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The Interview | With John Barth

A gate-crasher with an attentive eye

JOHN BARTH JOHN BARTH (©Giovanni Photography 2001)
By Anna Mundow
November 2, 2008
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Comic novelist John Barth, the author most notably of "The Floating Opera," "The Sot-Weed Factor," "Chimera," and "Giles Goat-Boy," turns his wry gaze on retirement living in his latest collection, "The Development" (Houghton Mifflin, $23). These linked stories, set in the planned community of Heron Bay Estates, are by turns satirical and compassionate, political and personal, world-weary and even life-weary. "We've had a good life together," a character in "The Toga Party" tells his wife, "but it's done with except for the crappy last lap."

Barth spoke from his home in Maryland.

Q. Are these stories a distillation of your previous themes?

A. Different as they are from the large novels that I wrote decades ago, they certainly extend some of my preoccupations: storytelling, people conscious of their lives as ongoing (and ever-shorter) stories. I still think of myself as a novelist by temperament rather than a short story writer. But it's not only because I'm getting older that I savor the shorter form. It's one that I've enjoyed since "Lost in the Funhouse" in 1968 and the novella triad "Chimera" in 1973. No sooner have I finished one story, however, and begun another than I begin to see links between them. So my stories tend to reverberate a bit, to become a series rather than a collection.

Q. Why did you choose a retirement-community setting?

A. Two obvious reasons. I'm not 35 years old anymore. As a person at the end of his 70s, I have experienced retirement - though not yet from writing. Additionally, for the last decade my wife and I continue to spend our summers here on Chesapeake Bay, but we also winter in a gated retirement community in Florida. We have reservations about the whole idea of a gated community, but quite enjoy it while keeping one foot in this very un-gated rural neighborhood on Maryland's Eastern Shore. This has given us the opportunity to share lives with people in different stages of retirement and old age.

Q. In this fictional gated world, does your narrator often keep the reader at bay?

A. I hope not. Reminding the reader that what's in hand is a work of fiction may be a trademark of postmodernism, but it's also a tradition that reaches back to Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks. The trick is every now and then to acknowledge that this is an imagined reconstruction of real life, while at the same time not blowing away the emotional effect of the situations you've invented. It's having it both ways.

Q. And the retirement community is also real life at one remove?

A. In a sense, yes, I suppose; I hadn't thought of that connection before. [Laughs.] I may make use of it in future stories. And because our gated community is largely conservative while our little enclave is uniformly liberal, we feel like an island within a larger island. Not threatened, mind, just amicably distinct.

Q. You seem to pull back from characters even as you engage our sympathy for them.

A. It's true. One story ends with the "author" saying that he's pulling the plug on this right now, before something worse happens. That's an old device, but I had the feeling (and I hope it's true) that it would clinch the emotional effect. A number of those characters are at a stage in life when they're about to pull the plug or have it pulled on them, one way or another.

Q. That deadpan humor reminded me at times of Flann O'Brien.

A. I'm glad to hear it. One of the things I miss about teaching is that students would tell me what I ought to read. One of my students, back in the 1960s, put me on to [Jorge Luis] Borges, and I remember another mentioning Flann O'Brien's "At Swim-Two-Birds" in the same way.

Q. I was surprised to see the current financial meltdown foreshadowed here.

A. Looking over the finished edition before the book came out, I did notice with wry amusement that a number of the events I mentioned came pretty close to being prophecies. Like getting older . . . .

Q. Does the natural world remain a consolation in your fiction?

A. It does, I think. Our communities may only date back to the day before yesterday by European standards (we just returned from the Aegean, where the 14th century is the day before yesterday). On the other hand, as I'm speaking to you, I'm looking out my window at a tidal creek that comes off the Chester River and Chesapeake Bay and flows in from the seven seas. Back in our sailing days, my wife and I used to set off from the dock and remind ourselves that theoretically we could just keep going all the way to Portugal. This land and these waters are ancient. In Florida, of course, everything was built yesterday. And now it's all for sale.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at ama1668@hotmail .com.

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