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Tag Archives: literary fiction

From the Wrong End of the Telescope: Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending

Book #3 for 2012: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Some books need a good night’s sleep before I can even begin to write about them. Some books probably need even more, but I don’t have the time for that and at some point I’d start forgetting crucial details. (Who’m I kidding? With most books I start forgetting crucial details before I’ve even finished reading.)

The Sense of an Ending (named for a famous book on literary theory by the late English critic Frank Kermode) not only needed a good night’s sleep before I wrote about it but it really needs me to go over it again with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, looking for clues that will tell me that what I think happened at the end really happened. Despite its short length (I put it at 42,000 words, which is just north of novella territory), Barnes manages to pull off not one but two surprise twists in the book’s final pages, the first of which is sad and a little wrenching, the second of which takes your breath away. At least I think it did; Barnes refuses to spell out the second twist in specific detail, though he makes it clear that it’s there. But I suspect that if I go back and review certain key moments — particularly a long-forgotten drunken letter and the general timeline of certain events in the story — I’d have it down cold. There are other books to be read, though, and I may put this off for a while. I may put it off forever.

In case I’m making The Sense of an Ending sound like one of those twisty crime thrillers that slither their way into your local cinema multiplex every other week or so, it’s not. It’s the self-narrated story of a British male born probably around the same time as Barnes (1946) looking back on his life from the present, with particular emphasis on a group of friends he had met in school and on his first serious girfriend, who he ended up sharing (serially, not simultaneously) with the most brilliant of those friends, one who would probably have gone on to become one of the greatest philosopher-historians of his generation if he hadn’t suddenly, unexpectedly committed suicide while still a young man.

The suicide is the book’s central mystery, but this is not a mystery novel and the suicide goes largely forgotten for decades, until the narrator discovers that his late friend’s diary, which apparently holds clues to the reasons for his self-demise, has until recently still existed, right up until the former girlfriend decided to burn it. Much of the latter part of the book is about the narrator’s attempt to find out what the diary said and even, for reasons he doesn’t fully understand, to effect a rapprochement with the old girlfriend, something that isn’t likely to happen.

The climactic pair of twists, the second of which almost completely reverses the first, are devastating to the narrator, who is forced to see almost his entire life in a different way, one that suggests that he is not the mediocrity that he has made himself out to be for much of the book but something a little bit worse, a person who has managed to ignore the negative effects he has had on the world and the people around him. His final grasp of the truth is not so much devastating as sad, emphasizing just how empty his life and failed relationships have been up to that moment. It is the story of a life told from the wrong end of the telescope, the end from which everything starts to look very small. By the end of the book it looks very small indeed.

None of which is to say that The Sense of an Ending is a depressing or unrelievedly bleak book. Just the opposite, in fact. Barnes is a master of that mordant, acidly funny style of British humor that is so sharp and incisive that it masks the fact that just below the book’s surface is something with the bite of a shark, something that would be difficult for the reader to face if the writer hadn’t combined the cleverness and timing of a stand-up comedian with the sharply honed meat knife of a literary Jack the Ripper.


9/11 and the Mind-Brain Dichotomy: Ian McEwan’s Saturday

Book #21 for 2011: Saturday by Ian McEwan

In the days leading up to the recent 10th anniversary of 9/11, I’ve seen several articles identifying this or that book as being a “9/11 novel.” Some of these were borderline cases, books where the reviewer felt that the fall of the towers loomed over the action like an unseen ghost, and I’m not sure that the authors of all of these books would have agreed that the events of September 11, 2001, had much if anything to do with their choice of material. But Ian McEwan’s Saturday is unquestionably a 9/11 novel and McEwan makes no attempt to disguise that fact. It takes place on a single Saturday in 2003, less than two years after the attacks, and they are often on the mind of the novel’s protagonist, a brilliant 40-something neurosurgeon named Henry Perowne. It also takes place on the day of an antiwar demonstration in London, where thousands have gathered to protest Britain’s participation in America’s coming war on Iraq. Perowne’s feelings about that war are mixed, but on the whole he thinks that the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein justify it, if not necessarily for the official reasons that the Americans have given. There may or may not be WMDs, but in his operating theater at the local hospital Perowne has seen the torture scars inflicted on Iraqis by Saddam’s regime and believes that such evil is best expunged from the face of the earth by any means possible.

McEwan’s novel is structured so that as the Saturday progresses Perowne’s awareness of the nature of evil becomes more personal, and perhaps more nuanced. He’s attacked by a street tough, first in the aftermath of a minor automobile accident and later in a more direct, terrifying way, and the final portions of the novel are about how Perowne deals with his feelings about this evil and how he should respond to it. I won’t describe what happens because it would be a spoiler for those of you who haven’t yet read the book and might want to. McEwan never really resolves the question of how one deals with evil in the world; he simply throws it into more vivid relief and demonstrates that the question is more complicated than one might suspect.

What I love about the novel, though, and what I also loved about McEwan’s Solar, is his ability to step back and look at the most deeply personal of human events with a kind of scientific objectivity. I use the word “scientific” here deliberately. McEwan clearly has a sharp layman’s knowledge of science and his surgeon protagonist is the perfect prism for viewing events through that knowledge. I gather, mostly from some things that a friend of mine has said, that not everybody loves this about McEwan, but to me it’s his awareness of the modern scientific understanding of the universe and of living creatures that makes McEwan one of the few genuinely modern literary writers. If the true dichotomy of the human condition is that we are both machines and beings with souls, that life is both mechanical and something that transcends mechanics, then I don’t see how a truly great writer can look at his or her subjects from any other perspective. It’s especially important that McEwan has made his hero a neurosurgeon — a brain surgeon — because of all the organs in the human body the brain is the one that most clearly has two completely contradictory yet simultaneously valid aspects. From an objective viewpoint, it is a bioelectric meat computer capable of stunningly advanced computation. From a subjective viewpoint, viewed not as a brain but as a mind, it is an object with an internal life, a consciousness, capable of perceiving the world not just as a set of data points but as a three-dimensional continuum with a past and a future that contain qualities — emotions, perceptions, what cognitive researchers call qualia — that are quite distinct from the sensory stimuli that create them.

It’s telling that the street tough who attacks Perowne is not doing it out of any innate evil but because of chemical changes in the brain brought about by advanced stages of premature Huntington’s disease. And throughout the novel we are aware that Perowne’s mother is slowly losing her grasp on reality because of the chemical, neural changes wrought by what seems to be late stage Alzheimer’s (though I can’t recall if McEwan ever mentions the disease by name). Both of these cases illustrate the mind-brain dichotomy, where catastrophic shifts in an individual’s subjective conscious landscape can be brought about by purely objective, chemical alterations in the delicate structures of their nervous systems.

But I’ll shut up now. It’s the very fact that McEwan is clearly aware of this dichotomy between body and soul on a concrete rather than mystical level that makes him, for me, one of the greatest writers currently working. He’s not unique in writing about the world from this simultaneously detached yet deeply engaged viewpoint, but he does it as well as just about anyone alive.

Freedom Is a Pain in the Ass: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Book #19 for 2011: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Several months ago, a friend of mine wondered out loud what the difference is between a popular novel and a literary novel. I had some sort of response at the time that I don’t completely recall, but I think it had to do with the relative importance of plot and character. Although it’s hard to imagine a novel that could exist without both of those things, popular novels tend to emphasize the former and literary novels tend to emphasize the latter. I think now, having thought about it a bit, I’d go further and say that, in literary fiction, plot exists to illuminate character while, in popular fiction, character exists to motivate plot. It’s an imperfect distinction — What if a novel does both things simultaneously? What if instead of plot it emphasizes theme? — but I think it’s a valid one.

So, by that measure, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom a popular novel or a literary novel? It certainly has plot. In fact, it has so much of it that I’d despair of trying to summarize it in fewer words than Franzen used to write the novel itself (which, having gotten fairly good over the years at estimating these things, I’d put in the vicinity of 200,000).  But it also has characters and they’re as vividly illuminated and three-dimensionally real as any characters I’ve read about during my last year and a half of frantic reading, maybe as vividly illuminated and three-dimensionally real as any characters I’ve read about ever. On that count, I think I can safely say that Freedom is a literary novel, a very entertaining, incisive, witty and ultimately rather moving one.

The four major characters, the ones who are given viewpoint chapters throughout the book, are Patty and Walter Berglund, a pair of yuppy-ish late baby boomers who were probably born around the same time as Franzen himself (which would be in 1959); their mutual friend Richard Katz, a rock musician who feels passionately about both of them, albeit in rather different ways; and their son Joey, who feels obligated to rebel against his parents in his mid-teens by moving in with the girl next door who adores him and by rejecting their liberal politics shortly after he gets to college.

While the plot of the book is too sprawling and complex to describe, I think I can rather neatly sum up what I’m pretty sure is Franzen’s theme, the one that’s inherent in the title. Freedom is something that Franzen clearly feels ambivalent about, or at least his characters do, and one suspects that were you to engage him on the subject at a party he might warn against an excess of it. As young Joey puts it about halfway through the book, “Freedom is a pain in the ass.” Freedom, or free will, is an important gift that life bestows on human beings, but those people who are the happiest seem to be those who dispose of as much of it as possible as quickly as they can. This includes the larger freedoms, like the freedom of corporations to grow without limits and destroy the environment and the freedom of people to breed until the planet is denuded by their consumption of resources; and the smaller freedoms, like the freedom of domestic cats to attack and kill birds who are evolutionarily unprepared for their predation and the freedom of human beings to live their lives unencumbered by a committed relationship to someone they love and who loves them back. It’s Walter, the driven, neurotic, environmentally conscious liberal, who inveighs against most of those freedoms, but pretty much everybody in the book has problems with that last one.

Surprisingly it’s Joey, the initially self obsessed and overly entitled son, who has an epiphany about that last freedom during a darkly comic and rather disgusting scene where he retrieves, through obvious methods, a wedding ring that he accidentally swallowed a couple of days earlier. He realizes that if he was willing to take such desperate and dire measures to retrieve the symbol of his youthful and rather impulsive marriage, which he was prepared to throw away on a meaningless sexual fling with the beautiful but shallow sister of his college roommate, that the only choice open to him is to throw away his freedom to have meaningless sexual flings altogether and make an absolute commitment to his marriage — and it’s at that moment, when he removes his own freedom, that he finally becomes happy.

It takes his parents, Walter and Patty, a lot longer to come to terms on this particular issue and I won’t tell you how their troubled marriage turns out, but there was a bit of a tear in my eye at the end. Franzen’s writing is so sharp and witty that what could be a rather dreary novel about people reaching out for happiness and not infrequently screwing up their chances of finding it is never for a moment depressing. Actually, it’s quite delightful. I had trouble warming to the characters in the beginning — self-obsessed yuppies have never been of great interest to me, maybe because they remind me too much of myself — but Franzen’s characters eventually won me over. I wish Franzen had spent more time on Richard the rock musician, a character I think was full of unrealized possibilities (and whose difficulty in finding a compromise between his need for committed love, his loyalty to a friend, and his profound sexual urges could be the subject of an entire novel in itself), but Richard ends up mostly being a device for setting up conflict between Patty and Walter and within Patty herself. Which, once I finally warmed to Patty’s somewhat-difficult-to-like character, was fine with me.

This novel received a remarkable amount of press last year and that’s fine with me too. It’s an extraordinary achievement and there were many times, perhaps several per page, when Franzen’s insights into his characters (and his ability to express those insights in highly readable prose that often borders on being laugh-out-loud funny) impressed the hell out of me. Even my literary idol Philip Roth, back in his heyday (which some people would say is still going on but which I would place in the late 60s through mid-80s) was never quite this good at looking at human beings with so sharp and satirical an eye, though he came close. And I can think of no higher praise than to say that, if forced to choose whether Franzen or Roth were the better writer, I might just go with Franzen.