Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera Analysis

John Barth

Once Upon a Time

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Forgoing the pensive seriousness of V. S. Naipaul’s THE ENIGMA OF ARRIVAL, John Barth’s twelfth book overall and ninth novel, “if it is novel,” is an odd sort of autobiographical fiction, less a personal revelation than a nest of narrative boxes, a Borgesian garden of forking paths and well-manicured playing field for the author’s baroque postmodernism. Once upon a time, on Columbus Day in 1990, Barth finds himself in a Dantean dark wood, at the end of the road, having recently retired at sixty from The Johns Hopkins University.

Having just seen into print his last (or rather, his latest) book, THE LAST VOYAGE OF SOMEBODY THE SAILOR, he is ready for a little kenosis, the emptying out of the “vessel” of his imagination in preparation for—or in hope of—replenishment. Thus he begins writing a story about what is to be a short sail around the Chesapeake—a story that is set exactly two years in the future, the quincentenary of Columbus’s discovery of America. By this sleight of narrative wits, Barth projects himself, or a version of himself, two years down the road he presumably had already reached the end of. Soon, however, that story stalls, literally up a creek in a mazelike marsh where a proleptic Barth meets the apparition of his twin sister Jill and his recently deceased, wholly fictional alter ego and “acerbic counterself” Jerome Schreiber, also known as Jay Wordsworth Scribner. Jill and Jay play Beatrice and Virgil to...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Once Upon a Time

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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....

(The entire section is 2057 words.)