness, which is meant to evoke that oiliest tapestry of all, life. You can throw anything against that wall and it’ll stick.

But there is talent and ambition here beyond just showing off. The higher aspirations, when they rise to the surface, are similar (in my mind) to what Camus was doing in The Stranger, which I read last year. Barth wants us to notice how things are not in themselves inherently meaningful; that if we do not have a moral relationship to things, their natural state is to have no meaning, no moral value in themselves, and that life itself is potentially just as meaningless. Stated like that it’s old hat. Camus makes the idea haunting through his art; Barth’s art, by contrast, wanders around sniffing at stuff and then, in the end, reaches out and pushes the idea directly on the nose. Honks it, in fact.

The ending that his original publisher made him change – uh, spoiler alert, as they say – is that the protagonist attempts to kill himself and a lot of other people because there’s no reason to go on living, and it doesn’t work, and that doesn’t bother him because there’s no reason not to go on living. Apparently in the version that Barth changed to finally get the thing published, the guy actively decides not to kill everyone, because he sees his baby daughter and realizes that he loves her, or something similar. Hard to find a copy of that version these days.

It was hard to find this one too. I could have bought a new paperback copy but I had a feeling I wouldn’t want to keep this one – unless it was aesthetically satisfying to own. And the current paperback edition isn’t. It isn’t cheap, either. The copy I read as pictured here – first edition of the revised version – was brought out to me from the closed stacks at the Brooklyn Public Library. To which it has since returned.

We could sit here and speculate about why this was on Harold Bloom’s list, but I’ve got better things to do. I didn’t mind reading it; I just don’t recommend it. When the time comes I’ll be perfectly glad to read Giles Goat-Boy or whatever the next Barth on the list is. Interested even. I’ll bet he got better.

April 6, 2007

Wake Up

That’s hardly an appropriate title for this waltz thing, but there it is.

Trying to fight the speed demons, so I halved the tempo in the final stages of composition and turned it into something else entirely. Before that it was quite a whirlwind.

Now it’s like the last dream before waking. It’s sort of a romantic dream but it doesn’t fully make sense. At the end you wake up.

Wake Up Thing

When I write kooky stuff like this, I think the intended sense – what there is of it – frequently gets lost in translation prior to reaching the listener’s ears, due to my playing and the quality of the synthesizer and, probably, compositional shortcomings. I know that sometimes when I walk away and come back to music I’m writing, it suddenly sounds like just a mess, and I’m unable to pick up the thread of intention from where I left it. Even when I sort of remember the gist of what I had in mind, it can still be hard to figure out what I thought I was doing. And that’s me, so you’re all screwed, I guess.

That’s only sometimes, mind you.

I find this isn’t nearly as much of a problem with the “orchestrated” pieces as with the piano ones. The more timbres there are, the more specific each moment becomes, and so a lot of the listening comprehension is done for you, in a sense. So I’m giving everyone a break on this one with an orchestrated version. You’re welcome.

Wake Up Thing For Full Damn Orchestra

NOW do you get it? Maybe.

April 6, 2007

Juno and the Paycock (1924)

by Sean O’Casey (1880-1964)

Roll 4: 1418. That’s The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’Casey, but of course I’ve never read anything by Sean O’Casey so I have to go back to the first work under his name: Juno and the Paycock.

Went to the local used bookstore and had several options; I went for a quaintly dirty pocket edition with a weirdly endearing picture of O’Casey on the cover.

When I’m looking for a play, it seems always to be readily available at the first bookstore I try – and this feels reasonable, because: who ever buys plays? Nobody. So of course they’re all still there for me. The same is not true of poetry, however, despite its no doubt being an even slower seller than drama. In that case the problem is, I assume, that bookstores must buy their poetry stock more or less at random. You’re gonna tell me there’s a poetry buff on staff in every bookstore in the country? Not possible.

Am I joking? I think I’m joking.

Anyway, Irish playwright, Dublin tenement, tragicomedy. I’ve been reluctant to write about this play because it went about that fast, and it was months ago. I read it at just under the speed of performance, which is very very fast by reading standards, despite being essentially the “intended” speed of the work. Intended or not, it didn’t make a strong impression. This is a problem with plays, which weigh so much less than novels, and I’m not sure what the solution is for a reader. Seeing the play, obviously, would be better than reading it – though again there are problems with that as well; usually even when I see a play, I still feel underexposed. After the performance I generally wish I could go back and run over certain scenes again (or, if I wasn’t impressed, am happy to let loose a memory hell-bent on fading).

I get that a poem of 8 lines can be “as good” as a novel of 500 pages because of the apples and the oranges, but somehow with plays, the fruit-rating metaphor doesn’t satisfy me. With a play, something about artistic scale always seems actually to be out of whack. How can a play be as serious as a book? A movie, which lasts about as long as a play and is at least superficially similar in presentation, is not a problem for me; I see what movies have that let them “rate” as artistic objects of worth. Why do plays still feel thin?

In a recent conversation it was put to me that plays do not have the same peculiar power to engage that movies have because in a play the people are small and manifestly far away, whereas in a movie, the people occupy enough of our field of vision to call on our social instincts. Faces in a movie appear in our brains more or less at the scale of people who are only a few feet away, and whose actions therefore require not just comprehension but actual emotional response. Speculative though it may be, I find this quasi-biological explanation extremely convincing.

But there’s another reason that plays seem thin, I think, which is that plays are, compared to movies, thin. On content. A movie screenplay might only be as long as a stage script, but the movie itself is enriched ten thousand times over by that other pictureworth of words in every frame. A play is not made of pictures; it’s made of people, clothes, curtains, and stuff, and nobody ever said people, clothes, curtains, and stuff are worth ten thousand words. Understandably. A photograph of a play in some ways offers me more room for the imagination than the play itself; in the moment that the event actually happens, if I’m there, I am unavoidably aware of the actuality of people on a stage, which actually leaves less of my consciousness free for entering into the created world. The live presence of live people is supposed to be the essence of the magic of theater, but if the magic involves a world other than the theater in which those people exist with you, can’t their presence actually dampen the magic?

Theater, unlike film and literature, is openly false. The falseness can be put in the service of “truth,” but the falseness is essential. Yes, I know, fiction is lies, and film is essentially illusion, but lies and illusion are different from falseness. Lies and illusion can be taken for the truth. For the most part theater embraces this falseness, and why not? It’s a pretty steep uphill battle to convince anyone that a stage is anything other than a stage. Better just to offer the audience that it “represents” something else, in the realm of the imagination.

Plays, despite being presented to our faces, take place in the imagination. Movies do not. Books do, but, a-ha my point, books are much longer.

A play bears the same relationship to its script that a musical performance does to its score; a movie, by contrast, is the fungal organic mess that grows all over the rigid planter of the screenplay. Id est, much more complex. The additional complexity in a play is supposed to be in the performances, and in some spark of danger that comes from the live phenomenon – and maybe, like I said that time, in the weird communal temple of doom aspect. To me, though, these things generally don’t balance out the tens of thousands of other words that I might have gotten from pictures, or from a book that includes, literally, tens of thousands of other words.

Which is to say that this play didn’t make a serious impression… and that I’m not sure how to make the next play I read make a serious impression, either.

Some comments about the play itself, to prove that I read it: the tragic and comic elements alternate and mingle and jostle for attention in an interesting way. There’s something potent about having outright vaudeville routines thrown at you in a very grim context, particularly because in this case the intention of the playwright was not obvious. He wasn’t up to any normal showmanly thing: trying to shock or draw a contrast or to offer relief or anything like that. I’m not even sure he intended the juxtaposition to be unusual. I think he was both aiming higher than all of that, and also thinking less about it. The comedy face/tragedy face thing seems like it’s been part of the Irish self-image since well before Sean O’Casey. Melodrama alternating with slapstick was the bread and butter of the popular theater for years and years, too, so in that sense the material was just of its time. But the play also had “realist” aspirations – what with all the social ills! – and that put a weird spin on the broader stuff. In part I think he was doing it intentionally; in part I think it’s just aged a little funny.

If you didn’t notice from its title: this play is one of those “dialect texts” where the author has taken pains to capture the couple of local peculiarities of speech that strike him as significant, every time they occur. Exempli gratia: “I wasn’t in ayther wan snug or dh’other.” This makes for rough reading, though I guess it would also make for rough listening. Anyway, dialect transcription like this can be a sign of either earnest realism or broad comedy. In this case it was both. As with Huckleberry Finn.

I think that the aesthetic impact of these tensions in the material could probably be increased to the point of being very satisfying by a good performance. All in all, this is a performer’s play. Lots of opportunities to make business and life out of it. Like reading a promising sitcom script – I’m not laughing at these words, but someone might use them to make me laugh. Someone might use this play to make me feel something. Then again they might fail to.

In telling someone about my reading scheme, I mentioned that I had read this play, and she said she’d actually seen the play performed. I, curious about what kind of life it might take on in the flesh, asked how it was. She said, “amazing.” That was that.

There’s a whole essay to be written about my problem with people saying that things are “amazing,” but since I don’t plan to write it, I’ll tell you what the problem is right here. It’s this: When I was young, old fogies would sometimes complain that the words “fantastic” and “unbelievable” were being widely abused by airheads, but at that time, at least, you could still take these to be exaggerated versions of “good!” Nowadays, these words, and especially “amazing,” no longer necessarily mean even “good.” “Amazing” frequently means nothing, because people seem to use it when called upon to voice opinions about things they have no clear opinions about. When someone, especially someone I don’t know very well (as was the case in this example) tells me that something is “amazing,” I usually get the impression only that the person wants to align him/herself with other proponents of that thing, not that the person himself has any positive assessment of the thing itself.

On the other hand, I know quite a few people who say “amazing” when they have any strong genuine reaction to a thing. In one sense they are saying that they are amazed that anything in this vale of ennui has the capacity to actually impress. Beth has pointed out with amusement how these people I know – actors, they are – seem to say “it’s kind of amazing” several times per conversation. I’ll admit that in the heat of it all I sometimes fail to notice things like this.

Back to Juno (and the paycock):

Is there a faithful Hitchcock film of this play featuring several of the original cast members? Yes, there is. Why haven’t I watched that yet? I don’t know.

Is there a failed Marc Blitzstein musical called Juno based on this play? Yes, there is. Why haven’t I watched that? You can’t. Not even at the New York Public Library. All right, actually, they have video of this revival but I don’t really want to make an appointment just to watch THAT. Well, okay, maybe I will sometime. Eh.

Juno and the Peacock, by the way, is a tale from Aesop. I didn’t know this previously.

I want to note that this, my fifth Western Canon selection, was the first that I didn’t have to read in translation. It was actually written in English, for a change. Well, sort of English.