Unified Fragmentation: Alonzo McBride on John Barth’s The Development

The Development, John Barth, Houghton Mifflin


John Barth seemingly vanished for a few orbits of the earth but he has popped up again with an interiorly-crossed, densely constructed set of short stories, The Development. And as he has popped up, he brings with him his continual sense of his own act of writing. Barth writes with a strong and clear sense that he is in the act of writing a narrative, but these nine stories must also be seen as an act of writing by the reader. John Barth wants his readers to pay attention to the artifice in the technology of bookish art (some call this “literature”) because that is how he hurrahs for laughter at the world developing around him and within him. We know that John Barth (b. 1930) is getting older, so readers know that the narrative voice(s) in the stories of The Development is obviously meant to reflect an older person’s attention to the world around him vis-à-vis the neighborhood featured and skewered in the collection.

There are elements of brilliant, deliberate disjunction built into these tales. Barth sets these stories in a set of neighborhoods run by Tidewater Communities, Inc. on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland making a point of continually coming back to this area with community names such as Dorchester, Avon, Kent, Oxford, and Cambridge. He draws relationships between these neighborhoods and that distant inspiration for their naming across the Atlantic. At first glance, this action seems to embrace the threads of time between points of great culture and refinement held from England carried forth to America the New World. However, all that nice rumination ends with the simple phrase on Cambridge and Oxford, “pleasant small towns both, but absent anything remotely like Brit counterparts’ venerable universities.” (74) Whish! There goes the beauty of English tradition, and John Barth replaces it with a simulacrum of townships with cool sounding names exhibiting little or no meaningful or long lasting value. That simple phrase is so deftly handled by Barth that with it he suggests a large, open, connected world only to clip off those connections at the first chance he gets (or makes for himself), leaving a string with little origin floating in space.

The kinds of life Barth portrays in these neighborhoods and towns walled by gates of metal and 24 Hr guards are steeped in love, family deaths, and toga parties. Their conversations are traced deliberately through following them looking for peeping toms over hedges and fences, waiting in lines at their gated communities for the 24 Hr guards to wave them in, and debating whether to rebuild their hurricane destroyed landscape with green-friendly roofs. These are lives lived at the end of suburban streets and inside brightly lit perfectly decorated living rooms, and Barth does a fine job at showing these lives lived in jokes, pain, and jobs.

Barth’s skill in fabricating these lives presents Readers (as he likes to capitalize in direct address) a gift of dialectic thinking through his act of chopping every scene up into aspects for direct consideration. This is unified fragmentation if there is such a thing, and John Barth like his (yeah, I will do it) precursors Jorge Luis Borges and particularly William S Burroughs have done so well in the past. John Barth has created nine pieces of fabulist work for today’s culture and today’s politics.

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