Barth Is Back
Behind the gates of a gated community with a modern master.
Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
During a 1960 lecture at Hiram College John Barth playfully pondered the novelist's "immodest and subversive resemblance to God." Nearly a half-century on, the Supreme Being incarnated via Barth's pen appears to be suffering fatigue--and not simply because, at 176 pages, the cosmos of His new collection of interrelated stories, The Development, is rather puny compared with the sprawling galaxies of much-heralded Barth tomes such as The Sot-Weed Factor (1960, 768 pp.) or Giles Goat-Boy (1966, 710 pp.).
No, the diagnosis has less to do with the number of bookshelf inches the tome occupies than with the divine delegation between the book's covers--extraordinarily lavish, even for a self-referential metafictionist like Barth.
Consider, for example, the following climax from an otherwise engrossing tale in The Development (spoilers redacted) in which a sexually aggressive undergrad simultaneously intrigues and scares the hell out of her English professor, a man past his artistic prime:
Should [main character] now commit his maiden adultery, so to speak, by humping one of his not-quite-ex students--at her initiative, to be sure, but still . . . --thereby blighting both his long happy marriage and his academic retirement, disgusting his colleagues and grown-up children, but perhaps reactivating (for what they're worth) his so-long-quiescent creative energies? And if so, so what? Or ought we to have the guy come to his moral senses (if necessary, since we've seen thus far no incontestable sign of his being seriously tempted by [redacted]'s flagrances) and not only decline her seductive overtures but terminate altogether their somewhat sicko connection, make a clean breast of it to his faithful, so-patient [redacted] before that breast gets irrevocably soiled, and content himself with his writerly Failed-Old-Farthood and his inarguably good works as teacher and coach of future FOFs? But again: If so, so what? Or could/should it turn out to be at least possibly the case that nothing thus far here narrated has been the (actual, nonfictive) case? And if so . . . ? "Well, of course it hasn't been, dumdum!" he imagines his frisky new sex mate teasing. . . .
It is, granted, a cute question-mark ending: Was the chapter the student's cheeky, flirty academic submission? Maybe the fruits of the professor's reinvigorated muse? The meanderings of an altogether unknown third party? Who knows?
Even so, abrupt cleverness is doubtless an infinitely less strenuous authorial task than untangling the complicated knot of emotions and human relations the previous pages were spent tying, perhaps leaving some who sat down to read a book rather than help plot one asking, Hey, where's my cut of the advance? Such cranky readers have only seen the beginning of Barth's revolt, the increased boldness of which is exemplified in this paragraph from another of The Development's stories:
You see how it is with us storytellers--with some of us anyhow, especially the Old Fart variety, whereof Yours Truly is a member of some standing. Our problem, see, is that we invent people like the Barnses, do our best to make them reasonably believable and even simpatico, follow the rules of Story by putting them in a high stakes situation--and then get to feeling more responsibility to them than to you, the reader instead of ending their teardown take for better or worse (sorry about that, guys), we pull its narrative plug before somebody gets hurt.
However hopelessly lowbrow it may be by modern standards to lust after even a sliver of narrative closure, becoming invested in a "reasonably believable . . . high stages situation" only to have its "narrative plug" preemptively pulled is a frustrating literary tease, akin to an otherwise amusing friend developing an unfortunate fondness for prank answering machine messages. ("Hello? Um . . . hello!? Who is this?! Ha! Not here! Leave a message.")
Nevertheless, leave aside its moments of determined apex-aversion and paradoxically predictable fourth-wall-breaking gimmicks, none of which rises to the standard set by Barth's own colossal Sixties and Seventies imaginative freak-outs, and there remains much to be admired in The Development: Watching Barth drive a sardonic (metaphorical) steamroller over Baby Boomer bourgeoisie, flattening the grand presumptiveness of their convenient moral posturing with mischievous and incisive (but not cruel) wit as crackling, manic prose pours out the exhaust pipe, is a delicious (if slightly diabolic) treat.
The setting is Heron Bay Estates, a "well-planned and 'ecologically sensitive' " gated community on Maryland's Eastern Shore--the same locale Barth trekked to with Ebenezer Cooke in The Sot-Weed Factor--settled by "upper-middle-incomers" approximately "halfway between their busy professional peak and their approaching retirement." They live comfortable lives in homes just nice enough to allow them to continue to scoff indignantly at neighbors in "McMansions." They are great reciters of the shibboleths of our time; so tirelessly assiduous in chanting the proper mantras, in fact, that substance and living-by-example become a bridge-too-far. (See the chapter "Progressive Dinner.")
Even so, the semi-free-spirited, carefully regulated pinnacle of good and proper living they've long collectively congratulated themselves on scaling and maintaining is becoming unbalanced by a growing sense of mortality--perhaps best exemplified by the husband who assures his wife he's prepared to engage the neighborhood toga party with good humor, then immediately returns to Googling "life expectancy" and brooding over how many Septembers he might reasonably expect to have left.
Against this backdrop Barth lulls readers into complacency not dissimilar to that of Heron Bay Estates' residents--and then, wielding plot twists like Thor's hammer, gleefully shatters the idyll. Community concern over a Peeping Tom who may or may not actually exist slowly evolves into a green light for "victims" to surreptitiously engage in exhibitionism, voyeurism, and chest-thumping, testosterone-addled defending-the-cave-ism. (One resident believes the Peeping Tom "might embody, represent, whatever--a projection of our own fears, needs, desires" so fully he could be "like God," presumably making Barth a suspect.)
A couple's witnessing of a horrific public suicide attempt inspires them to commit suicide hours later. So desperate is their desire to avoid "the crappy last lap" of an already "good life together," the couple is unfazed by their own self-consciously acknowledged narcissism:
"Okay, so we're dumping on the kids, leaving them to take the hit and clean up the mess," the husband muses. "So what?"
"They'll never forgive us," the wife responds. "But you're right. So what?"
This response, recall, is the same as the aforementioned professor-narrator, yet So what? is nothing new for Barth. Indeed, the ambivalent nihilism of the slouching toward geriatrics set in The Development is the author coming full circle: "Night-Sea Journey," the opening story of Barth's 1968 short story collection Lost in the Funhouse, details the existential crisis of a sperm on a mission to "transmit the heritage." ("If I have yet to join the hosts of the suicides, it is because (fatigue apart) I find it no meaning fuller to drown myself than to go on swimming.")
Todd Andrews, the protagonist of The Floating Opera (1957), opts with "unenthusiastic excitement" to blow himself up along with 699 of his neighbors on a showboat, after embarking upon a rather long, philosophically jumbled chain of reasoning that leads him to conclude, "unless a man subscribes to some religion that doesn't allow it, the question of whether or not to commit suicide is the first question he has to answer before he can work things out for himself."
Like a few future residents of The Development, he decides sure, maybe he and his oblivious neighbors could work things out, but . . . So what? When the plan for mass immolation disintegrates, Andrews can't be bothered to reassemble it because, "There's no final reason for living (or for suicide)." Sorry, Hallmark, the phrase is already copyrighted.
Barth labeled Jacob Horner, the main character of his next novel, The End of the Road (1958), a "walking ontological vacuum." As Horner prepares to withdraw from modern society, listless and psychologically adrift after a traumatizing (not to mention deadly) dalliance with a philosophically pure yet very ethically challenged upper-middle-class married couple, he muses, "The greatest rebel is the man who wouldn't change society for anything in the world."
Soon after The End of the Road, Barth cast his lot in with the meta-
Yet it is clear that Barth never entirely lost his fascination with the subject matter of his early work: The Development resembles nothing so much as the culmination of the rebellion Horner exalts.
The inhabitants of Heron Bay Estates do not respond to fears of societal ostracization by, say, robbing a bank, à la George Burns and Art Carney in Going in Style, or ostentatiously checking off boxes on a grand "bucket list." Neither do they begin a twilight struggle against class/age expectations or social mores, for better or worse, despite their quiet desperation. We see little evidence of an Ethan Hawley/Winter of Our Discontent-esque adoption of the "laws of controlled savagery" to wreak generational revenge.
Rather, the Heron Bay Estaters strive to keep up appearances and maintain a dedication to the overall societal stasis even while behaving subversively. Those who cannot assimilate life as the sitting duck prey of natural causes or assisted living remove themselves from the equation, permanently. They are, truly, the rebels who wouldn't change society for anything--a fact Barth sets out to prove by testing his characters with ever more surreal, hilarious, bizarre, and extreme situations.
Alas, they apparently do not off themselves quickly enough for Godhead Barth, who in the final chapter unleashes an "F3-plus hurricane" on Heron Bay Estates, leaving the settlement "totally flattened in fewer than two dozen minutes." Amidst the wreckage, the survivors gather to vent their frustration at what fate has wrought upon them.
"If we're going to bring Gee-dash-Dee into this meeting," one female character rails, "then before we thank Him-slash-Her, at least let's ask Her-slash-Him to explain why He/She killed George and Carol Walsh and wrecked all our houses, okay?"
From your lips to Who Knows's ears, lady, but if past really is prologue in Barth's universe, a better question may be, "Well, are you sure He-dash-She actually did?"
Shawn Macomber is a writer in Philadelphia.