Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

John Barth: The Floating Opera (extract from the incipit). Commentary.

In that extract from the incipit of The Floating Opera (his second novel), John Barth explores the possibilities of postmodernism in writing. Breaking free from the conventions of the genre, especially those that imply, as it is the case in drama, a “willing suspension of disbelief” through which the reader voluntarily forgets that what he reads is not reality, but fiction, written by someone who is generally absent from the stage.

The most common narrative system is the omniscient-narrator system, in which the narrator is only a linguistic instance that delivers the story to the reader. The first-person-narrator system is the next step, most of the time implying an intra-diaegetic narrator, i.e. one of the characters of the novel (not necessarily the main character). As soon as the first-person narrator steps out of the story or, as we can see it in the extract, displays a visible consciousness of his status, the suspension-of-disbelief effect is undermined and the reader can find himself confronted with meta-reference (some good examples of meta-reference can be found in cinema: Last Action Hero, Le mépris, Animal Crackers, Tex Avery’s cartoons).

In the extract under study, not only does the narrator (Todd Andrews) presents himself as a writer writing a novel (which he obviously is not, since the novel has been published by one John Barth), but he also pretends he is only trying to write to write a novel he is not even sure to bring to an achievement (“this book, if it ever gets written”). Moreover, he engages a dialogue between himself and the reader (“where were we?”) and goes as far as usurping the roles of literary analyst (“figures and complications I‘d love nothing better than chasing to their dens with you” “the double-d Todd is symbolic, too”) and of reader (“one book is as good as another to me”). The play here consists in destabilizing the reader by depriving him of every possible comfort of reading, from mere entertainment to hardcore analysis.

What we have here is the top layer of literary innovation, in which the only object of writing is writing. Barth’s interest is not to tell a story, but to unfold and reveal the mechanisms of literary creation. As he puts it himself: “the key to the treasure is the treasure”. Through this ultimate mise en abyme, he experiences the Droste effect he will later expand in his following works, framing and re-framing the narrative instances until reaching for example a dizzying piling of inverted comas materializing the embedding of successive narrations-into-narrations.

The play with the “I” of the writer is obvious here, since there is a constant confusion between who writes and who speaks in the novel, who reads and who dissects, Andrew Todd being a John Barth in disguise while preserving his narrator’s status in a novel that will eventually be written, a story that will eventually be told.

  • You will find other occurrences of this play with the “I” of the writer-narrator, as early as in Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, but also with Joseph Conrad’s embedded narrations in Heart of Darkness or William Faulkner’s multiple I’s in The Sound and The Fury.

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