Friday, August 17, 2012

497. The Floating Opera – John Barth

History: This novel was published in 1956. It chronicles one day in the life of Todd Andrews, a day on which he makes a very important decision. It was Barth's first novel.
Plot: Todd Andrews, a middle-aged lawyer living alone in the Dorset Hotel in Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, narrates this loosely structured account of his life and its most important occurrences. An expensive dresser, cigar smoker, and chronicler of his own life, he suffers heart and prostate trouble. He fancies that he resembles actor Gregory Peck. 
Never married, he enjoys an intimate relationship with Jane Mack, his best friend’s wife. He claims he is not a philosopher, yet he makes a habit of applying his own eccentric notions to his own and other people’s lives, often with grim results. Though Andrews frequently jumps backwards and forwards through time, he always comes back to a momentous June day in 1937 – the day in which he decided to commit suicide. Yet, as he discloses to the reader in the first chapter, he ultimately chose not to kill himself. Therefore, the novel is framed as an investigation of what made Todd Andrews desire to commit suicide in the first place, and then what made him change his mind.
Review: John Barth's first novel will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary of publication in 2006 (I read the 1967 revised edition, which Barth rewrote primarily, he says, to restore his original ending). Should this almost 50 year-old book, whose protagonist was born in 1900, still be read in the 21st century, by people who may not have even been alive when Barth wrote it? Emphatically, positively, yes!
The Floating Opera serves as an excellent introduction to the body of work of one of the 20th century's greatest writers (time will tell), and also stands on its own as an engrossing, amusing, thought-provoking tale. It establishes many of Barth's common themes and settings: the flawed, cynical (yet also fun-loving) protagonist; impossible quests; the absurdities of society's structures and laws; philosophy and morality; coastal Maryland and boating on the Chesapeake. Barth's later works are longer and much more intricate, so TFO is very much like Beethoven's first symphony: a simpler work than his later masterpieces, but which still shows definite signs of genius, originality, and timelessness.
The storyline, like Barth's other works, is quirky and highly original. It describes the lead-up to an event that, because of the way the book was written (in the first person), the reader knows cannot have taken place. Barth openly explains the disjointed nature of the book's structure (which is just one way that the floating opera of the title is important to the story), and everything holds together in the end.
TFO's protagonist, Todd Andrews, is a lawyer who has developed a detached, cynical view of the world. His mentality is perfect for his profession, and he wins his cases by crafting intricate technical loopholes that reduce his cases to absurdities. Thirty-five years before the Johnnie Cochran's poetic words in the O.J. Simpson trial, Barth prophetically describes a similar situation of the "bon mot" winning out over the "mot juste". But this is just one of the amusing vignettes in TFO. Barth also describes the challenges of an open love triangle, different ways to approach old age and death, the drawbacks of various outlooks on life, and an intense father-son relationship. Comic relief is never too far away, especially when the various crusty old men in the book are speaking.
Opening Line: “To someone like myself, whose literary activities have been confined since 1920 mainly to legal briefs and Inquiry-writing, the hardest thing about the task at hand-viz, the explanation of a day in 1937 when I changed my mind-is getting into it.”
Closing Line: “This clean, I made a note to intercept my note to Jimmy Andrews, stubbed out (after all) my cigar, undressed, went to bed in enormous soothing solitude, and slept fairly well despite the absurd thunderstorm that soon afterwards broke all around.”
Quotes: “May I recommend three Maryland beaten biscuits, with water, for your breakfast? They are hard as a haul-seiner's conscience and dry as a dredger's tongue, and they sit for hours in your morning stomach like ballast on a tender ship's keel. They cost little, are easily and crumblessly carried in your pockets, and if forgotten and gone stale, are neither harder nor less palatable than when fresh. What's more, eaten first thing in the morning and followed by a cigar, they put a crabberman's thirst on you, such that all the water in a deep neap tide can't quench --- and none, I think, denies the charms of water on the bowels of morning? “
Rating: Couldn’t read it.

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