Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Pulse by Julian Barnes

I discovered Barnes, and burned through all of his books to that point, before I started this blog, so I don't have links for the novels of his that I love best -- A History of the World in 9 1/2 Chapters or Flaubert's Parrot or Talking It Over or England, England. He's a literary writer, in the sense of being both deeply concerned with real people living real lives and having a strong ear for language and clean writing. His books occasionally have semi-flashy organizing principles -- and he's written novels about love triangles at least three times I can think of -- but his work isn't flashy or shocking in itself, unlike his contemporaries Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. I guess he's an old-fashioned post-modernist, if that makes any sense. But I've been reading his novels and story collections, mostly as soon as I know they exist, for nearly three decades now.

And, as I get older, I gravitate to nonfiction by novelists, and maybe novelists do that, too -- so Barnes had a collection of essays for Americans about the UK a decade ago, Letters from London, and has followed that up more recently with a pair of spare books about death and aging and facing the inevitable (and ballooning, because that's the way Barnes works), in Nothing to be Frightened Of and Levels of Life. I could also mention the essay collection Through the Window, mostly about writer.

Anyway, that partially explains why his story collection Pulse has sat neglected on my shelves since 2011. (Two successive copies of his 2005 novel Arthur & George have done so for even longer.) Short stories, at least for me, seem to take more mental energy to read than a novel of the same length -- so much stopping and starting, so many endings to process. But I did grab this book, eventually, probably because it was short and I appreciate short books a lot these days.

Pulse contains fourteen stories -- nine in one section, five in another. I'm not really sure what the difference is, or why Barnes didn't just arrange them all in one list, but I'm sure he had his reasons. All of the stories are short -- the title story, at the end, tops out at nearly thirty pages -- all of them are about regular people in the real world (the UK portion of the real world), entirely mimetic and entirely low-key. Barnes shows rather than tells: he's in some of the character's heads, some of the time, but he's mostly showing us what they do and how they interact with each other.

This is exactly the kind of literary fiction, to be precise, that genre readers complain about. No detectives, no time-travel devices, no sexy redheads, no intrigue, no unicorns, nothing numinous or flashy or pulse-pounding. The pulse of Pulse is a measured one, a seasoned runner going at pace and knowing well the distance he's going to cover.

So most anyone who could conceivably be reading this blog is not going to be interested in this book. That's fine: thousands of books are published each year, and each of us would enjoy far more of those than we'll ever have the chance to read anyway. It's good to know our limits. If this is outside yours, good for you.

My limits follow a more complicated set of markers, which can be frustrating: the things I look for in books don't track cleanly to genres or styles, and sometimes I think there's nothing coherent in those limits at all. (And that might be true: what any of us wants to read today will be a bit different from what we wanted to read yesterday, and could be vastly different from what we'll want to read in ten years.) But, when I do want to read fiction, I want to care about the people -- I want to believe in them.

And I have always believed in Barnes's people. Even when he's avoiding writing about his own grief by telling stories of 18th century ballooning, or when he's sketching a whimsical history of the entire earth in short vignettes that barely have characters in them, each individual is real and round. So I keep coming back. And I was happy to meet the people in these fourteen stories, and to live alongside their lives for a while. What more can you ask from fiction?

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