Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Development by John Barth (a review)

The Development
3.5 out of 5: The Development is a novel told in nine short stories. The title refers to Heron Bay Estates, a fictional retirement/second-home community on the Chesapeake Bay in which all of these stories take place. Although the same characters appear throughout the book, the focus and point of view changes for each story, revealing new information about the characters and illustrating the deep connections that run through this close-knit community. In addition to the idea of community, the other primary theme present in these stories is mortality and the aging process: What does it mean to grow old? And when, if ever, is it time to give up the ghost?

Barth pays great attention to structure in this collection. Not only is the narrative structure of each story closely controlled, but the structure of Heron Bay Estates is also meticulously described and upheld. Each sub-neighborhood contains a particular style of house and a specific type of inhabitant, and Barth remains faithful, sometimes annoyingly so, to this structure throughout.

Bath's playful writing style adds a substantial amount of levity to these often dark stories, though Barth's narrative stunts are occasionally more frustrating than satisfying. In one case, Barth simply stops a story in the middle of the action, "pull[ing] its narrative plug before somebody gets hurt." Only someone with a reputation as well-established as Barth's can get away with such an escape. Fortunately, other fully-formed stories (of which "Toga Party" is the best) round out this interesting collection.

3 comments:

Anna van Gelderen said...

Hi Gwen, do you know whether this is the same John Barth who wrote The Sot-weed Factor?

Robert Nagle said...

Hi, John Barth was my teacher in graduate school. I have a stack of his books on my bookshelf patiently waiting to be read.

Sot-Weed Factor is supposed to be one of his best. Barth is often criticized for too much wordplay and self-consciousness. I confess, it often gets in the way of enjoying the story. Part of the problem is generational. Younger readers have less tolerance for these philosphical flourishes and narrative gift wrapping. (I confess having the same impatience with DF Wallace or William Vollman, although I recognize a lot of my own writing tendencies in their own).

I am very curious about this novel though. It's interesting how some authors change in their latter days and also stay the same. As much of a fan of Kundera as I am, I was astonished (in a good way) at how his latest novel appeared. He seemed to have moved beyond his usual themes, leaving only stylistic quirks, a tendency towards quick judgment and a seriousness about the end.

I think writers in their latter years tend to return to the same locations as before. For me, it's not important (what value is Houston as a place anyway), but decades later, I may change my mind.

It will be nice to visit Barth's work again. Ironically, if Barth were writing today, he would do a grand job taking advantage of the hypertextual narratives of the Internet. The problem with Barth is that he was born 50 years too late.

Anna van Gelderen said...

Hi Robert, thanks for enlightening me. I read The Sot-weed Factor a very long time ago, but thoroughly enjoyed it. I can't remember being bogged down by wordplay and too much self-consciousness, but maybe that just passed me by.
How interesting that Barth was your teacher in graduate school. None of my teachers was even remotely famous.