Paul La Farge
John Barth is one of America's great literary pranksters: he has written a novel (Giles Goat-Boy, 1966) in which the universe turns out to be nothing more than a university, and another (The Sot-Weed Factor, 1960) entirely in 18th-century dialect. His best-known book is Lost in the Funhouse (1968), a collection of stories about, well, stories; they begin with their own conception and conclude while still trying to figure out how to stop. Many years have passed since then, and Barth's bag of tricks remains full. His novel Coming Soon!!! (2001) took on the generation gap between text and hypertext; and here he has gone into the construction business, which may be the best trick of all, and the only one that could still have surprised his readers.
In The Development, a collection of nine enjambed stories, Barth builds up Heron Bay Estates, a gated community on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The development is subdivided into marginally less and marginally more posh neighborhoods, with names like Oyster Cove, Blue Crab Bight, and Spartina Pointe, all connected by bike paths, nature trails, and roads where, you can be sure, no one goes over 20 miles an hour.
The suburbs have, or have had, their writers, whose work was for a few decades in the last century the patented product against which postmodernism defined itself. Heron Bay is, if anything, even blander, whiter, and more middle class than those literary tracts: compared to its (mostly) sober and (largely) self-satisfied residents, the pugnacious drinkers of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road look downright bohemian. As for Cheever's bunch, Heron Bay Estates would have them all immediately institutionalized.
Things do happen in The Development: children die; men dream of sex and sometimes have it; an emeritus professor throws himself on a borrowed machete. Mostly, however, what Barth's narrators do is ramble, from house to house, calamity to calamity, thought to thought. Here's one of the residents of Heron Bay, setting the scene for a story that will turn out to have exactly nothing to do with the Mattahannock River:
A mile wide where it ebbs and flows past our Heron Bay Estates, the Mattahannock (like the opening sentences of this would-be story) then winds on and on: another dozen-plus miles upstream, ever narrower and shallower, northeastward through the agribusiness corn and soybean fields and industrial-scale chicken farms of our table-flat Delmarva Peninsula to its petering out (or in) at its marshy headwaters somewhere near the Delaware state line...
The sentence goes on for another half page, but you get the idea. Barth happens to live in eastern Maryland, but I like to think that even if he were from Arkansas, he would have equipped the narrator with this prideful our (our Estates, our Peninsula), which closes off the possibility of even limited omniscience. Whatever happens, we'll see it from ground level.
Readers familiar with Barth's work may already have singled out another (parenthetical) phrase from the quotation above, and they may already be preparing to ask a question about it. Like the opening sentences of this would-be story: is Barth, in the midst of all this earthy detail, playing his old metafictional games? Indeed yes. Six of The Development's nine stories stop on the brink of -- or just past -- precipices of writerly self-awareness: "The Bard Award," an ambiguous collaboration between an old writing teacher and his fired-up young protegée, bites its own tail gleefully; "Us/Them," putatively a column in a local newspaper, breaks off in despair. The other four, like their narrators, hesitate between those emotional extremes, as if waiting to see what comes next.
The open-endedness of these stories is not mere trickiness. The tired reporters and washed-up teachers of creative writing in Heron Bay Estates are, like Barth himself, close enough to the end of their lives that the autobiographer's paradox is more than a theoretical worry. How do you tell the conclusion of your own story? How can you even imagine it? For someone with a bit of literary flair -- and all of Barth's narrators, however mediocre their self-described talents, have that -- there is perhaps no better way to face the certainty that your own consciousness will cease, than with a defiant colon, so:
Is this metafiction or suburban realism? The wonderful and sad thing about The Development is that it doesn't matter. Everyone in Heron Bay Estates is lost to a greater or lesser degree in the funhouse of early twenty-first-century America, perplexed by a shimmering economy, an uncertain climate and an unfathomable war. A few of them don't know they are lost: they are the awful ones. A few more choose to leave precipitously, and they're not much better. Between these extremes, Barth populates Heron Bay with a number of characters who have reservations about nearly everything but are willing to give life the benefit of the doubt, or maybe it's just the benefit of doubt. In "Progressive Dinner," Pete and Debbie Simpson, who have lost their daughter in a car accident, debate the authenticity of an email from a Nigerian girl who wants money for school. One of the liberal guests proposes that they help the girl,
"And then Pete and I officially adopt her as our daughter," Debbie says at last, in a tone that her husband can't assess at all, "and we stop eating our hearts out about losing Julie, and everyone lives happily ever after."
It would be a fairy-tale ending to the story, if it was real, but is it real? The stories we tell and the stories we hear are always opening out onto questions like this; and maybe we've moved past the point where we have to stick the label "postmodern" on those writers who allow their doubts to interrupt the flow of their telling. Which is actually not how Barth plays it, in this case. The progressive dinner winds down with some drunk people shouting:
From the porch Chuck Becker adds loudly, "God bless us all! And God bless America!"
Several voices murmur "Amen." Looking up and away with a sigh of mild annoyance, Peter Simpson happens at just that moment to see a meteor streak left to right across the moonless, brightly constellated eastern sky.
So what? he asks himself.
--Paul La Farge
Paul La Farge is the author of two novels: The Artist of the Missing and Haussmann, or the Distinction.
Read an Excerpt
Don’t ask me (as my wife half teasingly did earlier this morning) who I think is reading or hearing this. My projected history of our Oyster Cove community, and specifically the season of its Peeping Tom, is barely past the note-gathering stage, and there’s nobody here in my study at 1010 Oyster Cove Court except me and my PC, who spend an hour or three together after breakfast and morning stretchies before Margie and I move on to the routine chores and diversions of a comfortably retired American couple in the dawn of the new millennium and the evening of their lives. Maybe our CIA/FBI types have found ways to eavesdrop on any citizen’s scribbling? Or maybe some super-shrewd hacker has turned himself into a Listening Tom, the electronic equivalent of Oyster Cove’s peeper, even when I’m talking to myself?
Don’t ask me (but in that case you wouldn’t need to, right?); I just work here. For all I know, "You"like the subject of this history, in some folks’ opinionmay not actually, physically exist. Unlike him, however (and we all assume our P.T., whether real or imagined, to have been a Him, not a Her), you’re an invited guest, who- and whatever You are, not an eavesdropper. Welcome aboard, mate, and listen up!
As I was saying, I just work here, more or less between nine and noon most mornings, while Margaret the Indispensable does her ex-businesswoman business in her own workspace upstairs: reviews and adjusts our stock-and-bond accounts and other assets; pays the family bills and balances our checkbook; works the phone to line up service people; schedules our errands and appointments; plans our meals, vacation trips, grandkid visits . . . and Next Big Moves.
Which last-mentioned item prompts this whatever-it-is-I’m-doing. Margie and I have pretty much decided (and she’ll soon e-mail the news to our middle-aged offspring, who’ll be Sad But Relieved to hear it) that what with my ominously increasing memory problems and her near-laming arthritis, the time has come for us to list this pleasant "villa" of ours with a realtor and get ready to get ready to shift across and down the river from good old Heron Bay Estates (of which more presently) to TCI’s assisted-living establishment, Bayview Manor.
Even Margiea professional real-estate agent herself back in our city-house/country-house days, when she worked the suburban D.C. residential market while I taught history to fifth- and sixth-formers at Calvert Heights Country Day Schooleven Margie rolls her Chesapeake-green, macularly degenerating eyes at all that developers’ lingo. Heron Bay Estates, now approaching the quarter-century mark, was the first large gated-community project of Tidewater Communities, Inc.: a couple thousand acres of former corn and soybean fields, creeper-clogged pine woods, and tidewater wetlands on Maryland’s river-veined Eastern Shore. By no means "estates" in any conventional sense of that term, our well-planned and "ecologically sensitive" residential development is subdivided into neighborhoodssome additionally gated, most notwith names like Shad Run and Egret’s Crest (low-rise condominiums), Blue Crab Bight (waterfront "coach homes," the developer’s euphemism for over-and-under duplexes, with small-boat dockage on the adjacent tidal creek), Rockfish Reach (more of a stretch than a reach, as the only water in sight of that pleasant clutch of mid- to upper-midrangepeeping tom detached houses is a winding tidal creeklet and a water-hazard pond, ringed with cattails, between the tenth and eleventh holes of HBE’s golf course, whose Ecological Sensitivity consists of using recycled "gray water" on its greens and fairways instead of pumping down the water table even further), Spartina Pointe (a couple dozen upscale McMansions, not unhandsome, whose obvious newness so belies the fake-vintage spelling of their reeded land-spit that we mockingly sound its terminal e: "Spartina Pointey," or "Ye Oldey Spartina Pointey")and our own Oyster Cove, whose twenty-odd "villas" (on a circular "court" around a landscaped central green with a fountain that spritzes recycled water three seasons of the year) have nothing of the Mediterranean or Floridian that that term implies: In the glossary of HBE and of TCI generally, "villas" are side-by-side two-story duplexes (as distinct from those afore-mentioned "coach homes" on the one hand and detached houses on the other) of fi rst-fl oor brick and second-fl oor vinyl clapboard siding, attractively though nonfunctionally window-shuttered, two-car-garaged, and modestly porched fore and aft, their exterior maintenance and small-lot landscaping managed mainly by our Neighborhood Association rather than by the individual owners. Halfway houses, one might say, between the condos and the detached-house communities.
Indeed, that term applies in several respects. Although a few of us are younger and quite a few of us older but still able, your typical Oyster Cove couple are about halfway between their busy professional peak and their approaching retirement. Most would describe themselves as upper-middle-incomersan O.C. villa is decidedly not low-budget housingbut a few find their mortgage and insurance payments, property taxes, and the Association’s stiff maintenance assessments just barely manageable, while a few others have merely camped here until their Spartina Pointe( y) (Mc)Mansions were landscaped, interior-decorated, and ready for them and their Lexuses, Mercedeses, and golf carts (3.5-car garages are standard in SpPte). An Oyster Cove villa is typically the first second home of a couple like Margie and me fifteen or so years back: empty nesters experimenting with either retirement or a transportable home office while getting the feel of the Heron Bay scene, trying out the golf course and Club, and scouting alternative neighborhoods. The average residency is about ten years, although some folks bounce elsewhere after one or twoup to Spartina Pointe or Rockfish Reach, down to an Egret’s Crest condo, more or less sidewise to a Blue Crab Bight coach home, or out to some other development in some other location, if not to Bayview Manor or the graveand a dwindling handful of us old-timers have been here almost since the place was built.
To wind up this little sociogram: The majority of Heron Bay Estaters are White Anglo-Saxon Protestants of one or another denomination, but there are maybe three or four Jewish families, a few more Roman Catholics, and probably a fair number of seculars. (Who knows? Who cares? Firm believers in the separation of church and estate, we don’t pry into such matters.) Politically, we’re split about evenly between the two major parties. No Asians or African Americans among us yetnot because they’re officially excluded (as they would have been fifty years ago, and popular though the adjective "exclusive" remains with outfits like TCI); perhaps because any in those categories with both the means and the inclination to buy into a gated community prefer not to be ethnic-diversity pioneers on the mostly rural and not-all-that-cosmopolitan Eastern Shore.
"Gated": That too is a bit of a stretch in Oyster Cove, and (in Margie’s and my opinion, anyhow) an expensive bit of ornamentation for Heron Bay. In a low-crime area whose weekly newspaper’s police blotter runs more to underage tobacco and liquor purchases and loud-noise complaints in the nearby county seat than to break-ins and crimes of violence, there’s little need for round-the-clock gatekeepers, HBE Resident windshield stickers, phone-ahead clearance for visitors, and routine neighborhood drive-throughs by the white-painted Security carthough it’s admittedly a (minor) pleasure not to bother latching doors and windows every time we bicycle over to the Club for tennis or drive into town for medical/dental appointments, a bit of shopping, or dinner. As for the secondary gates at Spartina Pointe, Blue Crab Bight, and Oyster Coveunmanned (even though some have gatehouses), their swing-gates operated by push-button code and usually closed only at nightpure snobbery, many of us think, or mild paranoia, and a low-grade nuisance, especially on rainy-cold nights when you don’t want to roll down your car window and reach out to the lighted control box, or oblige arriving guests (whom you’ve had to supply in advance with the four-digit entry code) to do likewise. And both gatesReader/Listener take notescreen motor vehicles only: Bicycles and pedestrians come and go freely on the sidewalks, whether the gates are open or shut. Our own Oyster Cove gates, by near-unanimous vote of the Neighborhood Association, have remained open and inoperative for the past dozen years. We use the attractively landscaped little brick gatehouse for storing lawn fertilizer, grass seed, and pavement de-icer for the winter months: a less expensive alternative to removing the whole structure, which anyhow some residents like for its ornamental (or prestige-suggesting) value. Since, as aforementioned, the average O.C. residency is a decade or less, it’s only we old-timers who remember actually having used those secondary gates.
But then, it’s only we who remember