Coming Soon!!! A Narrative
John Barth
Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
$26.00, 412 pages, ISBN 0618131655.

Emmanuelle Delanoë-Brun
Université de Paris 7 – Denis Diderot

Ever since his first novel, The Floating Opera, published in 1957, John Barth has been developing his own brand of highly spectacular fiction, writing as a masterful showman intent on carrying the reader along his exploration of the process of narrative creation as sheer textual—albeit highly intellectually challenging—entertainment. Coming Soon!!!, his latest opus, is no exception…possibly even, not enough of one.

The title itself sounds like an advertisement promising a hearty, rambunctious ride along yet another staging of the fictional show, all in pure Barthian tradition. This high-key opening is carried on in a series of steps leading to the narrative itself, each joyously heralded in mock emphatic fashion, as exemplified in the "Menu" section:

Its title page, title, subtitle: COMING SOON!!! A NARRATIVE iii
Its copyright info, ISBN, whatever iv
Its dedication: for Shelly v
Its disclaimers and acknowledgments vi
YOU ARE HERE: Its tentative MENU vii

Once again then, Barth invites his reader into the great Barnum of his fiction, exposing the show of narrative literature as an apt metaphor for the show we make of existence, in a labyrinth of mirror effects and head-spinning self-reflective, self-referential prose. Once again, he produces a narrative imitating the form of a Novel, whose pretence of a plot-line is the very act of its own production, undertaken by an author—a couple of authors actually—imitating the role of Author, and incidentally of John Barth himself, in a context of general exhaustion—of narrative forms, references, genres, discourses, history, and who knows, maybe of time itself.

What exactly is Coming Soon!!! about, should you try to trace the ever shifting, circuitous plot-line? The situation is the end of the millennium, mostly during the fall of 1995 and 1999. Tropical storms loom over the horizon of Chesapeake Bay lovers and mariners while Y2K threatens to wreak havoc in a world given over to the "New Jerusalem of Electronic Virtual Reality". An aging novelist recently retired from teaching creative writing at Johns Hopkins University—that is, an unabashed fictional version of John Barth himself—awaits inspiration for what he envisions as his last strike at the muse while experiencing an unpleasant if not unfamiliar bout of writer's block. Round about the same time, a wannabe artist going by the name of Johns Hopkins Johnson cheats his way into the creative-writing program at Johns Hopkins, faking a letter of recommendation from the retired teacher-novelist, and toys with the idea of experimenting with on-line fiction, which he sees as the only future of an otherwise extinct literature-in-print-form. Coincidentally, each happens to set eyes on a showboat whose name, The Original Floating Opera II, or TOFOII, attracts their attention because it recalls the vessel which served as main metaphor/location/title to the aging novelist's first published work. Diligent postmodern adepts that they are, as pioneer to- and aspirant rejuvenator of- that now well-established literary trend, both seize this opportunity to revisit and recycle once again this Noah's arch of literary creation, all the while investigating the future of fiction, postmodern and otherwise. In more ways than one, Barth comes full circle back to his original work and preoccupations with the replenishment of writing, now that even the "literature of exhaustion" may have come to exhaust itself in the endless exposure of metatextual self-recycling, self-parodying and what not.

Thus, the question whether postmodernism is "the end of the road" for fiction is at the heart of Coming Soon!!! as both the confirmed practitioner of postmodern fiction in print, referred to in turn as "Emerital", "Novelist Emeritus", "N.E.", "Great Uncle Ennie", and the fledgling producer of computer, hyper-textual fiction, a.k.a. "Hop Johnson", "Novelist Aspirant", "N.A.", enter a competition to write a novel about the engineering of a new show on TOFOII. The latter is conceived in the form of a postmodern rewriting of Edna Ferber's original music-hall show entitled "Showboat", which inspired "Novelist Emeritus" with his first novel. But as their narratives progress, they indeed wind up telling of the incipient conception of their own writing just as much as chronicling what is going on aboard TOFOII. "Are we Post-mah-dern" croons a "Narrator" of the show within the narrative show, "Is this the end-of-the-road? […] Or is ree-cycled self-conscious i-ro-ny just one-more-passing-mode?"

Or more to the point, one might be tempted to add, is re-re-cycled fiction mirroring its own redoubled motifs and reflections still show-material? As both narrators alternatively take up the narrative baton, "Hop" parodying "Narrative Emeritus", who himself sounds like a parody of Barth's previous masters of verbal ceremony, challenging the reader to enter the fictional competition while questioning its vitality and validity, the answer to the question appears gradually more difficult to give. On the one hand, the verbal playfulness and sheer dynamism of the prose are enthusing, as always with Barth: word-invention, combination, resuscitation, transplantation, manipulation, integrated into the robust pace of sentences conceived as so many provocations directed at the reader, produce a highly entertaining linguistic patchwork, as testified by the opening lines:

Call me ditsy, call me whatchadurn please; just an old-fart Chesapeake progger's what I am, with more orneriness than good sense—else I wouldn't be sitting here a-hunting and a-pecking on "Big Bitsy's" ergonomic keyboard whilst the black wind roars and the black water rises and the power flickers and the cabin shakes. I'd've hauled my bony butt across Backwater Strait to high ground over in Crassfield whilst the hauling was still doable, before the storm-surge from Zulu Two (stay tuned) puts Hick Fen Island eight fingerforking feet under Backwater Sound.

"Whoa ho there, Dits," my mind's ear hears the gentle reader gently interpose: "Where's Hick Fen I.? Where's Backwater Sound and ditto Strait and mainland Crassfield? Who's Zulu Two, and whaddafug's a progger, and who's thissere EARL character, that you haven't even mentioned yet?"

Enthusing also is Barth's attempt at integrating new creative media into his prose, his kick at an improbable e-fiction-in-print-form, carried through the insertion of icons, click buttons and smileys in the narrative…although the limitation is precisely that we are not reading e-fiction, not given the initiative to click on and experiment with our own (de-)structuring of the narrative.

Less exhilarating—to this reader at least—is the process itself of recycling an already much recycled postmodern narrative material, which tends to turn this novel into a private joke for diehard Barthophiles. Unlike many of Barth's previous productions, which navigated joyfully on the ocean of numerous stories—The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Metamorphoses, Don Quixote, The Arabian Nights, The Ocean of Story…—incorporated into the revisiting of Barth's own prose, promoting the pleasure of story-telling, Coming Soon!!! mainly sticks to Barth territory. Barth returns once over again to The Floating Opera (as already in LETTERS, published in 1960, or Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera, which came out in 1997) and intersperses his narrative with references to his other works. Yet hardly any opening is made towards other fictional sources. The only exception is the re-telling of Edna Ferber's Showboat play that the narrators are trying to turn into a chamber of echoes mirroring both the whole of history and the postmodern issue. Yet the script remains in constant threat of getting stuck, which it actually does as TOFOII is hit by a storm and lands on a stretch of sand in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Deprived of the perspective of drifting towards other stories, the postmodern self-conscious interrogation of discourse seems to be reduced to a bag of narrative tricks and reflexive processes, emphasized in a manner which at times may strike as forced. As a result, Barth appears with his latest production—the surrogate "Narrator Emeritus" even suggests it might be his last—to be trying the resistance of his own brand of fiction, unsure as to how to answer the questions his narrators address the reader. "Still with me?" they wonder in turn as they fail to produce the novel we are reading, or produce a failed novel in the form of a "disk" in a Ziplock bag, Barth's modernized version of the message in the bottle. Such an emphasis on false starts, failed developments, tentative drafts, half-hearted projects or misled creative enthusiasm eventually foreground a sense of hesitation regarding the material and mode of postmodern discourse, a hesitation which the superlative metatextual juggling only seems to reinforce. In the end, despite the image of the re-impregnated muse which concludes the novel, doubt and uncertainty tend to prevail on both sides, for the author's mouthpieces as much as for the reader.