Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

John Barth, The Floating Opera. Incipit.

John Barth, The Floating Opera. Incipit.

1 Tuning my piano

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. I've never tried my hand at this sort of thing before, but I know enough about myself to realize that once the ice is broken the pages will flow all too easily, for I'm not naturally a reticent fellow, and the problem then will be to stick to the story and finally to shut myself up. I've no doubts on that score: I can predict myself correctly almost every time, because opinion here in Cambridge to the contrary, my behavior is actually quite consistent. If other people (my friend Harrison Mack, for instance, or his wife Jane) think I'm eccentric and unpredictable, it is because my actions and opinions are inconsistent with their principles, if they have any; I assure you that they're quite consistent with mine. And although my principles might change now and then -- this book, remember, concerns one such change -- nevertheless I always have them a-plenty, more than I can handily use, and they usually hang all in a piece, so that my life is never less logical simply for its being unorthodox. Also, I get things done, as a rule.

For example, I've got this book started now, and though we're probably a good way from the story yet, at least we're headed toward it, and I for one have learned to content myself with that. Perhaps when I've finished describing that particular day I mentioned before -- I believe it was about June 21, 1937 -- perhaps when I reach the bedtime of that day, if ever, I'll come back and destroy these pages of piano-tuning. Or perhaps not: I intend directly to introduce myself, caution you against certain possible interpretations of my name, explain the significance of this book's title, and do several other gracious things for you, like a host fussing over a guest, to make you as comfortable as possible and to dunk you gently into the meandering stream of my story -- useful activities better preserved than scrapped.

To carry the "meandering stream" conceit a bit further, if I may: it has always seemed to me, in the novels that I've read now and then, that those authors are asking a great deal of their readers who start their stories furiously, in the middle of things, rather than backing or sidling slowly into them. Such a plunge into someone else's life and world, like a plunge into the Choptank River in mid-March, has, it seems to me, little of pleasure in it. No, 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, and taking a good long time to do it. This is, after all, a pleasure-dip I'm inviting you to, not a baptism.

Where were we? I was going to comment on the significance of the viz. I used earlier, was I? Or explain my "piano-tuning" metaphor? Or my weak heart? Good heavens, how does one write a novel! I mean, how can anybody stick to the story, if he's at all sensitive to the significances of things? As for me, I see already that storytelling isn't my cup of tea: every new sentence I set down is full of figures and implications that I'd love nothing better than to chase to their dens with you, but such chasing would involve new figures and new chases, so that I'm sure we'd never get the story started, much less ended, if I let my inclinations run unleashed. Not that I'd mind, ordinarily -- one book is as good as another to me -- but I really do want to explain that day (either the 21st or the 22nd) in June of 1937 when I changed my mind for the last time. We'll have to stick to the channel, then, you and I, though it's a shoal-draught boat we're sailing, and let the creeks and coves go by, pretty as they might be. (This metaphor isn't gratuitous -- but let it go.)

So. Todd Andrews is my name. You can spell it with one or two d's; I get letters addressed either way. I almost warned you against the single-d spelling, for fear you'd say, "Tod is German for death: perhaps the name is symbolic." I myself use two d's, partly in order to avoid that symbolism. But you see, I ended by not warning you at all, and that's because it just occurred to me that the double-d Todd is symbolic, too, and accurately so. Tod is death, and this book hasn't much to do with death; Todd is almost Tod -- that is, almost death -- and this book, if it gets written, has very much to do with almost-death.

One last remark. Were you ever chagrined by stories that seemed to promise some revelation, and then cheated their way out of it? I've run more times than I'd have chosen to into stories concerning some marvelous invention -- a gravity-defier, or a telescope powerful enough to see men on Saturn, or a secret weapon capable of dislocating the solar system -- but the mechanics of the gravity device are never explained; the question of Saturn's inhabitation is never answered; we're not told how to build our own solar-system dislocators. Well, not so this book. If I tell you that I've figured some things out, I'll tell you what those things are and explain them as clearly as I can.

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