25 Women to Read Before You Die

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, December 18th, 2001


Coming Soon!!!: A Narrative

by John Barth

A review by Nan Goldberg

Devotees of literary postmodernism may feel compelled to read every word generated by one of its pioneers, John Barth. That's why the best part of Coming Soon!!! Barth's latest "narrative," as he vaguely labels it in a subtitle is on page 344, where the aging master promises to write no more. "Done done done, as best Yrs T can do it. Or, rather like century, like millennium, like career and soon enough life itself, anyhow the able span thereof all but done, whenafter let Authority be Transferred, Torch Passed, to whoever merits same." In addition to being such a relief, that passage is actually comprehensible, unlike vast portions of the rest of the book.

Back in 1956, when he was twenty-six, Barth published a brilliant novel, The Floating Opera, and another one soon after, called The End of the Road. Although several subsequent works (The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, Lost in the Funhouse) were critically praised, the truth, if such a thing could be known, might turn out to be a sort of Emperor's New Clothes phenomenon, in which to admit you couldn't make head or tail of a Barth novel was to set yourself apart from the hordes who were shouting "Bravo!" very loudly from the back cover. Now seventy-one, Barth until recently taught creative writing in the graduate writing seminar of his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, and his fame rests in large part on that prestigious position and on his frequent lectures and essays. These are invariably elegant formulations of postmodern literary theory, written or told in a light, commonsensical, witty, and insightful tone that one wishes he would apply to his fiction.

The plot of Coming Soon!!! is a typical and irritating example (in fact, it's a repetition) of the stories-within-stories-within-stories fictional format that Barth so ardently loves. It concerns two novelists a recently retired professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins and a graduate writing student there. Each is writing a variation of The Floating Opera, and the two authors engage in a sort of race: to finish their respective novels, to publish, to push the limits of postmodernism, and so forth. Coming Soon!!! is their efforts intertwined, and the verdict is that neither, finally, is worth the paper it's printed on, much less the reader's time and attention. Perhaps, instead of attempting to slog through Coming Soon!!!, readers should read, or re-read, Barth's extraordinary early contributions to American literature, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road.

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