Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review: The Floating Opera by John Barth

I've never had much of an aptitude for writing review of any kind, but I'm going to try and give it a shot with this blog.

In time, I hope to talk about a variety of works I've read over the past couple years, but, for now, I thought I'd start with John Barth's The Floating Opera, a novel I completed this past weekend. Here goes nothing.

How I Discovered It: Barth's The End of the Road (as well as his short story, "Lost in the Funhouse") was one of the assigned works in the fantastic 20th Century Fiction course I took last semester. Because the two novels share common threads in terms of characters and subject matter, EOTR and The Floating Opera were paired together in the edition in stock at my school's bookstore. (Note to college students: Try to avoid buying books from your school's bookstore.)

In a curriculum filled with better-known "classics" such as Invisible Man and 1984, Barth's EOTR surprisingly took its place as one of the semester's more satisfying reads (and one of my overall favorites) from the fiction class. We completed the novel in February, and I've been itching to dig into The Floating Opera ever since. It sat near the top of my summer reading list, and I finally got around to it a couple weeks ago.

How Long It Took To Read: About ten days.

Overview: The Floating Opera, John Barth's first novel, is simultaneously narrated in two voices of the same man, one Todd Andrews. We meet Todd in 1954 as he rehashes the tale of the day he decided to commit suicide on either June 21st or 22nd in 1937 (he can't remember which). The novel tracks that fateful day in which he resolved to, as he puts it, "destroy himself." Todd is a lawyer, and, like the characters in EOTR, he is enmeshed in a love triangle (in 1937) with his college friend Harrison Mack and his wife, Jane. Along the way, we also meet Capt. Osborn Jones and Mr. Haecker, neighbors at the hotel where Todd lives.

The novel culminates by bringing many of its characters back together aboard the "floating opera," that is, a literal opera performance that takes place on a boat as it floats along the shore. Todd and Capt. Osborn are in attendance together as the particularly captivating final scene unwinds aboard the showboat.

Review: I've noticed that many of my favorite movies are those that take place within a single day. Think Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Dazed and Confused. Not long ago, before I knew anything about the plot of The Floating Opera, I wondered whether a book had ever been written in the same fashion. Coincidentally, along came John Barth and this wonderful novel just a short while later. Much of pop culture today revolves around not knowing the ending of a given work until, well...the end. What I found most fascinating about The Floating Opera is the fact that we, as readers, know the ending from Page 1. Todd tells the tale of the day in 1937 when he decided to kill himself, yet we know full well that he did not do so since he is recounting the story seventeen years later.

While other works may strongly suffer from such a SPOILER ALERT, The Floating Opera does not. Conversely, the fact that we know the ending serves as one of the overarching points of the novel. As Todd describes, the metaphor of the floating opera itself is a mirror to life. Those viewing the performance from the shore may catch certain pieces of the opera (including, perhaps, the ending), but miss others when the boat sails away, out of sight. The viewers are left to fill in the gaps, to create the full picture from what they have seen. Similarly, Todd does not map things out for the reader, presenting a variety of seemingly unrelated incidents from his life (including a painfully humorous scene in which he visits a brothel that employs a former lover of his) while leaving the reader to piece it together. You may miss a point here and there, but, according to Todd, that's fine. That's expected. It's virtually impossible to catch the entirety of anything, just as you'll never catch the full performance of the floating opera.

As a reader who is constantly afraid of "missing something" in a novel, The Floating Opera was a particularly refreshing read. While other novels may place muted emphasis on the color of a character's eyes, Todd (narrating in 1954) often forgets to describe his acquaintances all together, asking the reader something along the lines of "Have I described him yet? No? Well, he looks like this." Todd does not particularly seem to care about the craft or perfection of his writing...or much of anything, for that matter. The line between entertainment and annoyance with narcissistic characters in fiction is thin, but, both with this novel and EOTR, Barth manages to toe that line perfectly. There isn't much of a plot to The Floating Opera, yet it manages to remain a highly captivating read. The prose seems to meander and trail off in odd points at time (even for Todd). However, as Barth notes in the preface to the novel, it "remains the very first novel of a very young man," written in a three-month span when he was twenty-four years old.

It's hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that a 24-year-old could write something as splendid and complex as this novel. And, as a 23-year-old writer myself, I'd be lying if I didn't say The Floating Opera made me feel a little inferior.

Overall Grade: A-

1 comment:

Mark McKendrick said...

Good read. Good review.