Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Click to a Toga Party

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 11.

A couple of months ago I read a short story in Contemporary Fiction called “Click,” written by John Barth. (You can find it here, with tiny variations from the version I read.) It was an odd reading experience: I kept admiring the brilliance of the narrative, while wishing it would end that very instant. Yes, there were plenty of funny moments. Yes, there were insightful comments, about the action of the story and also fiction itself. Yes, there were very clever choices of words and wordplays (sometimes verging on pedantry). But it was sinuous, exceedingly rich, choppy. I found myself laughing and thumb-twirling in equal measures.

The plot of “Click” is real simple: a couple (Mark and Valerie) have a big fight because of their very different personalities, and then they make up. Their process of making up is mediated by a webpage they visit in which there is a hypertext narrative called “The Hypertextuality of Everyday Life,” and in which they click to go here and there. The story mimics this, teeming with underlined words that pose as hyperlinks. “Click” is quite self-consciously fictional, which becomes over the top at the end. Even then, it’s worth reading.

I thought maybe the fragmentary, dash-prone language of “Click” was meant to reflect the jumbled-up experience of hypertext. But today I read “Toga Party,” which was first published in Fiction magazine in 2006, and which I read in The Best American Short Stories 2007. And no, that seems to be Barth’s style alright. Here’s a typical Barth sentence: “Over the past year or two, though, as he’d approached and then attained the three-quarter-century mark, he had by his own acknowledgement become rather stick-in-the-muddish, not so much depressed by the prospect of their imminent Old Age as subdued by it, de-zested, his get-up-and-go all but gotten up and gone, as he had observed to be the case with others at his age and stage (though by no means all) among their limited social acquaintance.” Take it apart, and every bit is very clever, isn’t it? De-zested is clever, the pun on get up and go is, too, and so forth. But all of it together? Okay, I quoted one sentence. The whole story is pretty much like this, all 27 pages of it.

Once again, though, it’s worth your time, and “Toga Party” proceeds even more swiftly than “Click.” It’s about a couple of retirees living in a nice house in the Northeast, keeping their chores and duties to a minimum, enjoying tennis and golf with well-off neighbors. Their names are Dick and Susan Felton; they’ve grown increasingly estranged from their children, and Dick progressively glum out of fear of decrepitude (not of death, he insists). They are invited to a “toga party.” All the preparations for the party are funny, as is the party itself, lavish and boisterous. The description of carefree leisure, with the muffled din of tragedy in the background (politics, Katrina, global warming), is a critique that keeps its edge without spilling over. Something tragic happens at the toga party, which I can’t mention in order to avoid ruining the story. The story also ends more or less unexpectedly, in an ending that struck me as quite hard to believe.

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