Novel * John Barth * Comedic Nihilism * 1956
Most of the time, when one thinks of the 1950’s in the United States, the word “subversive” probably doesn’t come up much. That’s not the narrative we’re used to, after all. If you take the wide-view, popular conception of culture in the 20th century, it’s largely broken down by decade. It goes roughly like this:
1900-1910: Olden days, who knows? Factories and shit.
1911-1920: Still olden days, pretty sure there was a war or something but no big deal. Funny hats.
1921-1930: Roaring Twenties! Flappers and jazz and The Great Gatsby! Bootleg booze and whatnot.
1931-1940: The Great Depression, as noted in The Grapes of Wrath. Everything is black and white still.
1941-1950: THE WAR. You know, the good one where we saved the day. Everyone wears fedoras and drives large black Fords. Pinstripes are the shit. Mostly black and white but some grainy color.
1951-1960: No wars that anyone bothers to remember. America is rich and white and everyone respects their (male) elders and now everyone lives in the suburbs where life is perfect. Still black and white, but TV and movies are wholesome. Automobiles are very large. Rock n’ roll is a scary thing.
1961-1970: Everything is all fucked up, people are getting shot all over the place and young people are doing the sex and drugs. Rock n’ roll is what kids like now. The bad war starts, cue hearing “Fortunate Son,” “All Along the Watchtower,” or “Sympathy for the Devil” every time a helicopter flies over a jungle. Technicolor!
1971-1980: Disco times! Cars are still very large. Politically everything is weird and kind of a bummer. Bell-bottoms and big old Afros. Colors are the worst they’ll ever be.
1981-1990: I was a child during this decade therefore everything was perfect and wonderful and my horrible generation will make sure to cram all the pop culture from this era down your throats just like I had the 60’s and 70’s crammed down mine. Voltron! He-Man! Nintendo! Other things!
1991-2000: The last good decade we’ll ever have. Everything is downhill from here.
That all might sound simplistic and dismissive, but if we’re honest we have no real reason to think about our own history that much. The United States is in love with its beginning and enjoys recreating the Civil War as if we’re only country to ever have had one. That said, this is not a country that generally revels in its history. That’s part of our self-image, of course. Our ahistorical nature is all bundled up in our self-mythologizing as the forward-looking country of the future, the last glorious free empire on earth. Of course, at the very same time, we’re paradoxically certain that things were better in the past. When that better past was, exactly, depends on how old you are. This nostalgia for a bygone age is by no means limited to Americans as older generations lamenting the wayward youth is a human tradition going back to the savannah. That said, when Americans pine for the past, they’re usually specifically thinking of one of the surface-level descriptions mentioned above.
People who look mistily back to the fifties, missing the good old days, are generally not thinking about all that other stuff which happened during that decade which subvert the common perceptions. Yes, on the surface culture seemed safe and sterile, but art was still being produced, and it was pushing against the homogenous culture being mass-produced. Thus, post-modernism. I’m not actually sure if The Floating Opera is technically, academically, “post-modern,” but it’s close. Thematically and stylistically it’s pretty much there. If the Moderns were writing in the middle of the apocalypse – pushing against outmoded social structure and artistic form – then the Post-moderns were writing in the post-apocalypse. Even in the United States, which reacted to World War II by assuming the mantle of world superpower, writers and artists could look at a destroyed Europe and respond.
The Floating Opera was written in the middle of the 1950’s, but the story actually takes place in the 1930’s. That is to say, the story takes place between the two apocalyptic wars of the early 20th century. The story is fairly straightforward, as it’s about a man named Todd Andrews living out a day in his life. On the surface, Todd is a dull guy. He’s a small town lawyer and a bachelor. He has a very strict routine which he adheres to pretty much every single day. The day the story takes place is the day he decides to kill himself. If that sounds like a bummer, be aware this novel is a comedy. Or is at least written lightly, I can’t say I was cracking up hysterically while reading this. As a narrator, Andrews is all over the place. He’s ostensibly writing about the day where he decided to end his life and changed his mind, but he can’t help but flashback quite a bit. With each of these flashbacks, something of Todd’s character is revealed, and we quickly learn that Todd isn’t so dull after all. Quite the contrary, he’s a bit of a freak. Which, of course, is where the subversion comes in.
I’m tacitly categorizing The Floating Opera as “post-modern,” but that’s mostly because of when it was written. If anything, the novel feels like it belongs with the actual Moderns. These labels can be vexing, and are the bane of academia. What are we talking about? An era? A group of people? Are there actual stylistic indicators which denote what is “Modern-with-a-capital-M” and what is just a book written in the twenties? The answer is an insufferable yes to all that. I just spent way too much time talking about things other than this book, though, so that discussion will have to wait. The reason I bring these labels up in the first place is because you could have told me The Floating Opera was written in the time it was set, which is June 23rd or 24th, 1937, and I’d have believed you. The narrator is perhaps taking a more forward role than is usual for Modernism, but the kind of things Barth writes about are just a continuation of what was happening earlier in the century.
The subject matter of this novel is perhaps not what you’d expect from the era if you take the surface-level estimation of the culture at the time. One of the cornerstones of the novel is an open-marriage situation that Todd finds himself in the middle of. Harrison and Jane Mack are married and in love, but for whatever reason they decide to bring Todd into their love life. So Jane becomes Todd’s mistress. The couple rather forces themselves on him, actually. Probably the best example of the novel’s humor is Todd’s reaction to this, which is to claim that yeah, sure, he’s down but be gentle because he’s still a virgin. Which is exactly the kind of thing the Macks wanted to hear, never mind that it’s a lie. The fun thing about The Floating Opera is that the narrator is constantly dipping back in time to reveal further events which had a marked effect on Todd. He tells the story of hooking up with Jane (with Harrison’s approval) first, and plays the virgin lie straight. Then later on, oh yeah, of course I wasn’t, I went to college you know. The structure of the narrative becomes rather an overwrought metaphor.
It’s in the title, you see, and Barth states his intention rather bluntly. The Floating Opera is of course the title, but it’s in reference to a riverboat which floats down a river and puts on shows. In the novel itself, the Floating Opera shows up towards the end, when Todd half-heartedly tries to kill himself. In the metaphor, it’s a boat that floats downstream while the show goes on, so people can take in bits and pieces of the narrative. That’s what’s happening here, and okay, sure. This is Barth’s first novel and he was going for it. This kind of thing, in addition to the rather leaden philosophical bits, drag the novel down. It’s incongruous to the overall comic tone of the story, the ridiculous events that Todd is narrating. The book moves from a scene of Todd the teenager going into hysterics while having sex for the first time because he made the mistake of looking in the mirror while doing it to rather grim discussions of existential nihilism. There’s no balance between these two things, you know? The tone swings all over the place, and frankly the writing isn’t deft enough to make the tonal dissonance seem purposeful. Like I said, this a first novel, and it shows.
Still, these are tricky things to talk about in 1950’s America. Clearly, something like The Floating Opera is never going to shock on the level of something like Naked Lunch. Todd is a prim little choir boy in comparison to anything happening in that horrorshow of a book. Still, the frank discussions of the pointlessness of human actions in a large and indifferent world do not slot into our general understanding of mid-century America. France, maybe, but not America. Yet here is Todd Andrews, who nearly offs himself out of moral obligation to his philosophical understandings. Well, that’s what he tells himself. This dude had a lot of traumatic things happen to him which he tries to brush off as “well, that’s life.” Todd is not a well-adjusted man, probably like most of his countrymen. Whether living in the 30’s or the 50’s, these people were still adjusting to the post-apocalypse. It’s easy to envision an entire nation going on with its routine while blatantly ignoring their collective trauma, just like weird old Todd Andrews.