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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Soon after The End of the Road, Barth cast his lot in with the meta-
fictionists and magical realists. He, for instance, summarized his wonderfully skewed fourth novel, Giles Goat-Boy (1966), as a tale of "a young man sired by a giant computer upon a hapless but compliant librarian and raised in the experimental goat-barns of a universal university" who eventually comes to terms with "both his goathood and his humanhood (not to mention his machinehood)."

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.