John Barth, Author . Houghton Mifflin $26 (416p) ISBN 978-0-618-13165-5
Rushdie. Barth. Allende. Miller. Wideman. Sibley. These names and a handful of others seemed to be on everybody's lips at BEA 2001, because these are the authors of some of the hottest books to debut at the show, the books that everyone wanted to read. Now PW has read those books and weighs in to let you know whether they measure up to the hopes and the hype.
Technical ingenuity is a hallmark of Barth's work, and his latest novel relies almost entirely upon it. A Möbius strip of a narrative, the novel begins with the discovery by Ditsy, a transgendered boat captain, of a computer disk containing a novel, Coming Soon!!, by Johns "Hop" Johnson, an aspiring novelist whose specific aspiration is to use this novel, with its hypertextual accoutrements, to get into the Johns Hopkins creative writing program. Hop's novel concerns a Novelist Emeritus, John Barth, who is retiring from Johns Hopkins and writing a last "narrative," Coming Soon, which involves both a writing student named Hop Johnson and Ditsy's discovery of the Coming Soon floating computer disk. In both narratives, Hop is a member of the Arkangel Players on a showboat plying the Chesapeake Bay under the moniker The Original Floating Opera II, referring to Barth's first novel. Furthermore, the crew/cast is investigating the origin of Edna Ferber's Showboat, which was inspired by an earlier Chesapeake showboat, the James Adams Floating Theater. Unfortunately, the display of metafictional conceits that subtends the novel does not make up for clunky writing and uninspired characters. Hop Johnson, the Novelist Aspirant, seems to write, think and talk just like the Novelist Emeritus, which subtracts from the internecine authorial quarrel that is this novel's main interest. There is much gap filling (for example, we are given condensed reports of the news, from 1995 to 1999), and for large stretches the enterprise is seemingly propelled mainly by the need to fill pages with words. Readers are advised to turn to the original Floating Opera and leave this massy addendum to Barth's academic acolytes. (Nov. 1)