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Barth Is Back

Behind the gates of a gated community with a modern master.

Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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The Development

by John Barth

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 176 pp., $23

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.