The Magazine

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 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."