Jack’s Naughty Bits: John Barth, The Floating Opera

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Jack's Naughty Bits

A lovely word, now out of fashion, permitted poets of the seventeenth century to denigrate rivals whose verse achievements were not quite up to snuff: poetaster. Ben Jonson addressed one of his poems “To Poetaster”; you won’t be surprised when I tell you it’s not nice. Sadly, there is no comparable term for fiction writers. “Scribbler” lacks precision, “hack” has a blunt edge and “novelistaster” is an abomination. Nor does it exist, though that is really what I am after &#151 some way of dismissing the epigones and the claimants, the muddlers, the halftalents and the stonefeeted who would drink at the muses’ fount. We don’t need novels, we need novelists, writers whose very names would daunt the occasional inkdippers from ever scratching out a single clause. I have written of Gabriel García Márquez being one such writer, and Cormac McCarthy another (a friend recently said of Blood Meridian that it’s “like something released from the fist of an angry god”); there are few others who qualify, but having read in the last few weeks an armload of John Barth, I can happily name him among them.


Three things, in my opinion, make for worthwhile novels: wisdom, style and imagination. Possessing any one, you’re likely to get published; two, you’ll write a damn good book; possess all three and you’re truly great. In books like Giles Goat-Boy, The Sot-Weed Factor and Chimera, Barth shows a range of styles, and even more, a scope of imagination barely rivaled in American fiction. But even in his first novel, The Floating Opera (written in his mid-twenties), he displays a human wisdom and sensitivity that remains consistent through the rest of his work. As far-fetched as his experiments can be, Barth’s fictions remain true to the truest truths, and this is what gives them meaning.


So for my first (but not my last) column on this American master, I’ll start at the beginning, citing the scene in The Floating Opera where the protagonist, Todd Andrews, has his first fateful encounter with the wife of his best friend. It begins a love triangle that sets into motion much of the plot of the book (an extended recounting of why Todd doesn’t commit suicide, having decided one day to do so), but it doesn’t come off without a hitch. Cast within the following 500 words is the unsugared reality of the quick male trigger &#151 a hard topic, harder still to sketch with grace and humor. Barth shows us how.

* * *  

From The Floating Opera by John Barth

Needless to say, I dreamed of Jane. The absence of Harrison &#151 the first time he’d left Jane and me alone together, as it happened, because of my supposed shyness &#151 was embarrassingly obvious, and on my way to sleep I was acutely conscious of her presence on the opposite side of the plywood partition between us. I fell asleep imagining her cool brown thighs &#151 they must be cool! &#151 brushing each other, perhaps, as she walked about the kitchen; the scarcely visible gold down on her upper arms; the salt-and-sunshine smell of her. The sun was glaring in through a small window at the foot of the bed; the cottage smelled of heat and resinous pine. I was quite tired from swimming, and sleepy from beer. My dream was lecherous and violent &#151 and unfinished. Embarrassingly so. For suddenly I felt a cool, shiveringly cool, hand caress my stomach. It might have been ice, so violently did all my insides contract; I fairly exploded awake, and wrenched up into a sitting position. I believe it was “Good Lord!” that I croaked. I croaked something, anyhow, and with both arms instantly grabbed Jane, who sat nude &#151 unbelievable! &#151 on the edge of the bed; buried my face in her, so excruciatingly startled was I; pulled her down with me, that electrifying skin against mine; and mirabile dictu! at the sheer enormous lust of it I did indeed explode, so wholly that I was certain liver, spleen, guts, lungs, heart, head, and all had blown from me, and I lay a hollow shell without sense or strength.


Damned dream, to leave me helpless! I was choked with desire, and with fury at my impotency. Jane was terribly nervous; after the first approach, to make which must have required all her courage, she collapsed on her back beside me and scarcely dared open her eyes.


The room was dazzlingly bright! I was so shocked by the unexpectedness of it that I very nearly wept. Incredible smooth, tight, perfect skin! I pressed my face into her; I couldn’t leave her untouched for the barest sliver of an instant. I quiver even now, twenty-two years later, to write of it, and why my poor heart failed to burst I’m unable even to wonder.


Well, it was no use, and if I’d had a knife handy then, I’d have unmanned myself. I fell beside her, maddened at my impotency and mortified at the mess I’d made. That, it turned out, was the right thing to do: my self-castigation renewed Jane’s courage, gave her the upper hand again.


“Don’t curse yourself, Toddy,” she soothed, and kissed me &#151 sweetness! &#151 and stroked my face.


“No use,” I muttered into her breast.


“We’ll see,” she said lightly, entirely self-possessed now that I seemed shy again: I resolved to behave timidly for the rest of my life. “Don’t worry about it, honey; I can fix it.”


“No you can’t,” I moaned, as strickenly as I could.


“Yes I can,” she whispered, kissing my ear and sitting up beside me.


Merciful heavens, reader! If you must marry, marry from Ruxton and Gibson Island, I charge you! Such a magnificent, subtle, versatile, imaginative, athletic, informed, delightful, exuberant mistress no man ever had, I swear.

© John Barth