One day, Todd Andrews wakes up and begins his day with the thought in his mind that he must commit suicide. To him, it was not a depressing thought, but a revelatory one. From some future time, Todd tells the story of this nearly final day – where he moves through the rest of his apparent last hours as he plans his suicide while keeping up the appearance of having an average day. He also moves in and out of time, telling about past formative events and discussing his personal philosophy.
The Floating Opera is a meditation on the purpose of living (different than the ‘meaning of life’) that is explored by playing with time. There are two set time periods and one free-flowing one. The first is him in the present, writing about these events in the form of the novel you are reading and interjecting with his philosophy and ideas about the times he is writing of. The second is his self-proclaimed day-of-change; the day where he decides to kill himself and comes to the revelation that he will go on living. And the third is the free-flowing time that occurs before this day-of-change, where different key moments of his life are explored in their relation to that fated day.
The parts of the novel that I really loved were held within the free-flowing time phase. Moments such as Andrews being trapped with a German soldier during the war are beautifully written and give a sense of the humanity that is present within opposing sides of these factions. Moments such as the legal proceedings he assists with show the high level of wit and humor that Barth had from the beginning. And moments such as Andrews’ friend allowing him to carry on an affair with his own wife create some thoroughly realistic character traits which show his astute knowledge of people and their psyches.
However, these moments, these almost vignette-like portions of the novel, work for themselves as good literature but not for the novel as a whole. This is because the novel’s main section and purpose, that day-of-change, is not only significantly less interesting than Andrews’ past life, but the philosophy does not even begin to work or to feel likely in any way. Todd Andrews is a man who has had some strange, some great, and some sad things happen to him. He lives a seemingly wonderful life full of friends, sex, money, fun, and humor. And not only this, but he is almost always perfectly happy and content – he does not suffer from depression, any higher-than-average anxieties or stressors, or any form of loneliness. Yet, his concept of suicide stems from his belief that action is irrelevant. He believes that he may as well kill himself because he once wrote down that everything is meaningless, and when he decides that he needs to kill himself, it is accompanied by a sort of glee and humor rather than an existential crisis or sadness.
The concept of his floating opera – that in which passes by, only allowing the audience along the banks to catch glimpses or to see but not hear – is an amazing metaphor. When the actual floating opera appears, it is seemingly an irrelevant scene filled with random performances that adds almost nothing to the text. During the performance, Andrews randomly tries to kill everyone in the boat alongside him by starting the gas line, making for one of the most out of the blue, unbelievable, and truly one of the worst scenes of the book. Of course, through this action, Andrews understands that if action is meaningless, so is suicide – and via this revelation, he decides that he will keep on living as he did before.
But what does any of that add to our concept of life’s purpose or of death and suicide? To me, it adds nothing and instead serves to showcase an author’s wit and humor rather than make any deep impact on life or literature. On top of these thematic problems, the novel is dotted with moments of light racism and misogyny. I do not think Barth is in any way an actual bigot (and I have heard that he becomes more socially astute with time). The problem is that it feels like this novel is written by an elderly, wealthy, white democrat – that person who is all for social change yet still finds ways to place blame on people of color, or find humor in racist language and jokes, or find ways to poke fun at women’s promiscuity or intelligence. Overall, the novel has its merits in the vignettes, but the great vignettes should have been kept as short stories, and the rest of the novel really is not worth reading.
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