When is a memoir not a memoir? When it is “bottled” in a novel in which John Barth, once upon a time the enfant terrible of American postmodernist fiction and now its grand old man, succeeds, as usual, in having it his way, which is to say both ways—in this case, giving away considerable information about himself only to give away all too little. If “every life has a Scheherezade’s worth of stories,” then Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera offers up a few, ever mindful of its own limitations. “It’s not an autobiography: it’s a kind of ship’s log of the Inside Passage, framed by [a] fictitious literal voyage.” Neither description—memoir bottled in a novel or ship’s log cum fictitious voyage—quite explains all that Barth is up to in this his twelfth book and ninth novel, “if it is a novel.”
Subtitled A Floating Opera (the title of his first novel), Once Upon a Time starts out with “Overture” and “Interlude,” which together make up fully one-third of the book’s length, at once advancing and delaying the minimalist action of Barth’s maximalist work; then “Act 1,” followed by an “Entr-Acte,” “Act 2,” followed by “Between Acts,” “Act 3 (of 2),” though there is no 2, not here anyway, and finally “Episong” to complement the introductory “Program Note.” Never one to pass up the chance to explore, exploit, and explode a fictional device or structural metaphor, Barth skillfully combines novel and memoir, narration and navigation, ship’s log and opera (bouffe) in a semi-autobiographical dance of the seven veils. Since this is an opera of sorts, there are arias, and if arias, why not drum solos? There are also footnotes, serving both to explain and as navigational/narrational aids for the reader lost in this Barthian fictive funhouse.
The impetus for writing Once Upon a Time came from Barth’s having reached, as the title of his second novel puts it, “the end of the Road”—if not the road, then a road, in fact several of them. He had just retired from full-time teaching at The Johns Hopkins University, had just seen his “last” book, The Last Voyage of Some-body the Sailor (1991), through publication, had just completed the sixth decade of his life and second decade of his second marriage, and had just filled up his third notebook and second student roll. He was, as his colleagues Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino, and Raymond Carver were not, alive and well at the end of the “American Century,” and maybe the end of the written, printed word too, and with it the end of the novel. As the title playfully suggests, Once Upon a Time is a decidedly low-technology (if high-jinks) affair. This previously self-confessed “print oriented” writer prefers the virtual virtuality of fiction to the “real virtuality” of computer-generated virtual reality. As a result, he confines his special effects to pulling the narrative rug from under the reader every so often and to some time-tripping made possible by twisting the cap of his “reemote,” his trusty Parker fountain pen (or facsimile thereof), and even this he has some difficulty mastering.
This latter-day Dante, lost in the dark wood of semiretirement and emeritus status, facing a dark night of the postmodern, postpublication, postacademic soul, decides to while away a few years in kenosis, emptying out the exhausted “vessel” of his imagination in preparation for, in expectation of, future replenishment. On Columbus Day, 1990, he commences a new story of a voyage that begins on yet another Columbus Day two years later. Barth’s plan here is to have the writing eventually catch up to the story, a Faustian sleight of narrative wits that allows the author to project himself into the future and thus to add years to his life, especially his writing life. Of this 1992 Barth, the 1990 version can say, as Gustave Flaubert did of Madame Bovary, “C’est moi,” though with a difference, maybe a Derridean difference.
So far so good, but that is about as far as Barth, if Barth is to be believed, has plotted his and his narrative’s course. Departing from his custom of carefully plotting a work before writing it out, Once Upon a Time is “an ad-lib odyssey” in which the title serves as narrative “open sesame” to whatever may follow. With luck, this means his and his wife’s living happily ever after, basking in the glow of his twelfth book and ninth novel, if it is a novel, the very book Barth’s dear reader will someday read, is just now reading, his “last” book—that is, the one before the next.
All literature, Barth likes to say, is about its own making, but not all literature is quite so self-consciously and self-reflexively about the principles underlying and the circumstances surrounding its composition as Barth’s generally are. His high-wire art is very much about setting himself a stunt and then seeing whether or not he can bring it off....