Tuesday 21 April 2020

Book Review : 'The Floating Opera' by John Barth

It’s been a while since I read a book with the theme of existential crisis. The last one was the famed one by Beckett, ‘Waiting for Godot.’ It took me longer to finish this one, because this is one of those books that inevitably makes one slow down and think, after reading every odd page.

The first thing one notices while reading the novel is the narrative style. The narrator talks to the reader, as if he is telling a story and keeps the reader involved throughout the book. The second thing is how unconventional the whole set up is, which intermingles with the existentialist theme. Also, it is mostly in flashback, going back to years ago, 17 years to be precise.
Another unique feature is how the narrator is able to separate himself from Todd Andrews, the protagonist, although both are one and the same person. And he starts off by telling us exactly what we can expect out of his style of narration. It’s as if he defies the reader to read, despite the lack of frills such as starting the story from the middle, like other authors do, to keep up the suspense. However, he does throw in the hook, when he mentions an important day.
There are spoilers right at the beginning, when Todd Andrews tells us that on a particular day, he decided to commit suicide. And we know that it failed because he lived to tell us the tale. However, we still want to know how he went about carrying out his act and how he managed to fail.
However, he fails to retain our interest for long periods of time, because in some places the lines go on and on without anything much happening. And just when one is about to doze off completely there is some redemption, with a new twist thrown in. The first one is the suicide, of course. The next one is the illicit relationship with his best friend’s wife. Barth has the knack of introducing the twists in the plot, in a casual manner, so much so, that one may miss it if one deems to pay less attention. And then, the narrator digresses regularly from the main tale, to fill in the gaps introduced within the old one.
Since the stream of consciousness narration is presented in reverse form, it is tedious for readers to keep going forward and backward along with the whims of the narrator. The digressions are too long, too frequent and too detailed at times, which makes readers lose sight of the main narrative.

The events are unveiled one by one, that finally lead up to the D-day he mentions at the beginning. While doing so, a number of interesting characters are introduced, each of them could be a psychiatrist’s delight. Each of the characters come with their own psychological burdens, some of which are unburdened over Todd’s existing ones. All of this is juxtaposed with existentialist crisis that Todd suffers from.
Each of the characters contribute something powerful to Todd’s life. His coitus with Betty that leads to a near fatal attack much later in his life is dramatic. The ménage a trois, with Macks so to speak, wherein the paternity of Jane Mack’s child remains a mystery, is interesting. Harrison Mack is a revelation, through Todd’s accurate reading of his character. So is Jane Mack, although it highlights the sly manipulations Todd indulges in, to assuage her contradictory feelings.
The characters of Captain Osborne Jones and Mr. Haecker contribute immensely to the theme of death that suspends over the whole novel. Todd’s ideology of suicide overlaps the contrasting attitudes of both the ‘oysters’ that Todd hangs out with. Todd’s cool analysis of the myriad masks worn by Mr. Haecker, even to the last detail of his staged suicide, let us into the varied workings of the human mind. The character of Colonel Henry Morton displays manipulative shades of human greed.
Todd’s relationship with his father gives us goosebumps. The lack of communication, the subsequent talk between father and son that ends in more secrets is saddening. His suicide, the goriness of its discovery by Todd and its permanent impact on Todd’s psyche is palpable.

I was overjoyed to experience the dramatic dialogues of Shakespeare along with Todd. However, the reaction of the audience, including Todd, towards the artists is disappointing to the core.
The analogy of the Floating opera which allows only portions of the play to be seen and heard by the audience is intriguing as a comparison to the flow of human lives. It is an oddly satisfying read in some parts while being highly boring in some others.
Given that the protagonist is a lawyer, a reader would be expected to relish some dramatic courtroom scenes. Instead, the long drawn narrations of events is a complete let-down.
Overall, the book is readable, if one has an appetite for the existentialist plus stream of consciousness genre of writing.
I rate the novel 2.5 out of 5.
Was my review useful? Do let me know. Happy reading, Bookworms!


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