Book: The Only Story
Author: Julian Barnes
Publisher: Penguin Randomhouse
Price: Rs 699
Avid readers of newspapers will know of a little trick that those of us with limited talent use to try and make a routine copy less so. You invert a cliché, play around with common idioms — say, for example, “the winners took nothing today, as a feisty Bangladesh team took the match down to the wire”. For the better part of The Only Story, Julian Barnes seems to have writ large this cheat code on to a novel-length set of platitudes that are, at best, unchallenging and comfortable, and, in fact, are unadulteratedly boring.
In themselves, the consciously articulated themes in Barnes’ latest novel had the potential to transcend cliché, to rise to explore, criticise and question archetypes. Take memory and forgetting, and the sense of hypocrisy and self-preservation that accompanies them. These are ideas he managed to deal with some degree of competence in The Sense of an Ending. The only story is also about love, obviously so. In fact, it is unclear whether Paul Roberts, the narrator, is meant to be an indictment of male self-obsession or just happens to be its exemplar. It is as though the writer, after deciding to journey along a path of visceral honesty, found out that he was unable to do so and let the narrative hang and sway between the profundity of the dialogue at an undergraduate philosophy club and the pathos of a Young Adult romance.
To give The Only Story its due, it does confess often, and especially in the first third of the book, that it is set in the white-bread boredom of English suburbia. The story takes us through the initial adulthood of Roberts (19, when the story begins), and his quest for adventure, love and rebellion through his romance with 48-year-old Susan Macleod. The attempt, as with many of Barnes’ other works, seems to be to give a sense of Englishness and the middle-class hypocrisies that accompany the notion.
As alcoholism, paranoia and insanity take over Susan and the small, independent life she has built with Paul, he holds on to an idea of love and loyalty that is touching. At least theoretically.
First-year students of creative writing are given (in what seems an unintended act of contradiction) a rule: Show, don’t tell. There are writers and books great or clever enough to not need to pay heed to such tripe. But the finality with which an old man pronounces judgement on the lives and loves of others from when he was 19, constantly, and expounds a concept rather than a plot or character, seems to suggest that those claiming writing can be taught may be on to something.
After the initial lack of thrill, of the Mrs Robinson-esqe romance and the dynamic in the Macleod household, the second and third sections of the novel attempt to deal with the relationship between love and selfishness, loyalty and desire, madness and its complications. The fact that Paul, in the ’60s, is a politically unengaged chap is clearly a deliberate critique of a certain kind of person. That he is consumed and constrained by Susan and does not simply leave seems, after a point, unreasonable and unbelievable. The descriptions of addiction and madness too seem to lack first-hand knowledge, or perhaps there’s too much of it. Barnes’ portrait of booze and sadness is a lot like the exaggerated portraits of drunkenness by Johnny Walker through the 1950s and 60s.
The attempt, whether deliberate or not, to essentialise bourgeois England is admirable. Barnes’ success as a writer lies in this very obvious but rare literary ambition — to exoticise what has always been normal, to invert orientalism, without, of course, any political consequences. The sheer lack of political engagement in The Only Story makes this difficult. The quaintness of the middle-class Englishman has already come and gone with Hugh Grant. And, not to put too fine a point on it, Barnes’ world, and the characters in it, are not interesting enough to be exotic.
There are people who have a problem with the gentle pace of Barnes’ writing, and there are those that love it. The issue with The Only Story is that it does not pause as it slows, it does not seem pregnant with possibility or even savour the long years of despair as Ha Jin does in Waiting. In the end, Barnes’ latest offering will have a great appeal because it is easy to read, the language and themes accessible while still letting the reader pretend to be cerebral — a Chetan Bhagat for the pretentious soul.