The Floating Opera

by JDP

Barth’s first novel is a darkly entertaining and jumbled narrative of spouse-sanctioned infidelity, hyper-literate baseness, and crackpot nihilism; it reads almost like a grittier, more caustic Salinger novel.

John Barth / American / 1956 / 252 pages

The Floating Opera is more self-consciously “first novelish” than any other first novel I have read. Barth creates a first-person narrator who effectively begins the novel with: “Look, reader, I’ve never written a novel before, so this is going to be kind of rough, but just bear with me.” What proceeds is a more-or-less precise, but heavily jumbled, account of a very important day in the narrator’s life that relies on broad narrative arcs which swing wide of a strictly chronological progression. We, as readers, are often given bits of information (like names, places, events, etc.) before we get their contextualizing details. These missteps are chalked up to the author’s inexperience, but they are also, on another level, very effective dramatic devices. Of course, this is all a bit gimmicky, but I can dig it.

The narrative gradually settles down and some of the closing scenes are expertly and straightforwardly rendered in more traditional prose styling. It is at this juncture in the novel, however, that some truly ridiculous stuff transpires, so the narrative switch is something of a red herring. Indeed, there’s so much amorality (or perhaps immorality if I’m willing to cast that rhetorical stone) in The Floating Opera that one is almost deadened to the effects of the ultimate (gratuitously heinous) final decision undertaken by the narrator in the novel’s closing pages. Barth seems less concerned with the plausibility of characters’ actions than he is with their novelty. If it’s possible, the justification of these actions seems to fall even further down the list of Barth’s priorities and this all, in total, makes his work difficult to decipher. Somewhat repeatedly, we’re hit with the message that nothing is of value and no justification is meaningful; given the narrator’s fundamental grossness, this nihilistic response is not exactly sufficient motivation for the reader to stay engaged. But other positives abound.

On some level, Barth is concerned with analyzing (though not necessarily answering) questions related to the value of social conventions, interpersonal relationships, and, ultimately, life itself. His characters conduct interesting experiments in spouse-sanctioned infidelity (see above objections regarding plausibility), suicide (attempted, unsuccessfully), and mass murder (don’t worry, this is also unsuccessful and preposterous). The narrator has set for himself the task of meaningfully relating the circumstances that led up to his suicide attempt some years ago. This is a challenge for him as, we’ll soon discover, he hasn’t exactly spent his life seriously pondering the explanations behind and motivations for his behavior. It’s not until his father’s suicide (when the narrator is well into adulthood) that he’s finally forced to sit down and conduct an “inquiry” into life’s purpose. In the course of his meandering explanation, we learn about his father’s suicide, his mistress, his illegitimate child, his gerontological friendships, his World War I experiences, his law education and subsequent practice, and the “floating opera” talent show that comes to his small town and provides him with a grandiose means by which he hopes to take his own life.

All of this would make for heavy material (and, at times, it does) were it not for the jocular hilarity that Barth works into the narrative. The narrator exudes wit as much as he does erudition and the prose propels the novel along at a nice pace. Much like William Gaddis in A Frolic of His Own, Barth seems to exhibit a penchant for deftly satirizing the legal profession and many of his accounts of the court cases tried by the narrator are maddeningly ridiculous. The legal proceedings parallel the broader themes of the novel closely: court verdicts often hinge more on rhetorical flare and the judge’s biases than they do on some sort of objective appraisal of the facts. This line of thinking is made all the more dramatic when it comes to many of the narrator’s extralegal dilemmas. Why was he forced to stab a German soldier to death during World War I? Why did his father kill himself? Why is sex such a strong human motivation when it’s something of a base and animalistic activity? Despite all his efforts at framing these inquiries in rational terms, the narrator is forced into a cynical stance: nothing is inherently meaningful and life is worthless.

It is an uncreative crutch. Indeed, I found the narrator (despite his rhetorical flourishes) and many of the other characters (despite their infrequent charm) outright despicable creatures. I’m not a reader who must “relate” to characters in a novel before I’m willing to give it a high appraisal, but I must admit that this cast was overwhelmingly populated by bottom feeders. It becomes difficult to maintain your raptness when you routinely find yourself thinking “Yes, but no one would really do something so horrible!” or “Okay, but who would ever resort to that!?” This vileness is laid all the more bare in Barth’s second novel The End of the Road, which was packaged together with Opera and which I read as soon as I’d finished the first novel. (In The End, Barth has drafted a book with much less humor, more realism, and a similarly despicable cast. Here another love triangle, this time unsanctioned by the spouse, yields to a botched abortion and a similarly dissatisfying moral. The effect is grating and I came to the conclusion that The End was an objectively minor novel.)

But, as anyone who knows much about Barth will tell you, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road are not exactly the best points of entry to the man’s work. If he is famous at all, it’s for the much lengthier postmodern / speculative fiction novels The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy. I can’t say that my appetite has been whetted for more Barth, but I do highly recommend Opera as an often hilarious and darkly poignant meditation on age, life, and convention.

Rating: 7 / 10

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