Reading John Barth has always been a lot like going to graduate school--and I mean that in a good way. Among the pioneering crew of postmodern American "fictioneers" that included Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, and Harry Mathews, Barth has been the most explicit about his narrative strategies, the most self-consciously literary in his literary self-consciousness. That is to say, his novels are their own Cliffs Notes.
Giles Goat-Boy (1966) followed the eponymous seeker through a series of trials straight out of Mythopoesis 101. What turned potential pedantry into clever satire was a bold joke: Giles's entire world was a vast university, divided into cold-warring East and West Campuses. In the collection Chimera (1972) Barth made the telling of classic tales--Greek myths, the Arabian Nights--the subject matter of three novellas. And in On With the Story (1996), he explored narrative theory as if it were a naturalistic facet of the world, like the weather. Barth trapped his characters in the "development" section of a never-finished story and let us feel the suspension as if it were a physical or emotional fact.
In these books and many others, Barth's style has been another insurance policy against pedantry. His sentences have nearly always managed to fuse a resonant sense of the richness of culture with mock gravity and slangy colloquialism; after all, he's essentially a comic novelist. Occasionally, however, something goes a little haywire, as when, in On With the Story, a character addresses her writing mentor, then calls attention to what she's just said: "How's that for a Faulknersworth of syntax, Coach-o'-my-heart," she asks, "and an Emily Dickinsonworth of dashes from your quondam protégé?"
It's annoying, that's what it is, and I am sorry to say that Barth has jammed his latest novel, Coming Soon!!!, so full of this arch, emptily alliterative, wised-up-to-no-purpose decorative language that reading it is a bother and a chore, even for presumptive postmods like me. On page one, in the course of the self-introduction of a character named Ditsy, we are asked to negotiate this paragraph:
And so on, and on and on, in the mouths of all the characters, and all the narrators, most of the time, for about 400 pages. The effect of reading English so tormented, and for so little purpose other than ostentatious allusion (did you get the Baudelaire, the Melville?) and geriatric self-congratulation--what a wised-up word magician is that Barth boy still, septuagenarian though he may be!--is numbing, oddly disturbing, even depressing. It left me feeling lonely, alienated from my beautiful native tongue, and a little wary about ever using it again.
Coming Soon!!! is, of course, intended to be extreme literature. Barth's first novel in ten years, it tells the story of a sorta-Oedipal rivalry between a never-named Novelist Emeritus of advanced years, recently retired, Barth-like, from a distinguished career at Johns Hopkins University, and a brash young Novelist Aspirant named Johns Hopkins Johnson. "Hop" Johnson, who is in his 20s, and is an adherent of cyberfiction and other young-guy stuff, challenges the Emeritus to a race to finish their respective novels. Emeritus, who writes with a pen, takes up the gauntlet.
Turns out that Hop is also crewman, actor, and dramaturg-in-chief on the last of the showboats, The Original Floating Opera II, which, under the aegis of an eccentric Maryland land-development company, plays song-filled revues at the marinas of towns on the Chesapeake Bay. A plot is hatched by Hop: Get famous Novelist Emeritus to write for TOFO II, thus increasing its visibility and distracting the NE from finishing his own book--which, we soon see, is the very book we are reading. Ace in the hole: TOFO II is the descendant of the Maryland showboat that inspired NE's very first novel, which is, of course, John Barth's The Floating Opera (1956).
So Coming Soon!!! is a culmination, a circle-closing. In this eschatological spirit, much is made of the end of the millennium, the Y2K scare, and other apocalyptic décor, as novel(s) and shipboard dramas meld into one great end-time narrative that harks back to Genesis...et cet.
If only it worked. The tricky and tiresome language of the book seems to sap Barth's energy, so there's a ton of postmod self-consciousness but surprisingly little narrative vigor. For long stretches very little happens in the hectic plot, and we are instead offered unhurried accounts of Barth's late-life pleasures, particularly Chesapeake Bay boating and Maryland lore. In fact, the only readable portions of Coming Soon!!! are these idylls, in which Barth finds a mature, detail-rich, and lively style that's all too soon swamped by "Roger that. Hopped back to Hopkins, did Yrs T." Inside this too-long, trumpery faux-culmination of a truly distinguished career, there's a shapely essay about a real NE's real love affair with a land- and seascape--if only it could get its head above water.