The great American postmodernists - Pynchon, Coover, Barth - are in an unenviable position. Having seen their ideas co-opted by almost every branch of philosophy and popular culture, they remain (at least in this country) far less read, outside of university syllabuses, than they deserve to be. The idea of having a small audience has always been one that John Barth has jokingly played with. His 1966 novel Giles Goat-Boy begins with a publisher's disclaimer in which Barth's imaginary editor predicts the following future for him: "His dozen admirers will grow bored with him, his employers will cease to raise his salary and excuse his academic and social limitations; his wife will lose her beauty, their marriage will founder, his children will grow up to be ashamed of their father. I see him at last alone, unhealthy, embittered, desperately unpleasant, perhaps masturbative, perhaps alcoholic or insane, if not a suicide. We all know the pattern."
Barth's oeuvre is divided into two halves. In 1979, he published a novel called Letters. It was his seventh book, and a sequel to the six which had preceded it, including the well-known Lost in the Funhouse (1968) and The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), a hilarious historical novel set in the late 1600s, which Atlantic Books is republishing to coincide with the appearance of Coming Soon!!!. In Letters, Barth brought together the disparate styles he had previously adopted and established his own authorial character. Almost every subsequent book has featured a Barth character, who usually sums up his social and financial status, current political events and his state of mind before beginning the story at hand.
In Coming Soon!!!, the Barth figure, referred to as the Novelist Emeritus, has recently turned 70, retired from his academic career and is considering writing what he thinks will be his final novel. His wife is still beautiful, his marriage is strong, his children (and grandchildren) are unashamed of him. He is concerned about the state of the world, and one of the pertinent questions he asks is how to write about the future when it is impossible to know what newsworthy events might occur. As he runs through hypotheses, he asks, in 1999: "What if . . . the agents of the Islamic terrorist Osama Bin Laden - taking advantage of our national distraction by the Clinton trail's Quite Unforeseen Latest Development or Aftermath - manages on the ides of March to devastate the whole Washington-to-Philadelphia corridor, including the entire Chesapeake estuarine system, with a fiendishly co-ordinated array of biological Doomsday devices."
Deciding to ignore this possibility, Barth's narrator begins work on his latest novel. It is a return to the subject-matter of his first novel, The Floating Opera (1956) - that is, showboats. Barth's Novelist Emeritus is inspired by his view of a replica showboat that is sinking in the bay. Although he claims that more than 40 years of constant creative activity have left him unconcerned about writer's block, he does have a problem, in the shape of Johns Hopkins Johnson, one of his young creative writing students who wants to write a novel about the same showboat.
It has been suggested that Johnson represents the younger postmodernist novelists, such as Mark Z Danielewski or, more pertinently, David Foster Wallace, who previously borrowed characters from Barth's Lost in the Funhouse for his own early short story "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way", which was included in his 1989 collection Girl With Curious Hair.
As the two novelists race to complete their respective novels, they both become involved with writing a stage production for the actual showboat, based on the Kern-Hammerstein musical. Things become increasingly complicated, with Novelists Aspirant and Emeritus arguing over the respective merits of print versus electronic fiction, the value of hypertext, and the likelihood of either of them completing and publishing their novel. It becomes hard to separate the various levels of representation and reality, but this doesn't detract from the audacity of Barth's design and the giddy excitement of his writing. Just before the end, he seems to allow himself a get-out clause for future fiction. I hope he follows this through, because while this is a more than adequate swansong, he is still operating at his very best, and we need more novels as innovative and exciting as this.
Matt Thorne is the co-editor, with Nicholas Blincoe, of All Hail the New Puritans (Fourth Estate, £6.99)