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.