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The Development by John Barth

We'll each be presumed to have
survived the other, as the saying goes,
and neither of us'll be around to know it.
I have a great deal of respect for John Barth. Even casual readers of these pages might notice the regularity of his appearances, generously spaced as befits a writer whose words require some significant effort of his readers. His insouciant love of wordplay, of use of subtext, and the meta-meta-meta [ad infinitum]* nature of some of his fiction makes me giggle with delight.

But on with the story! Or nine stories to be exact, and each is a window into life at a fictional but easily identifiable tidewater settlement of retirees, in which those seeking towards-end-of-life sanctuary find themselves in an awkwardly contrived and flimsy community at the turn of the century and indeed the millennium. There's a peeping tom (or is there?), spouses die, children are killed, an octogenarian stabs himself before his friends gas themselves in the garage, and of course there are innumerable community meetings and dinners and toga parties. Over it all hovers the opaquely implied threat of Tidewater Inc., a faceless multinational seeking to tame nature one gated enclave at a time.

I get the distinct impression that Mr Barth is coming to terms with the rather terminal and definite concept of dying. Not unusual, you might imagine, for a man on the wrong side of 85 (or of 80 at the time of publishing). I also get the impression that he is very much still enjoying life and having a lot of fun with words. Even when he's talking about the shocking and sudden double suicide of two empty-nesters in the gated community in which this collection of inter-connected short stories is set, it's hard not to imagine a crooked smile peeking out from behind his scruffy white beard as he tilts his head so his impudently-angled beret lies flat as the horizon across your line of vision. Yup, he seems to like wearing berets. The book cover blurb reports his humour as mordant, but any acidity is tempered by what appears to be his natural instinct to poke fun at himself, without taming the ferocity of his attack. It's a perfect disguise for what is essentially a savage critique of a particular mindset of American retirees of a certain social and economic standing, one in which Barth no doubts finds himself–educated, affluent and isolated in pristine suburbia. 

But whatever the reasons Barth has written short stories about a gated community, the stories themselves are worth taking the time to savour, to enjoy, and to share, and I would heartily recommend you indulge in his special blend of wit and compassion.

*I'm struggling to find the proof, but I understand Barth might hold the record for the number of pairs of inverted commas around reported speech in published fiction–14 discrete reports of the original conversation!

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