Observer Review: Coming Soon!!! By John Barth Essay, Research Paper
He’s showboating again…Coming Soon!!!John BarthAtlantic Books ?14.99, pp448Calling John Barth self-conscious is about as helpful as calling Kafka odd. The highly wrought games and puzzles of the postmodern novel Barth helped invent are already self-parodic. Barth writes double-helix narratives in which ‘the tangled tango’ of life and art always threatens to spiral dizzily out of control.The plot of a Barth novel is never easy to summarise, because writing is the story: ‘process as content,’ as his narrator says. Barth has made a career out of chasing his own tale, as it were, and Coming Soon!!! (his first book in 10 years and, he suggests, perhaps his last) is no exception.This bravura novel is, appropriately, about showboating. It revisits Barth’s first novel, The Floating Opera (1956), which used the ‘Show Boat’ of Edna Ferber’s bestselling novel as a metaphor for the book itself, ‘which floats,’ Barth explained, ‘willy-nilly on the tide of my vagrant prose.’ Showboating – the love of the tour de force – is also Barth’s narrative protocol. The floating opera as a metaphor for narrative and for life so pleased Barth that he returned to it again in Once Upon A Time: A Floating Opera (1994).Now Barth returns to the beginning to ‘reorchestrate’ The Floating Opera as The Original Floating Opera II. Like most of Barth’s novels, Coming Soon!!! features a character who mirrors Barth himself: a ‘Novelist Emeritus’, recently retired from Johns Hopkins University, awaiting inspiration from his muse and musing on the vagaries of inspiration.This time, Barth has endowed his alter ego with a Doppelgänger: a young ‘Novelist Aspirant’ named Johns Hopkins Johnson who has decided to compete with his mentor by ‘borrowing’ the idea of the older writer’s first novel (also called The Floating Opera) and reinventing it. Writing becomes a wrestling match – or, in Barth’s own metaphor, a pissing contest: Novelist Aspirant challenges Novelist Emeritus as they urinate together. Here is ‘N.E.’ considering whether he will accept the challenge:’With my permission, explicit or implied? To me (a-pissing) that perhaps debatable point seemed beside the point […] Should I choose now to borrow back what had after all been from me borrowed – choose even to retitle my own re-reorchestration thereof with ‘his’ same title – who could cry plagiarism? Especially if my borrowing from his borrowing from myself reaches print before his…’The battle is joined: the novel will consist of their struggles for control of both plot and method – for brash young Hop wants to write a hypertext, while N.E. defends the print medium he secretly fears may be exhausted. The resulting ‘narrative’, printed and bound, is also interspersed with replicas of computer screens and websites, including parodic clickable icons in which the reader can supposedly choose between options like ‘On with Introduction’, ‘Hold Introduction; On with Story already’, and ‘Hell with Introduction; Hell with Story; Let’s fuck.’The doubles multiply in the ‘funhouse’ of mirrors that Barth loves to construct: ‘e-text’ and ‘p-text’ jostle against youth and age, past and present, teacher and student, author and reader, fact and fiction, origin and imitation. This contest is not only a race to the finish, it is a race back to the beginning, over the course of Barth’s long career; it is also a race against time (figured as Y2K) and against a ‘tempest’ (Hurricane Zulu) that threatens to sink the Show Boat once and for all.This is familiar Barth territory: he reinvents with brio not only himself and his past work, but also Show Boat, The Phantom of the Opera, and (as he explains early on): ‘Genesis (the Garden, Cain & Abel, the Flood), The 1001 Nights, Shakespeare’s Tempest, the historic arrival of Lord Baltimore’s first colonists in Maryland, Mary Jane Holmes’s Tempest & Sunshine […] Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and the end of the world as prophesied in Revelation.’ Even Scheherezade will make her obligatory appearance as Sherry (the name of Barth’s actual wife), at once muse, object of desire, and storyteller par excellence.Coming Soon!!! is a meditation on the fear of endings and the simultaneous drive toward them, confronting and mocking Barth’s fears about the death of the novel; the end of his ‘potency’, both artistic and sexual; the end of his career; and the end of his life. He closes his tale with Sherry pregnant: creation as procreation, ending as beginning.At his finest Barth balances his sportive self-consciousness with a lyrical recognition of our unconscious desires and fears. His virtuosic brilliance remains, but the barrage of jokes about laughing in the face of death in Coming Soon!!! ultimately seem as frantic – and unconvincing – as all those exclamation marks.