Julian Barnes’ third collection of short stories is everything you would expect it to be – erudite, arch, warm, questioning, delicate, funny, rude and sad, amongst other things – and that, the delivery of an expectation, is ever so slightly disappointing. Divided into two halves – the first being straightforward stories of oh so middle class travails, and the second half being more discursive, more ruminative, more historical – the 14 stories contained herein have appeared within the likes of The New Yorker, Granta, The Guardian and The Sunday Times over the course of the last few years. As such, unlike say Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, which feels like a thematically cohesive collection of stories that resonate alongside one another, Barnes’ book feels like what it is: a collection of disparate short stories.
Four of the first nine stories that constitute part one revolve around a dinner party ‘At Phil & Joanna’s’ in which the world is put to rights and, as the evening winds down, playful conversation ensues concerning smoking, death, the difference between the English and the French, sex and love – all of which, arguably, could be said to have been Julian Barnes’ big subjects over the last three decades. This exchange is typical:
‘Larry, do you want to know how this country’s changed in my lifetime? When I was growing up we didn’t think about ourselves as a nation. There were certain assumptions, of course, but it was a sign, a proof, of who we were that we didn’t think much about who we were or what we were… We weren’t self-conscious. Now we are. No, we’re worse – worse than self-conscious, worse than navel gazing. Who was saying about that proctologist who told him to squat over a mirror? That’s what we’re like now – arse-gazing.’
Reading these dinner party stories is a little like being reminded of the old adage about teachers (those who can do, those who can’t): rather than writing stories about this world in which we now find ourselves, Barnes is writing stories about people who feel comfortable talking about the world in which we now find ourselves. Another recurring pattern in many of Barnes’ latest stories are the forty-ish man who has either just emerged from a failed marriage or is embarking on a new relationship tempered by the wisdom of previous failures. ‘East Wind’, the story that opens the book, concerns an estate agent called Vernon who takes up with Andrea, a waitress who he thinks is Polish but who turns out to be German. Like the David Mitchell character from Peep Show, Vernon can’t live with the fact that Andrea doesn’t like to talk about her life before him. ‘Gardener’s World’ (another story with a dinner party in it) concerns Ken and Martha, who
‘had reached the stage, eight years into their relationship, when they had started giving each other useful presents, ones that confirmed their joint project in life rather than expressed their feelings.’
Martha takes the garden on as her project and Ken feels somewhat side-lined, sniping as she removes the blackberry bramble he was attached to, taking grim pleasure in the mosquitoes attracted to her water feature. The sense that our view, filtered through Ken, is not always the right view is something else that Barnes returns to in other stories. ‘Trespass’, for example, which concerns a recently dumped rambler called Geoff who takes up with a young woman called Lyn and over a period of months appears to drive her to the point where she, apropos of nothing, screams out loud at the sky. This filtering arguably culminates with the title story at the close of the book, where a first person narrator grows to adulthood in the shadow of his parent’s perfect marriage only to find that his own relationships sour. Janice, the woman he is with for much of the duration of the story, calls him a psychopath. By which point, having trod a lot of similar ground over the course of the book in the company of slightly detached English eccentrics, you can’t help but feel a modicum of sympathy. ‘Complicity’, a story from the second half, that dwells in the courtship of a relationship and so isn’t soured with a sense of inevitable failure, still manages to sum up what many of Barnes’ characters obsess about:
‘I used the word ‘complicity’ a bit ago. I like the word. An unspoken understanding between two people, a kind of preserve if you like. The first hint that you may be suited, before the nervous trudgery of finding out whether you ‘share the same interests’, or have the same metabolism, or are sexually compatible, or both want children, or however it is that we argue consciously about our unconscious decisions. Later, when we look back, we will fetishise and celebrate the first date, the first kiss, the first holiday together, but what really counts is what happens before this public story: that moment, the pulse of thought, which goes, Yes, perhaps her, and, Yes perhaps him.’
‘Marriage Lines’, the story that concludes the first half of the book, occupies the other extreme, a man returning to a find holiday destination in order to start to put his grief to rest, but even here – as he learns that ‘Grief was in charge of him’ – we find a marriage that suffered greatly: ‘That summer she had nearly left him,’ he tells us, ‘(or had he nearly left her? – at this distance it was hard to tell)’.
The stories in which Barnes roves a little further afield feel more satisfying. ‘Harmony’, for instance, which concerns an ‘encounter between M– and Maria Theresia von P–… in the imperial city of V– between the winter of 177– and the following summer’ feels like it could have been a strong contender for novel-hood in other circumstances. M– is a medical practitioner who has some successes treating blindness with magnets but incurs the wrath of colleagues and indeed society when he sequesters the aforementioned Maria Theresia in his house. This, to quote the Chris Tarrant of Tiswas, is what we want. A collection of stories as different from one another as this is from the rest of Pulse please.
I’m being a little hard, undoubtedly. Pulse is perfectly pleasant. Cosy even. There is nothing here to offend the tastes and sensibilities of middle England and that, you might say, is alright. Short story collections don’t have to land with the force of Never Mind the Bollocks after all. But I have a lingering suspicion that Barnes isn’t trying perhaps as hard as he might. It’s fine, perfectly fine, for Barnes not to push the old short story envelope. Experimentalism tends to be a younger man’s game. But Barnes can still push at what we expect from Julian Barnes, and should be able to still surprise us. Surprise doesn’t feel like too much to ask.
Any Cop?: A perfectly serviceable collection of short stories from Julian Barnes that will no doubt do the job it is expected to do for the majority of his fans. Coming after Arthur & George, however, which seemed to find Barnes moving into new territory, it feels like a backward step…