At this late stage in his career, John Barth is probably in a kind of no-win situation. Those who identify him as a first-generation postmodernist, and have probably never had much admiration for postmodern fiction, anyway, will see every new work as an example of postmodernism's obsolescence. Thus Gregory Leon Miller proclaims that in Barth's most recent book, The Development, "Emotional moments - mortality is a major theme of the book - are undercut by narrative games that have become cliché, as narrators reveal themselves to be someone other than we were led to believe, and then someone else altogether. . .The tedium of these gestures strongly suggests that it is such postmodern fiction itself - at least in its purest, initially conceived form - that has run its course" (San Francisco Chronicle).
On the other hand, those who do consider themselves admirers of Barth's work are more likely to find a book like The Development, which undeniably is more accessible to the non pomo-inclined, disappointingly ordinary. Thus Christopher Sorrentino concludes that "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" (Bookforum).
Although I am more inclined to agree with Sorrentino in his judgment that The Development is "a modest addition to [Barth's] oeuvre," I can't quite agree that the portrayal of the gated community on Maryland's Eastern Shore that is the focus of the nine stories comprising The Development bears comparison to Keillor-type sentimentality. Indeed, to the extent that Miller's criticism has validity--and only here does it have validity--it is true that Barth's fiction rarely lingers over "emotional moments" without resorting to distancing effects such as verbal irony or authorial self-reflexivity. While it might seem "conventional" for John Barth to write a sequence of stories about elderly couples trying to cope with the fact that the horizon line of their lives has come much closer, I don't think either the subject or the setting is inherently "hokum."
Indeed, the most emotionally unsettling moment in The Development occurs at the conclusion of "Toga Party," in which the story's husband and wife protagonists decide to gas themselves in their garage rather than continue on their life's "crappy last lap," as the husband puts it. The story is unsettling precisely because there really has been no emotional preparation for this almost spontaneous decision and because it is carried out with little emotional display:
. . .Already they could smell exhaust fumes. "I love you, Dick."
"I love you. And okay, so we're dumping on the kids, leaving them to take the hit and clean up the mess. So what?"
"They'll never forgive us. But you're right. So what?"
"We'll each be presumed to have survived the other, as the saying goes, and neither of us'll be around to know it."
The car engine quietly idled on.
"Shouldn't we at least leave them a note, send them an e-mail, something?"
"So go do that if you want to. Me, I'm staying put."
He heard her exhale. "Me, too, I guess." Then inhale, deeply.
It is true that this event has emotional resonance throughout the rest of the book--other characters refer to it, its possibility as the final act for these characters as well can't be dismissed--but I don't see how it can be taken as "a virtual Hallmark card for suicide." That people like the Fentons might indeed resort to this kind of clear-eyed suicide in the midst of modern "retirement" only seems to me an equally clear-eyed indictment of the very middle-class lifestyle to which almost all of the characters in the book have readily acceded, to one degree or another. There is a repressed but still palpable disappointment with the outcome of American "success" permeating The Development, not an affirmation of it.
Some of the characters are more resistant to the illusions of the American Way than others. At the end of "Progressive Dinner," about the annual Heron Bay Estates social, we are left with Peter Simpson, an associate dean at the local college:
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.
Most of the characters are presented as financially comfortable and as having accomplished career success, but many of them don't seem to regard their careers as achieving anything very important. Some are outright failures, as for example George Newett, a creative writing professor at the same local college, who confesses to having published little and who settles for "trying to help others do better" than he did, although "as of this writing no Stratford alum has managed that not-so-difficult achievement." None of them are held up as especially insightful, morally or intellectually. They may indeed be "bland," but this seems to me at least the natural outcome of their author's vision of Heron Bay Esates, the small but representative world John Barth wants to invoke.
Given the extent to which in The Development Barth has trimmed back what Gregory Leon Miller calls the "meta-fictional [sic] flourishes" for which Barth has become, at least to critics like Miller, infamous, it is rather astonishing that Miller would insist on charging it with "excessive self-reflexivity." There are a couple of stories--in particular, "The Bard Award" and "Rebeginnings"--that feature Barth's trademark dual emphasis on telling the story and on relating the story of the storytelling, which makes some of his most notoriously postmodern novels and stories more like narrative puzzles than narratives per se. But for the most part, the stories in The Development are surprisingly straightforward suburban slices-of-life joined together to create a surprisingly earnest work of late-life realism. One suspects that for readers like Miller, Barth could never be less than "excessive" unless he were to stop writing altogether or start being an utterly different kind of writer than the one he's always been.
One "self-reflexive" feature of the book that even Miller does not bring forward for censure, and that might be considered an addition of "narrative complexity," can be found in its title. "The Development," it seems to me, does not refer merely to the housing development itself, nor to the "development" of the characters' lives so far, but to "the development" as one of the elements of narrative. Most of the stories (except, of course, for "Toga Party") consist mostly of "development," most of them beginning in no particularly urgent situation and trailing off before the "tale" could be said to have reached its dramatic apex. "The End," which ostensibly tells the story of HBE's destruction by tornado, doesn't actually narrate that catastrophe and registers the deaths of two of the community's members in just a couple of sentences. But this seems to me to reinforce the book's portrayal of the characters' "last lap." As Paul Lafarge puts it in his review of The Development, "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?. . .there is perhaps no better way to face the certainty that your own consciousness will cease, than with a defiant colon, so:" (Barnes and Noble Review).
Barth employs such a strategy of inconclusiveness, it seems to me, with particular skill in this book, so much so that its more subtle effects are apparently lost on his harsher critics who see only the more obvious "meta-fictional" touches.