1. Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
320 Pages; ISBN 0618131655.
Hardcover $26.00 [Browse/Purchase]
2. Mariner Books, 2002.
396Pages; ISBN 0618257306.
Paperback $14.00 [Browse/Purchase]
Review by Blair Mahoney
Coming Soon!!! was meant to be John Barth's millennium novel, a "wrap-it-up novel," "His Latest Last," to cap off the impressively long list opposite the title page headed "Books by John Barth".
I think I first heard mention of a book called Coming Soon!!! back in 1997 or 1998, and, in its typically Barthian self-reflexive way, the novel itself suggests that the project was commenced way back in 1995. The fact that the novel did not then appear until 2001 indicates that not everything went according to plan. The reader who painfully makes his or her way through Coming Soon!!! will undoubtedly concur that the postmodern innovator, who wrote such experimental masterpieces as The Sotweed Factor, Lost in the Funhouse, and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, sadly lost his way with this novel.
It's not that Coming Soon!!! lacks any of the experimental verve of Barth's earlier work. Indeed, like most of Barth's work over the past twenty years, it constantly revisits his earlier novels and characters, building on his oeuvre and expanding on plot elements and themes with slight variations. Barth was, after all, the author of the seminal essay on postmodern writing, "The Literature of Exhaustion."
"The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new," Barth's hero Samuel Beckett wrote in Murphy, and that sentence, giving an ironic, fresh slant to an old, overused phrase, encapsulates much of the intent of Barth's argument in "The Literature of Exhaustion." That is, postmodernist writers have an awareness of what has already been written, and in an attempt to avoid false innocence they accept the challenge of the already written and revisit the past with ironic freshness.
Barth is notable for revisiting the past in the shape of several of his favourite tales: The Thousand and One Nights, Don Quixote and The Odyssey. But he also, perhaps more than any other writer, revisits his own previous novels with great frequency. This tendency to recycle his own work is perhaps most evident in LETTERS, his seventh novel, where he provides sequels to his previous six works; and The Tidewater Tales, where Barth spends long passages returning to and rewriting his previous novel, Sabbatical.
In Coming Soon!!!, Barth returns to the scene of his first novel, The Floating Opera. A showboat replica called The Original Floating Opera II inspires both an aging "novelist emeritus," trying to write what he conceives of as his final novel, and a cocky "novelist aspirant" who attempts to turn the same subject into an innovative hypertext. Along the way they revisit Edna Ferber's Show Boat, itself partly an inspiration for Barth's The Floating Opera. They also encounter a "Todd Andrews" who has styled himself after the character in The Floating Opera and heads an entirely implausible company that runs a modern day version of a floating opera. The struggles of the creative team running this floating opera to devise shows and make money along with the struggles of the two writers to complete their respective texts comprise the action, such as it is, of the novel.
One of the problems for Barth in producing this text is that, given the length of time it took him to compose it and the rapid pace of technological change, one of his key themes -- the struggle for supremacy between the new medium of hypertext (or "e-fiction") and the traditional novel (or "p-fiction") -- is now hopelessly out of date. In 1995, when Barth commenced Coming Soon!!!, hypertext fiction still seemed like an exciting new medium with the potential to become a big success. Writers such as Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop were producing innovative texts that attracted the attention of people such as Barth's fellow metafictionist Robert Coover. Barth wrote in 1993 (In "It's a Short Story," collected in Further Fridays) of the "constrained fascination" that he brought to Robert Coover's "serenades to the medium of hypertext." By 2001, when Coming Soon!!! was finally published, however, hypertext was old hat, a medium that had fizzled, that had produced nothing substantial. That the novel relies so much on hypertextual elements, with its faux "buttons" at the end of chapters prompting the reader to select an option that, in fact, he or she has no choice over creates a sense that the time for this novel has already passed, if it ever existed.
Furthermore, Barth had already written a story, "Click" (printed in the December 1997 issue of The Atlantic Monthly), which addressed issues surrounding hypertext (and, in particular, "the hypertextuality of everyday life") in a much more concise and elegant manner than he has managed with Coming Soon!!! It may well be that the short story form is ultimately much more suitable than the novel for exploring the aleatory implications of our existence. Barth's stories from the age of "high" postmodernism in his collection Lost in the Funhouse, and in particular the title story, anticipate the literary gambits of hypertext more than twenty years before it was conceived of. His stories from that period, along with those of Coover (such as "The Babysitter" and "The Magic Poker"), show that print fiction need not be constrained by its ontological limits. In fact, it is the frisson achieved by straining against those limits that gives postmodernist fiction its vibrancy.
In his essay "Postmodernism Revisited," collected in Further Fridays, Barth suggests that, given the flexibility of the term postmodernism, he may as well equate it with himself: literary postmodernism is whatever he, along with certain other writers, does. But he adds a rider to this somewhat blithe assessment: "it is what I do whether I do it well or badly: a much more important critical consideration." In Coming Soon!!! I fear the critical response of this reviewer is that he has done it badly. I sincerely hope that Coming Soon!!! is not Barth's final novel: it would be an unfortunate off note with which to end such a stellar career.
17 April 2002
Barth Scriptorium Page -- The Libyrinth's introduction to John Barth and his work.
Blair Mahoney conducted a brief interview with Barth prior to the release of Coming Soon!!!
Blair Mahoney has also written on the influence of Borges in Barth's fiction, which may be found at the Garden of Forking Paths.
Dave Edelman's excellent John Barth Information Center includes brief biographical details, a short summary called "Barth for Beginners," a comprehensive bibliography with notes on each book, a Barth FAQ, the transcript of an interview between Edelman and Barth and several of Edelman's own reviews of Barth's works.
This fantastic resource from The New York Times includes reviews of most of Barth's books and a number of essays by Barth.