cover image Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera

Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera

John Barth. Little Brown and Company, $23.95 (398pp) ISBN 978-0-316-08262-4

The author's latest ``excursion through time's funhouse'' is an enjoyable rumination which takes the form of a three-act opera, complete with two entr'actes and numerous ``arias'' and recitatives. It even opens with a ``Program Note,'' which describes the book as ``a memoir bottled in a novel.'' Indeed, its protagonist is a 60-ish writer of fiction named John Barth, author of such playfully imaginative novels as Giles Goat-Boy and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor . He and his wife take a Columbus quincentenary sail on Chesapeake Bay, but a tropical storm forces them deep into the Maryland tidal marshes, where they get lost. Later, when Barth takes the dinghy to look for a passage back to open water, he finds instead what he trepidatiously recognizes to be ``a threshold''--the spot, in Joseph Campbell and Lord Raglan's schematic analysis of hero myths, where the hero begins his wandering. In the metaphysical zone he now enters, Barth encounters his estranged twin sister and his longtime friend and ``counterself'' Jerome Schreiber, who lead him on an extended literary version of ``This Is Your Life.'' Barth's engaging scheme allows him to ``revisit'' his other novels--a theme he explored so well in Letters . His writing, as always dense with ideas and wordplay, is a joy to read. There is nothing simple or single-minded about Barth's vision, however, and casting himself in a redefined hero-role is just one aspect of this book. One curious detail is its subtitle: In Barth's first novel, The Floating Opera , the nihilist protagonist pours his life into an aquatic opera house, which, in the end, he attempts to blow up. What Once Upon a Time suggests is that the process of memoirization can be not only an act of self-preservation, but also one of self-destruction. (May)