Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Development

John Barth

Fresh out of college, with my shiny new BA in English in hand, I discovered John Barth. His early books, The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, and particularly The Sot Weed Factor and Giles Goat Boy, were wondrous to me, and fresh, pushing the cutting edge of 20th century literature.

His middle works began to seem formulaic, or I had learned the extent of Barth's bag of literary tricks. I knew that he would move his characters in and out of time, put them in the middle of ancient folk tales, bring them back to the Chesapeake, just because he could. They still held my interest, particularly as I had migrated to the scene of his writing. I was sailing the same wine dark sea -er- Bay, as Simon Behler, in The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and Peter Sagamore of Tidewater Tales. I was eating the same steamed crabs, drinking the same National Bohemian beer and watching the same sunsets.

Barth's later books became one trick ponies, the point of which seemed to be to remind the reader that Barth is the Author and he can do whatever he wants with his books, which brings us to this latest short work of fiction. It's not a novel. It's not a collection of short stories. It doesn't have a plot structure, the way I learned in school that stories are supposed to. It starts and stops at will, changes direction, changes narrative point of view ambiguously, stops in the middle of a chapter and refuses to finish it. This would be self indulgent in a younger author. For Barth in 2008, when The Development was published, it just seems exhausted.

The characters in The Development are pencil sketches at best. Residents of a fictional gated community "Heron Bay Estates," they do remind me of the denizens of Heron Point, a gateless retirement community, located at the edge of town. Barth does not give any of them the time to develop. He does kill several of them off and, in one case, Barth simply refuses to continue writing about a couple, prematurely ending the chapter without reaching any point whatsoever - the omnipotent Author rearing his ugly head.

He makes several changes of narrative point of view, which is OK, but at one point he interrupts the narrative to ask the reader to guess who is writing now. No, I know yo aren't Dean Potter Simpsonof Stratford College, or George Newett, who you tried out as a narrator earlier, or Carol Walsh or Amanda Todd or . . . It's old John Barth down there on Broad Neck, pecking away at his old typewriter or his new Mackintosh. Give me a break, John.

What held my interest, again, was the local connection. Barth changed the name of our little town, calling it Stratford, dubbed our little liberal arts college, Stratford College, gave it a,similar overly large and cursed, Shakespeare prize in literature to replace the one named after Sophie Kerr, and re-named our county after an inflatable dinghy. I kept hoping to recognize some of the people in town, however he seems to have made all of his characters up out of whole cloth and not just changed the names to protect the innocent. Or perhaps he runs in different circles than I. We never meet at dinner parties, although I sometimes spot him on the street or at the supermarket.

All in all, I would have to say that The Development would probably be a crashing bore to anyone not familiar with Chestertown and it's environs. To me it was like reading my own name in the Kent County News.


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