Are we ready for this? Another labyrinthine metafiction from the veteran literary gamesman who has beguiled and befuddled readers with such brainteasing doorstoppers as Giles Goat-Boy (1966), Letters (1979), and The Tidewater Tales (1987).
Persevere, and you’ll soon realize we’re once again in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay region, where a Rabelaisian “piroguer” (roughly, scavenger) who appears to play—and possess—both male and female parts patrols the bay accompanied by her buddy EARL (thus acronymically named because he works at the nearby Earth Air Reconnaissance Laboratory). Their semirelevant peregrinations are both pirogue and prologue to the contention between veteran writer “Mister B.” (a.k.a.: “The Novelist Emeritus”) attempting to finish his latest (probably last) book as a hurricane, and the dawning of the 21st-century approach—and young hypertext whiz Johns [sic] Hopkins Johnson (“The Novelist Aspirant”), whom Mister B. dutifully recommends for a grad-school writing program. The rivalry between the two is sharpened by efforts to convert a retired Navy vessel into a “showboat”—a phenomenon that each undertakes to describe in fiction. Seasoned Barth readers will know about Our Author’s own long-ago (1957) first novel, The Floating Opera, and won’t be surprised when this latest meanders into sly invocations of both Aristotle’s Poetics and Edna Ferber’s pop classic Show Boat (along with its numerous theatrical and film mutations), as the writers’ war loopily intensifies. The pleasures of sailing and of making both fiction and love (frequently with, well, showboating “actress” Sherry McAndrews Singer, who is, inevitably, this novel’s Scheherazade) are celebrated more than a little coyly, though Barth does get off some fine frenzied sequences involving nautical-theatrical impresario Mort (!) Spindler, and an impudent recasting of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn (as “Hick Fen”).
“Whether the reader finds entertaining or tiresome such smoke-and-mirror tricks, a staple of Postmodernism, will depend on that reader’s taste and experience.” The reader couldn’t have said it better himself.