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John Barth: The Floating Opera

This novel was surprisingly successful, considering it is, frankly, not one of the great novels. At the age of 54, Todd Andrews (he spells it with two d’s to avoid confusion with Tod, the German for death) is looking back on his life and, in particular, that day seventeen years ago when he planned to kill himself. Indeed, he has a huge pile of notes to write what he calls his Inquiry but now called The Floating Opera, after a showboat that was tied up at the dock the day he changed his mind about committing suicide.

So why was he going to commit suicide? It was not his health, despite the fact he had various problems, nor was it his job – a lawyer who, by his own admission, had little interest in the job, the clients or ethics, nor his mistress, the wife of his best friend, Harrison Mack. If there is a single reason, it is our old friend ennui. Dotted around these pages, you will find my complaints about the fact that English does not have a good word for it, short of the clinical alienation but it remains, nevertheless, a key theme of 20th century literature and Barth, through Todd Andrews, puts his ten cents in. However, it really is only ten cents worth as he offers little new on this subject. Barth is certainly witty and we can certainly sympathise and identify with Andrews but, when all is said and done, a lot of the novel is, frankly, boring.

Publishing history

First published 1956 by Appleton-Century-Crofts