Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Sense of an Ending

I was captivated by Julian Barnes' elegant writing, his mordant wit, his wrestling with questions of memory and identity. I happily put up with his unreliable and ultimately unsympathetic narrator to see what twist or surprise he had in store next.

Our book group discussion somewhat deflated my admiration, however, as members took issue with anomalies in the plot, the narrowness of the narrator's view, the banality of his life. Presumably, however, Barnes crafted all of this intentionally; it's unlikely that anything was left to chance in so short a book.

What sticks with me still is that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives -- but that's all we have. We forget things, we remember things wrong, we come to consider as fact things that may never really have happened. Barnes' narrator, Tony Webster, was self-delusional, obsessive, narcissistic -- an extreme case, in short. Yet what he dramatizes as the tragedy of his life is a reasonably banal story of a relationship that went sour, an unstable friend with poor judgment, and, sadly, a child born with mental deficiencies.

The narrator's remorse -- Barnes makes a point of its linguistic root to bite again or bite back -- at the key misunderstanding and mis-communication in his life is something that may mark any of us, even if to a lesser extent. In all his efforts to smooth out his narrative, this is a central thing he cannot change and it leads, as the end of the book makes clear, to great unrest.

There are apparently websites speculating about hidden meanings in the book, and some of the book group members spent a good deal of time trolling through these. I'm not sure it needs all that and I didn't find the result of their research that helpful.

Did it deserve the Man Booker Prize? Who cares? Barnes hardly needs the distinction to be recognized as a great writer. I'm not sure this spare book will stand in my mind as much as Flaubert's Parrot or Arthur & George -- the two previous books of his that I've read. It does,  however, encourage me to keep reading him, perhaps picking up his History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, which I've had sitting on my shelf for eons.