Soon!!! A Narrative
Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
$26.00, 412 pages, ISBN 0618131655.
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
textualalbeit highly intellectually challengingentertainment.
Coming Soon!!!, his latest opus, is no exception
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"
Its title page, title, subtitle: COMING SOON!!! A NARRATIVE
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 authora couple of authors actuallyimitating the role
of Author, and incidentally of John Barth himself, in a context of
general exhaustionof 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 Universitythat
is, an unabashed fictional version of John Barth himselfawaits
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 senseelse
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
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 exhilaratingto this reader at leastis 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 storiesThe 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 productionthe
surrogate "Narrator Emeritus" even suggests it might be
his lastto 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.