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October 21, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | October 21, 2008 |

Robert Browning was obviously optimistic about old age when he penned the lines “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made…” It is doubtful that John Barth, writing roughly a century and a half later, shares Browning’s view.

In fact, after reading The Development, Barth’s newest collection of short stories, I am more afraid than ever of growing old. If there are any benefits to this “last of life,” Barth doesn’t cover them here. Instead, Barth indicates that the end of one’s life is as fraught with confusion and uncertainty as is the beginning — only with the added benefits of poor eyesight, increased illness, and decreased agility. I can’t wait.

That’s not to say The Development is a total downer - it’s not. These nine stories are quick and light (the entire collection spans fewer than 170 pages) and are often quite funny, albeit in a dark, satirical way. There is the occasional occurrence of geriatric sex, which was admittedly a bit skeevy, but not necessarily depressing.

Set on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, The Development concerns the residents of Heron Bay Estates, a lovely little development that boasts many amenities for its residents. The wealthier inhabitants own weekend homes, while some other, full-time residents are planning the transition into “assisted living” — another of the development’s amenities. The characters are all quite diverse, each filling a particular pigeonhole that allows Barth to satirize pretty much everyone. There’s the conservatives who support Bush and the war in Iraq, and the liberals who spurn SUVs and wastefulness and encourage residents to go green. There are artists and businessmen, philanderers and Christian volunteers. Barth has a go at everyone in his Development.

Society itself, especially as depicted by the microcosm of Heron Bay Estates, is equally skewered. In “Peeping Tom,” the residents of this affluent gated community must come to terms with the illusion of safety, as their walls do not prevent a lurker from spying on their most private moments. Barth deftly and comically proves that a gated community can never fully protect inhabitants from outsiders — or from themselves.

This us/them dichotomy is furthered by other stories, not the least of which is the obviously titled “Us/Them,” in which Barth pits community member against community member, ideology against ideology. “Us/Them” is interesting for the ways in which Barth constantly redefines these terms, as each successive “us” becomes narrower and narrower. “Teardown” also develops the “us against them” theme when new residents tear down their home in favor of building a larger, more palatial one, incurring the wrath of their liberal neighbors in the process.

The best stories, however, eschew social satire in favor of simpler fare. Three stories in particular were especially moving, as Barth illustrates the effects of losing one’s life partner. “Toga Party” sees one couple taking fate in their own hands, unlike the couple featured in “Assisted Living,” whose best-laid plans are laid to waste when one spouse suddenly dies, leaving the surviving partner to cope alone. “The End” proves that fate can never be avoided, never predicted; no matter how carefully one plans for the future, life is ultimately one big surprise. Barth never descends into pathos when relating such dire events; nevertheless his straightforward, frequently wry delivery increases the emotion one feels when reading about these often helpless characters.

Still, The Development shines not because of its stories - these characters are, as one narrator notes, “nothing very momentous or consequential in the larger scheme of things” - but rather due to the metafictional, postmodern touches employed by Barth. These touches (narrators frequently address the audience, pondering authorial decisions, changing endings, or refusing to end the story at all) allow the reader to remember that this is fiction, after all, and not reality — although reality is never far away, especially when the characters argue about Darfur or Iraq.

But don’t let words like “metafiction” and “postmodern” fool you into thinking The Development isn’t a fun read. These stories are funny, thought-provoking, and moving - and never feel heavy or self-important. As long as you don’t mind images of dry, elderly poon (yeah, I went there - but so did Barth), I’d say The Development is worth a go.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

The Development by John Barth / Jennifer McKeown

Books | October 21, 2008 |

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