The Floating Opera – John Barth

4 out of 5

So brutal. So… not brutal – quite funny at times, and quite easy to read. Complex, but not really. It really boils down to a single idea, a single sentence; something that can probably be guessed at from the first few chapters, and might be the refrain of any given rebellious youth – probably why I gleaned on to this book in my teens – but is infinitely weightier than that, and worth the 240 page exploration of why that is. Finally, the test of any great book (to me), and fitting with its titular image of an opera performed on a floating barge, leaving its shore-bound viewers to only catch glimpses of the production as it passes, learning of the rest through explanations from neighbors or repeat visits: The Floating Opera hit me hard way back when; hit me hard a decade ago; and hits me hard reading it now; differently each time.

I’m still referring to my paragraph-underlined copy (because I was one of those teens) that I’d picked up in a used bookstore more than 20 years back at this point; I’d glommed on to Barth as another reference point to the other exploratory 60s / 70s authors I’d started reading – Heller, Vonnegut, Pynchon. And as with those others, I tried to start at the start, leading to catching up on their careers (okay, except Pynchon, whose works I’ve never been able to much get in to). Vonnegut I fell out of appreciation for fairly early on; Heller on lately, when revisiting his books and finding them much more suited to teen-me than adult-me. Barth has hung on. And I forget, sometimes, when going through his much windier and windy-er and weirder books, that it started fairly linearly, with The Floating Opera. So I’m not surprised to find that many consider this a “lesser” Barth book; not to be held to the same standards as his later ones. But I’d still side with the copy on the cover of my edition: that “The Floating Opera is indisputably a novel by John Barth.”

It is absolutely of the same DNA as his others, obsessively and logically chasing concepts to their ends and back around, if perhaps more tightly cinched to the reality we know. And I’d agree that its scope is more limited, focusing on one key thing – Todd Andrews, and why he woke up in day (the 21st or 22nd of June) in 1937 and realized, cheerfully, that he wanted to commit suicide – but Barth’s roundabout pursuance of explanation is of the same stuff that created Giles Goat Boy and others.

“Roundabout” used to be a style I’d admired amongst those authors I mentioned, wandering from one beat to the next, but I realize that Barth employs it differently: Andrews is up front to us about not being an author, and so immediately relieves himself of the need to create tension or drama. Such lamp-shading would be an easy excuse to then take plotless excursions, but instead, things are very cleanly laid out, about this 21st or 22nd decision, and about the need to detail it to us, and the text consistently steps from one connection to the next. It’s tightly logical, but in a non-distracting, invisible fashion. Everything the “author,” Andrews, tells us is true: he avoids typical story-telling climaxes, but in so doing, reveals his own humanity in delaying some inevitables, and some “truths”. But he then owns up to those avoidances, and will tell us why, which leads to the next chapter’s tale. It’s such a brilliantly constructed little book, and so playfully told, that it gets away with some very dark material, because it’s delivered to us as a means of supporting that ultimate idea. …Which Barth then hilariously tramples upon in the chapter that follows, while keeping with the book’s themes, and the “idea” of the floating opera (which also exists as an actual setpiece in the book, for, natch, a legitimately climactic moment).

This stuff only gets away from Barth at one point – a couple of long chapters about 3/4ths of the way in. Here, The Floating Opera gets a bit too clever for its own good, pursuing the idea of holding two lines of complementary but differing thoughts at the same time by splitting part of a chapter into two columns of similar but different text, and then a chapter which, to me, is intended to underline the humorous “what’s-the-point?” runarounds life gives us by running us around a clutteringly detailed (with characters and concepts) bit of business that Andrews, as his dayjob as a lawyer, works through. I definitely understand the point of these chapters on the whole, but the otherwise followable flow of the book – we are always connected from one moment to the next, whether Andrews is detailing past events or those closer to 1937, by a clear thread of logic – stops dead for these moments, which are form-over-function pursuits.

Thankfully, there are still amusing moments in these chapters, and the flow picks up immediately afterwards, carrying on to the conclusion, which still packs a punch – and makes me smile – however many years after the first time it did the same.