Monday, January 28, 2008

SynecdoChick's Review of "Toga Party"

I’m going to defy the name of this blog and say that this story gave me nothing to bitch about.

I think the “The Toga Party” skillfully functions on two levels: slice-of-life realism and metaphor/allegory. A toga party is a believable theme for a cocktail party thrown by aging baby boomers (Doc, Dick, and Susan are a little older, but the Hardisons seem to fit the boomer demographic), so it worked on a literal level, while the party also served as a neat metaphor for America’s status as an empire on the edge of a steep decline.

The juxtaposition of the frivolous party with the allusions to the 2005 hurricane season and the Iraq War convey the feeling of fiddling while Rome burned (though Trimalcho’s Feast is a more accurate metaphor).

Even on a literal level, this story seems more self-aware than Auchincloss’s story. While the characters in “Pa’s Darling” live in a bubble of privilege, Barth’s characters are always conscious that their comfortable lives on Maryland’s eastern shore exist alongside abject misery elsewhere—that while some Americans retreat behind the walls of gated communities and take advantage of illogical loopholes to ensure that their amassed wealth will outlive them, other Americans are literally/figuratively drowning.

When I first read the ending, I thought the decision to commit suicide together made perfect sense for the characters, especially after what’s happened to Doc. Throughout the story, the Feltons’ commitment to each other, fear of being alone, and fear of their own mortality was palpable. Their decision to end it while they still had their dignity and to die so that “each is assumed to survive the other” seemed moving and even romantic.

Looking back with an eye toward the metaphorical/allegorical level of the story, it is fitting that Barth had them asphyxiate themselves with the exhaust from their car (a symbol for the major problems [so far] of the 21st century—oil wars and global warming). At the end, when Dick says, “so we’re dumping on the kids, leaving them to take the hit and clean up the mess. So what?” he’s speaking about his own kids, but also about future generations who are going to “take the hit,” thanks to the unchecked consumption of the Feltons’ generation. On this level, it’s harder to sympathize with their decision to kill themselves and let the kids clean up the mess.

The story creates an interesting tension—I sympathize with the Feltons as individuals, but I’m also frustrated by their selfishness and complacency.

I agree that the beginning of the story is a bit roundabout. The narrator begins by telling you how Doc would have started if he were telling the story—with a rant about the problems of the world and how they can only be glad they’ll be dead when “the shit really hits the fan.” As a reader, the significance of Doc and his imagined rant is only clear in retrospect, after you’ve finished the story. I think beginning this way distances the narrator from the politics of the story. By telling the reader what a character would have said, the author gets to say it without saying it, in a way. Maybe Barth felt that it made the tone less pedantic, while still planting the themes in the reader’s mind.

What I wonder is, who is telling this story? It’s not Doc, it’s not one of the Feltons. Much of the story is told in third-person limited, from the perspective of Dick Felton. However, there is a definite narrative voice separate from Dick. I wonder why Barth structured the story this way …

1 comment:

Fiction Anemic said...

I didn't really expand on it in my hastily written post, but I think the girl feels that she's like Balto in that she's trying to deliver her family from a disease, like the dog tried to deliver the Inuits from diptheria.

It's a nice parallel. It also brings in the little sister. On reading it, the younger sister feels like a shadow in this story, that I almost thought something had happened to her in the accident.