Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
rob + = email

2014 August 13 • Wednesday

My friend and colleague Ben Gallina gave me this book, which I read during my San Diego trip.

That's not the cover of the edition I read but I like this cover better. But this is probably the cover of the first edition and should be avoided, according to an author's note to the revised edition that I read. This was Barth's first novel and his publisher insisted that he change the ending and some other parts. The revised edition is apparently the real thing.

I wasn't exactly desperate to read it. I was unmoved by the front cover, the back cover matter and the excerpt up front. I thought the first line was okay but not great. It goes like this: "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".

So it's to be a first novel about a man writing his first novel. Heard that one before.

Two things drove me forward. The first was that it came highly recommended from Ben. The second was that "viz.". You don't see that sort of thing anymore.

It didn't take long for me to become completely absorbed in this brilliant and highly unusual work. The back cover claims that it is "Crafted in what has been called the most literate, controlled prose since Joyce" and while anybody can call anything anything, this seems like a fair judgement to me (though I hardly know anything about Joyce).

The Floating Opera is a compelling and digressive account of, I think it's safe to say, an existentialist character such as the narrator of Camus's The Stranger. This is the American version though: not lean, not laconic, not ambiguous. It's not bursting at the seams or anything. It's got everything it needs in it and no excess. It's a delight and left me thoroughly satisfied, especiall with the ending.

I did worry about the ending. The main point is that Todd Andrews, our narrator, many years ago, decided to kill himself but changed his mind. The changing of his mind is part of a chain of thought that was familiar to me, but the suicide plan took me completely off guard. (This is the part that I suspect was altered for first publication. I'll have to check a first edition.)

Barth knew what he was doing. I found myself noting some rather obvious symbolism in the first paragraph of a chapter, only to be brought up short by the second paragraph.

I smiled and walked on. Nature, coincidence, can be a heavy-handed symbolizer. She seems at times fairly to club one over the head with significances such as this clumsy "life-in-the-face-of-death" scenario, so obvious that it was embarrassing. One is constantly being confronted with a sun that bursts from behind the clouds just as the home team takes the ball; ominous rumblings of thunder when one is brooding desultorily at home; magnificent dawns on days when one has resolved to mend one's ways; hurricanes that demolish a bad man's house and leave his good neighbor's untouched, or vice-versa; Race Streets marked SLOW; Cemetery Avenues marked ONE WAY. The man whose perceptions are not so rudimentary, whose palate is attuned to subtler dishes, can only smile uncomfortably and walk away, reminding himself that good taste is a human invention.

There are many wonderful passages, some good aphorisms and even a foreshadowing of what I expect from J. G. Ballard when Andrews muses enthusiastically on "the attractiveness of desolation, the charm of the abyss". In short, it's one of the best books I've ever read. Thanks, Ben!