Coming Soon!!! A Narrative
By John Barth Houghton Mifflin, 393 pages, $38.95
Canada's two most recent Picasso exhibits offer an important comparison with contemporary reading. Waiting for the doors to open in both Ottawa (1998) and Montreal (2001), one couldn't help observing that the same people (oh, the cat sweatshirts; oh, the safari hats) who had crossed congested cities or possibly a province or two to see multi-perspective, non-realistic painting, wouldn't cross the bookstore aisle to enjoy those same postmodern elements in fiction. No Mo Po Mo is the de facto motto of the megabookstore, and if John Barth's new Coming Soon!!! is our test case, we can see why.
A reviewer once described Samuel Beckett's two-act play Waiting for Godot as a drama in which "nothing happens twice." In Barth's Coming Soon!!!, nothing happens, or almost happens, over and over again, or never, depending on how you navigate an endlessly framed narrative meted out by numerous competing, contradictory narrators. Barth's Russian dolls open up something like this: (a) transsexual river scavenger Ditsy finds a computer disk marked "Coming Soon!!!" which contains (b) Johns Hop Hopkins's application to a graduate creative-writing program where he plans to write (c) a novel entitled Coming Soon!!! which documents a showboat's fledgling attempt to present (d) a show called Coming Soon!!! which "self-consciously recycles" material from the early novels of an unnamed writer and retired pro- fessor who is also writing (e) a novel called Coming Soon!!!. Naturally, the showboat in question (a replica) is called "The Original Floating Opera II" which, winking irony aside, "self-consciously recycles" Barth's own debut novel The Floating Opera (1956) and his previously recycled Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera (1994).
Ostensibly, the chapters alternate between the experienced novelist and his admiring but anxious protégé, Hop Johnson, as they race to write the same novel (same characters, same title, same setting). With either pen, Barth incessantly leaps around with wordplay both comic and thematic, cracking jokes while simultaneously suggesting that reality is always mediated and that the chasm between word and thing is forever unbridgeable. Hep-cat alliteration abounds as boaters "are packed to the Plimsoll, per usual" and Hop's "patient progenitors applaud." Dialogue, for Barth, is almost always a Ping-Pong game of puns. Hop's parents, disappointed in his decision to be a writer, suffer "Bad Heir" days. In other hands, this periodic exchange of one glib narrator for another might at least vary the annoyance, but sadly, the narrators differ only in reported age and publishing credentials. Old or young, experienced or not, writer or non-, Barth's characters all speak with the same syntactic gymnastics. One character in a novel who steadfastly refuses to speak of the mundane or the emotional is an anomaly, and possibly an interesting one. When no characters in a novel speak from the heart, or even from the acknowledgment that the heart exists, we have a heartless novel.
Lost in this too-manipulated pursuit of non-events is Barth's considerable wit. No more devoted to a theme in the novel than to a snappy pun about a doorknob, Barth resembles the contemporary physicist who can, for a few nanoseconds, create elements in the laboratory whose atomic weights make them too unmanageable to freely exist in the world. Rampant, too, is a self-indulgence editors wouldn't cede to unestablished writers. Who is really helped by the endless comparisons of writing to urinating, walking, eating, driving, undressing or . . . well, to anything?
Clever, not compelling, plotless and fiendishly monotonal, Coming Soon!!! cannot be saved no matter how many postmodern war cries it recycles ("self-consciously," of course). As isolated ideas, "process as content" and the indivisibility of "Container and Thing Contained" are viable, if not convincing. But stories work in part by pleasure, readerly pleasure. When Coming Soon!!! quotes fellow pomo high priest Donald Barthelme's line, "The fragment is the only form I trust," the accuracy of the statement is not questioned so much as its context. In a novel, in a story, these viable, compelling ideas sound too much like the pleas of an attorney for the aesthetic defence. Imagine a joke that requires diagrams to explain how it's funny, make it far too long, and you've got Barth's Coming Soon!!!. Container and Thing Contained are all too divisible, and the collected ideas are better suited to a short essay than a 400-page novel. Darryl Whetter teaches creative writing at the University of Windsor. His stories appear in current or shortly forthcoming editions of The Fiddlehead, broken pencil and The Danforth Review.