by John Barth
Houghton Mifflin / 167 pages / $23
Considered a writer's writer, John Barth crams his prose with narrative tricks, literary allusions, figurative language and dirty jokes. Although the results can be head-spinning, they are also funny and tragic - at the same time. Barth's latest book of nine interlocking short stories, The Development, shows him as a master of the form.
Barth (winner of the National Book, the PEN/Malamud and the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement awards) sets these narratives in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay country in the fictional retirement community of Heron Bay. Calling the book a projected history, Barth describes the Eastern Shore in James Michener-like detail in each one of these tales.
So it's nearly impossible not to know the setting of Barth's fictional landscape. But it's harder to know what's happening, who's talking and what's the point. Barth offers alternate endings and even alternate narrators who jump into and out of the story. He plays games with the elements of fiction, establishing and destroying the illusion of reality.
Welcome to the world of postmodern metafiction, with its subject being the art of telling a story - not the characters or what they do, not even the setting. Barth simulates a real setting only to help readers believe in and care about his stories.
Interested in all aspects of creating a story, Barth spoofs the process. Writer's block, workshop classes, publication: Barth's an expert on the subject - having taught in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program for many years. "The Bard Award," one of the most biting narratives here, satirizes college writing programs. The story concerns the fictional Stratford College with its lavish Bard Prize - a takeoff on Washington College's Sophie Kerr Award. A Barth-like hero allows one of his former students to submit revisions of his work as part of her portfolio. Regretting his decision when she tries to publish his work as her own, he tries to figure out how to end the story (that he's telling and we're reading) before he further damages his reputation.
Other stories are more traditional. In "Peeping Tom," for example, a playful story about losing libido, a narrator recalls the summer when a stranger spied on Heron Bay residents as they used the bathroom. The women (out of shape and postmenopausal) were flattered, and the men aroused. But this story isn't just a display of Barth's naughtiness. The narrator hints early on that, amid the wordplay, there are weighty matters in the wings. Using parody and ribaldry, Barth skewers academe, religion, wealthy retirement communities, politicians, political correctness, marriage, families, old age and death. The point isn't comedy for its own sake; it's comedy to accentuate tragedy.
Most of these stories are narrated by George I. Newett (say the name aloud), a retired writing professor, who, like Barth, specializes in writing short stories and novels and who, also like Barth, is in his late 70s. Think a septuagenarian Stephen Daedalus, who lives not in Dublin with an Aphrodite-like muse but in a gated retirement community on the Eastern Shore where his muse rests her "ever lazier butt." At the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, Newett - probably also like Barth - feels his mortality.
Those feelings surface in the first few pages when Newett notes that, despite the absence of a world war, everything has been going downhill lately, adding, "Nor are we all what we used to be either." To a greater or lesser degree, the other stories exemplify that troubling statement as they examine the pitfalls of aging from debilitation to depression to dementia to death.
One of the final stories, "The End," examines life just before and after a killer tornado visits the community. (The tornado spun from tropical storm Georgio - connection to George, the omniscient narrator, intended.) The most gripping and least playful story here, "Toga Party" (included in The Best American Short Stories, 2007), concerns the possible double suicide of the Feltons, a long-married, elderly couple, each of whom cannot bear the idea of living without the other. Knowing all that's left is "the crappy last lap" of life, they sit in their garage with the car motor running and wonder whether they should send an e-mail to explain things to their adult children. Will they save themselves? Will the narrator change the plot at the last minute?
It's not unlike Newett to pull the plug on a story that's going to end in destruction. He does that in "Teardown," a story about razing a house, which becomes a story about tearing down a life - several lives actually. When the outcome becomes too grim, the narrator abruptly ends the story. The hurt isn't worth it, he says.
So will Newett pull a trick out of his storyteller's bag and save the Feltons? Let's say, he leaves the reader trembling - exactly what Barth intends.
Diane Scharper is the co-editor of the anthology "Reading Lips and Other Ways to Cope with a Disability," winner of the first Helen Keller international memoir competition. She teaches English at Towson University.
"A mile wide where it ebbs and flows past our Heron Bay Estates, the Matahannock (like these opening sentences of this would-be story) then winds on and on. ..."