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Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Floating Opera (1957) by John Barth

John Barth, author of The Floating Opera (1957)

Book Review
The Floating Opera (1957)
 by John Barth

  American author John Barth is important both for his novels and for his criticism. He was an early theorist of post-modern literature and coined terms like "the literature of exhaustion" and "metafiction."  I'm surprised that Barth only placed two titles onto the 1001 Books list, this one and its companion piece, The End of the Road.  Absent are The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy and the short story collection Lost in the Funhouse.  One of the persistent characteristics of the 1001 Books project is favoring English authors over American contemporaries.  It makes perfect sense since 1001 Books was assembled in England by largely English editors.  You might consider that 1001 Books thought highly enough of Henry Green to include five of his titles.

  The Floating Opera was Barth's first published novel, and it doesn't feature the meta-fictional techniques that he would utilize in later books like The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy.  The main character is Todd Andrews, a second generation small-town attorney, single, in his 40s, living in a hotel down the street from his office.  The Floating Opera is written as a memoir by Andrews, recalling events leading up to his decision not to commit suicide 17 years ago.   Andrews is also concerned with the suicide of his father when he was a young man, and he weaves other reminisces about his earlier days into the main narrative of the days leading up to his decision to not kill himself.

  If, like me, you are looking for premonitions of his later writings about meta-fiction, you will be disappointing.  The Floating Opera is squarely within the realist tradition, with only the fiercely existentialist and nihilistic philosophy of Todd Andrews standing out as being cutting-edge for the time and place of publication.  Indeed, the original publication of The Floating Opera was contingent on Barth swapping out a very depressing ending for a less depressing ending.

  I personally identify with so few protagonists contained within the 1001 Books list that it was a shock to recognize myself in Todd Andrews.  The fact that this character is a white, American, solo-practitioner lawyer with no wife or family deeply speaks to how banal my own outlook happens to be.  One of the central ironies of post-war metafiction/literary post-modernism is how it failed to embrace the MAIN current in literature during the 20th century, the diversification of literary voices and perspectives outside those of upper class white men and women.   Indeed, metafictional technique remains largely a province of these same kind of writers today, if one considers contemporary authors like David Foster Wallace, William Vollmann and Jonathan Franzen.

  My own self-guided exploration of literature began with those writers some twenty years ago, but it wasn't long before I realized that these writers were swimming against the tides of history.  The thought that there would be a "next generation" of these writers seemed unlikely.  I think that I was wrong about that, looking back on my thinking of 20 years ago.  The fact is that there is an audience of people who will actually buy these sort of books and the publishing industry is set-up to locate, promote and distribute excellent examples.  You compare this to the struggle that break-through authors with a diverse or different voice face along the road to initial publication and it is clear that white, male, upper class authors who master cutting-edge literary technique still have a built-in advantage over others.

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