From within the metal gates and keypad entrance of a gated community, John Barth’s new book, “The Development” ($18.40), eloquently shatters all images of the golden age of retirement with sarcasm and wit. Presenting the dark reality of life as it heads into decline, Barth displays the less-glorious side of getting older.
Hailed by critics as one of the greatest postmodern writers of all time for his works “Lost in the Funhouse” and “Chimera,” Barth has once again shifted the conventions of novel-writing in this intriguing read. With a refreshing and humorous conversational style using run-on sentences to create pages that read more like a casual lunch chat than a novel, Barth delivers another innovative success.
Though the book’s audience is evidently targeted to a readership the same age as the senior citizen characters in the stories, the satirical wit makes it an entertaining read even for the 18 to 25 set. Barth’s fresh delivery of universal themes of growth and life, plus the raw and relatable nature of the characters, defy any potential age obstacles. Fans of J.D. Salinger’s sarcastic approach to the mundane aspect of daily life in “The Catcher in the Rye” will appreciate Barth’s similar voice and delivery.
The book is an intermingling of nine short fictional stories set within Heron Bay Estates, a Maryland community of retirees and empty-nesters. Each chapter is a first-person account focusing on a different couple’s story, ranging from short tell-alls about the community’s Peeping Toms, to the happenings at a disastrously tragic toga party and the temptations of adultery.
The characters in Barth’s stories face conflicts between appearances and reality that even younger audiences are familiar with. Each character elegantly projects happiness to the rest of the community while grappling with inner conflict. They talk to each other with the overly polite air that often buzzes around at indulgent American cocktail parties — an image reminiscent of the 2004 comedy-thriller film, “The Stepford Wives.” Barth plays up this contrast beautifully, using it to add depth to characters that would otherwise seem cold and robotic.
While readers may be amused by the complexity of the characters as well as the realistic characterization, the plots often lack the excitement and suspense that Barth leads them to expect. Each story does, however, finish with a clever and ambiguous twist that leaves the reader wondering about the characters’ fates.
“The Development” is in many ways a witty story about life’s inevitable challenges. Readers of all ages can appreciate the series of literary anecdotes which delve below the surface of neighborhood gossip to deliver poignant and relatable truths.