A Life Less Unordinary
Julian Barnes’ latest novel is a murky, ruminative masterpiece
The Sense of an EndingJulian Barnes
(Knopf · hardcover · $23.95)
A young Hunter S. Thompson questioned, "Who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely ashore and merely existed?"
That idea is one of the central themes that floods British author Julian Barnes' persistently pensive and philosophically tragic novel, The Sense of an Ending. It's fitting that the quote came from a bright-eyed, 17-year-old intellectual on a quest for truth: Barnes' book opens with a tightly knit band of precollegiate men passionately discussing questions of mortality. When you're young, says Barnes' narrator Tony Webster, "even if you're confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become."
But Tony is the second man in Thompson's question—the one who settles into sheltered security, or "a passive peaceableness which he first called happiness and later contentment," as the narrator describes himself. For these and other reasons that might designate Tony as a bore (albeit a thoughtful one), his presence as Barnes' protagonist stands out, if only for the fact that he's the kind of chap who doesn't stand out at all.
The real hero character—or so we're led to believe in Barnes' perfectly muddled, grim puzzle of a narrative—is Adrian Finn, a latecomer to the adolescent group. He stuns his peers as a philosophical prodigy and a rather odd bird.
The band is broken when the boys go off on separate career paths, with Adrian, of course, moving on to Cambridge while the rest of the boys settle for decidedly less ambitious lives.
Tony has a series of seemingly minimal experiences, such as a vacation to a "posh" and romantically elusive girlfriend's country home. Then there's a suicide. And then life happens. Or in other words, 40 years of Tony's life are rattled off in the space of three pages, and the first part of Barnes' book comes to an abrupt end.
But as the second half of the book illustrates, there's purpose behind the brevity. What did Tony really do over all those years? Not much. A failed marriage, a kid, an average job, a retirement consisting of tidying his house and other menial routines.
Tony ponders quite a bit, often falling on conclusions like, "I'm not odd enough not to have done the things I've ended up doing with my life." These ruminations on his own pathetic existence are often written in subversive language—an endless maze of halfway insightful double negatives. Decoding the verbosity is tedious at first, but it eventually unveils itself as an effective tool in developing the voice of a character who is heavily in denial and also consumed by his own thoughts. That paradox, along with a letter regarding the suicide 40 years ago, is what drives Tony to come out of his hermitic shell and have a "revival of feeling."
This involves attempting to revisit the past with an old flame and investigating deeper truths behind the suicide. It was an act he long saw as a "noble gesture" of enlightened willpower, but Tony is now coming to terms with it in a more grounded way.
He spends a lot of time trying to untangle the truth between the reality of his experiences and the fiction of his memories: "We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this." With a subtly moving stream of thoughts and actions, the face of that oddness is eventually revealed—but it's not what you'd expect, nor is it easy to behold.
Barnes' work is one in which, event-wise, not a whole lot happens. Unless we’re talking about the events of the brain and the tricks of time and memory. If that's the case, then Barnes has impressively condensed an undertaking of biblical proportions into a mere 163 pages.
Falling thematically somewhere between Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and J.P. Donleavy’s The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, Barnes' work is heartwrenchingly sincere. Toward the end, Tony's frustrating timidity comes full circle, but not in any sort of pandering, feel-good way. The Sense of an Ending is a dark and meditative book—one that speaks to the innermost motives of human decision and action, as well as the intangible truth that connects fact and memory. The book is slow-paced but violently gripping. When it seems on the verge of meandering endlessly into existential riddle, it redeems itself with terse and unapologetic answers. Barnes’ story is sad but brutally honest. And it certainly fleshes out at least one side of Thompson's question.