The Floating Opera, John Barth, Doubleday & Company, 1967, 252 pp
The first novel by one of America's most influential post-modern novelists. I was excited and wary about beginning to read this author. No problem; it wasn't a difficult read. I liked it. Of course, his meta-fictional stuff comes later, but even in The Floating Opera there are elements of that style, such as the first person narrator making frequent references to his writing process.
(A note on the copyright date: Barth first published the book in 1957, making changes suggested by the publisher, especially toward the end of the book. The edition I read, published in 1967, was revised by Barth to restore his original ending. Knowing that, I felt I could include the 1967 version on my 1957 reading list.)
The narrator, Todd Andrews, is a lawyer with mostly antisocial behaviors. He lives alone in a hotel, has never married though he has a mistress, and cares little for money or public opinion. I can hardly explain why I liked him but I did. I would not like to be his friend, I would certainly never go out with him, but from the distance of a reader I found him a fascinating fellow.
Throughout the book, he tells his life story including how his best friend's wife came to be his mistress with that friend's knowledge and blessing. He lives in a small Maryland town on the Chesapeake Bay where he was born and raised. Though only in his 30s, he has a rare heart condition from which he could drop dead at any moment. When his is not lawyering, which is most of the time, he engages in his "Inquiries," writing up his questions about life, the answers he discovers and attempting to solve his overall quandary: should he go on living or commit suicide?
It is this question which provides suspense; his life story is the plot. Despite all manner of digressions and inward pondering, the writing has a warm intimate style and I was rarely bored or frustrated by this odd tale. I don't know what he did to the end of the story for the first publication but this one was satisfying.
(The Floating Opera is another 1957 book which is out of print and not even available in my local libraries. I got my copy from a used book seller.)