Existential Humor? John Barth’s The Floating Opera

JohnBarth-CoverI know John Barth is a well-regarded American writer. Somehow I’d missed reading Barth as an English major back in college. To be fair, I’d focused on nineteenth century English literature so there were many American writers that I missed during those brief four years. So I was excited to be reading Barth for the first time as part of my journey into Maryland. Sadly, The Floating Opera, Barth’s first novel, disappointed me. Interestingly, Barth sets me up for this dissatisfaction in his “Preparatory Note to the Revised Edition.” He tells me that this novel was written in only three months and its companion piece in the following three months. He explains that this was his first novel which he wrote at age twenty-four after “writing fiction industriously for five years.” He also says that he had “deservedly—no success whatever with the publishers” until one finally agreed to publish The Floating Opera, but only after he made major changes in its construction, “notably about the stern.” He’s pleased to note that, in this edition, he has changed the novel back to its “original and correct ending,” but wants the reader to recognize it as “the very first novel of a very young man.” Not exactly a resounding recommendation, right? I feel adequately forewarned.

The story of this novel takes place on a particular day (about June 21, 1937) in the life of a then thirty seven year old lawyer, Todd Andrews, when Andrews changes his mind about ending his own life. The novel is written in a first person stream of consciousness style. At first I’m drawn in. I like the invitation the author has given me: “. . . come along with me reader, and don’t fear for your weak heart; I’ve one myself, and know the value of inserting first a toe, then a foot, next a leg, very slowly your hips and stomach, and finally your whole self into my story.”  Todd Andrews is an eccentric fellow, though he says he isn’t. He works in the law firm established by his father, lives in a single room in the Dorset Hotel, just a stone’s throw from his office on lawyer’s row and the courthouse. He describes himself as “interested in any number of things, enthusiastic about nothing.” Alas, I find myself not very enthusiastic about him.

The title of the novel is from a showboat that traveled around the Virginia and Maryland tidewaters during that time, and is a metaphor for life: FloatingOpera-handbill“our friends float past; we become involved with them; they float on, and we must rely on hearsay or lose track of them completely; they float back again, and we either renew our friendship—catch up to date—or find that they and we don’t comprehend each other anymore.” And so, this novel is structured the same way, floating “willy-nilly on the tide of my vagrant prose” where the plot “sails in and out of view.”

Let’s see if I can summarize the plot. Todd Andrews wakes up on the day in question and, as is his habit, takes a big swig of Sherbrook rye whiskey, a routine he began in college to shake a hangover. As he is splashing water on his face, he has an inspiration—today is the day he will destroy himself by suicide. He feels like he has been made no progress in life over the last eighteen years, that he’s back to where he started then, a single man who’s in love with his best friend’s wife and mistress. His friend knows about the affair, he has encouraged it actually. It is to his mistress that Andrews leaves a farewell note.

Then Andrews gives us a brief summary of his life, his first sexual experience, college, military service, law school, law practice. We learn that his father has also committed suicide and he has been trying to figure out why it happened by writing a long letter to his father over the years. He also tells us a lot about his sexual prowess, despite his chronic prostate problem he is apparently a great lover. Of course.

Okay, now I’m bored with this review. Let me just say that The Floating Opera is meant to be    humorous and I did find some snippets sort of funny. It’s also, I think, meant to be sort of  existential. Mostly, Barth’s adolescent romp through life in this short novella, his cynical  searching for meaning, and his conclusions fell flat on the page and left me cold. Here’s what he  concludes in a funny, off-hand kind of way:

  1. Nothing has intrinsic value.
  2. The reasons for which people attribute value to things are always ultimately irrational.
  3. There is, therefore, no ultimate “reason” for valuing anything.
  4. Living is action. There’s no final reason for action.
  5. There’s no final reason for living (or for suicide).

I would like to simply add one more point to Barth’s conclusion:

6.  There’s no final reason to read this novel.


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