John Barth once likened postmodernism to tying a necktie simultaneous with providing a detailed explanation of the procedure while also discussing the history of neckties and still ending up with a perfect Windsor knot. It’s an entirely credible definition of the concept—some days I’d happily accept it in exchange for the whole of my small library on the subject—and charming, too. Barth’s always been a charmer, although at nearly eighty years old he’s more like the lovable old uncle who’s been entertaining the kids with that necktie routine for about fifty years than the onetime vigorous advocate for “passionate virtuosity.” The kids shout, “Do it again!” and so he does. Nothing wrong with that, but grown-ups who’ve already heard about the Steinkirk cravat, or whatever, are likely to wander off to the bar.
So it goes with Barth’s latest effort, The Development, a trim collection of linked stories that marks a modest addition to his oeuvre: While hardly showing the author succumbing to senescence, it doesn’t exhibit him at the top of his form, either. A venue for Uncle Jack’s tried-and-true backyard road show, The Development is set in the fictional Heron Bay Estates, a Maryland coastal development of several discrete “communities,” each complementing the others while occupying its own distinct demographic tier—the denizens of Oyster Cove, for example, may aspire to live in Rockfish Reach, and so forth. It is, in other words, a kind of Elysium of Nice, where you may start a family in a semidetached town house, raise it in a McMansion, retire to a two-bedroom condo, and then die in an assisted-living facility without ever once meeting someone you wouldn’t invite to your potluck.
One imagines Barth circling this material like a wolf around an untended sheepfold, but while it’s to his credit that he doesn’t take too many easy shots at this subdivided idyll, it’s a problem that he doesn’t really take any at all. A typical couple, George and Carol Walsh, are inventoried as follows:
A comfortable, fortune-favored life . . . ample pensions, annuity income, and a solid, conservative investment portfolio; not-bad health; no family tragedies; few really close friends (and no house pets), but no enemies. To be sure, they fear the prospect of old age and infirmity . . . but feel graced indeed with each other, with their family . . . their neighbors and neighborhood, and the worthy if unremarkable accomplishments of their past and present life.
Add the golf dates and tennis lunches, and, well, that describes pretty much everybody in Heron Bay Estates: the sum of what they have and how grateful they are to have it. Focusing on one household in each story, Barth peels back the fake, shallow pleasantness to reveal . . . the genuine, shallow pleasantness. Sure, there are a few stock conservative types, inveighing in a curmudgeonly way against pulling out of Iraq or indulging in spectacularly conspicuous consumption, and their liberal counterparts, who want to rid the community of its gates and embrace “diversity,” and consequently some low-velocity clashes. Sure, Peter and Debbie Simpson have lost their daughter in an accident and (so we are informed) suffer for it. And sure, Barth’s always been all about surface—I don’t have to tell you about his two-dimensional characters, because he’s perfectly happy to tell you himself. But Barth shares with Pynchon the habit of perfecting that surface, polishing it to mirror brightness, then shifting gears and insisting that there’s emotional depth nonetheless: Even when Barth urges us to respond to his characters here, he’s demanding that we writhe for the superficial. This is most blatantly on display in “Toga Party,” wherein a paper-doll couple, the Feltons, decide to kill themselves after attending the cardboard party of the title. Why? Well, they’ve shared a good life (see inventory, above), so why not go out at the top of their game? A virtual Hallmark card for suicide—probably why Stephen King, a perfect judge of hokum, selected “Toga Party” for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2007—it’s not even the best story in The Development.
I’ve always agreed with Barth about the ludicrousness of hewing to the conventional—“Lost in the Funhouse” long ago demonstrated to my complete satisfaction the inadequacy of Freytag’s pyramid as a demarcation of narrative limits—and I’m not suggesting that stories require “realistic depth.” I’m quite happy to have Barth and his various narrators flash their mirrors, twist their Möbius strips, preempt one another’s utterances, and “intrude and loom,” as David Foster Wallace phrased it in his homage to Barth, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” into and over the text. But while Barth has often come on like a white-jacketed technician, in his best work he’s strayed across the line separating purely formal experimentation from philosophy, myth, and allegory. As much as he argues against the conventions of form within each individual piece here, their publication as a story cycle implies a certain coherence; invites the reader to anticipate, well, something beyond the old sleight-of-hand routine. Barth once talked about embracing “another order of risk,” in which one would test one’s ability to hold an audience with narrative complexity. Here, though, we have stories about community that, while not without their appeal, are as bland as the homespun Americana of Garrison Keillor. At the crucial stage while tying the tie and telling the tale, Barth neglected to pull the knot tight.
Christopher Sorrentino’s most recent book is American Tempura (Nothing Moments, 2007). He teaches at Columbia University.