Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

The winner of the 2011 Man Booker award, this is a terrific and terrible book.

It's very very short, and beautifully crafted, and Barnes has clearly considered everything he put into it as carefully as it is humanly possible to do. It's a beautiful work, sharply observed and stuffed with telling detail. In fact, this is book that you should really read more than once--possibly re-reading it as soon as you have finished the last page. If books came with instructions for use, the way shampoo does, then this one would definitely say "Read, repeat."

It's a meditation on the malleability of the past--unreliable memory, selective preservation of data, the ways in which different people understand events differently. Exquisitely, Barnes has shaped this book in a way that embodies these problems, so that the world you may have thought you understood in the first part of the book has to be re-evaluated in light of the ending. Hence the re-reading.

It's kind of like an M. Night Shyamalan movie, with a twist at the end, only less infuriating. It's more like The Sixth Sense than like The Happening or The Village that way.

So let's spoil the plot, shall we? The narrator is the 60-ish Tony Webster, looking back over his life. While in school, he had three very good friends, of whom only Adrian mattered. Adrian was considered to be a genius by the teen-aged Tony, and the high-value member of their foursome. Tony felt he was in competition with the other two to be Adrian's best friend, and continued even after they went different ways to university. There, Tony fell in with a girl named Veronica Ford, and was invited to her parents' home in Chislehurst for an oddly uncomfortable weekend. He introduced her to his three friends, and after they broke up, Veronica dated Adrian. Tony wrote a snotty letter full of pain and anger and wrote them out of his life. Adrian committed suicide within a couple of years, and Tony went on to live an average life.

Now in his sixties, Tony is surprised by a legacy from Veronica Ford's mother--five hundred pounds and Adrian's diary. Tony hadn't had any contact with Sarah Ford in the 40 years since that single odd weekend (other than a letter she wrote when Veronica broke up with him, commiserating and quite formal). However, the diary was in Veronica's possession.

Idiotically, Tony decides he wants the diary of his old friend, and so he undertakes to track down his old girlfriend and get her to give it up. This evolves into his trying to re-ignite the relationship for his own un-examined reasons. He gets a single photocopied page, and swoons a little over how it reminds him of having Adrian beside him again. This only fuels his desire to get the rest of the diary, and so he engages in a war of attrition to get Veronica to meet him again.

In the end (and this book is only 163 pages in my edition, so it's really quite short), Veronica takes him to see a group of developmentally disabled adults on an outing. No interaction, just to look at them. Tony doesn't get it, and Veronica emphatically kicks him out of her car and her life. Not content to leave the mystery alone, Tony starts haunting the pub and the shops where these adults often go. Eventually he realizes that one of them is clearly Adrian's son--about 40 years old, with the eyes and bone structure of his old friend. He is even named "Adrian." Tony concludes that Adrian and Veronica had a son, and this is something he feels guilty about, since the snotty letter he wrote to them forty years ago had made snotty references to Veronica getting pregnant and the misery their child would have with them for parents.

But that's not the twist. The twist is that this Adrian is not Veronica's son, but her brother. Adrian slept with Sarah Ford, got her pregnant, and this is the result. And the book ends abruptly there.

So, the first time through the book, you are reading the story told in the first person of Tony's life. Who were his friends in his formative years, who was his first girl friend, what were his heartaches in his 20s. He did some foolish, childish things, was untempered in some of his emotional dealings (the letter, mostly), but he managed to overcome that, marry, raise a child, and remain friends with his (now) ex-wife. The second time through, you have a story of the consequences of Tony's life. How his acts are like stones dropped into water, and how the radiating rings have life-long consequences for the people around him.

It is on this second reading that the small details matter, and take on larger meaning as signifiers of important events. The first morning of his visit in Chislehurst, Sarah Ford makes Tony eggs. One of the eggs breaks in the pan, and she makes other ones around it, tossing the broken one casually into the garbage. She gives Tony an extra egg, although he claims he didn't want it. She throws the hot pan into the sink "and she laughed, as if she had enjoyed causing this small havoc." (31) There are some references to Tony "wanking" into a basin in his guest bedroom, sluicing his sperm down the pipes of the house. Very fertile imagery. Was Sarah Ford in competition with her daughter? Was she trying to sleep with Tony? If he had, would Adrian have escaped the affair? Is the image of the broken egg a portent that Tony should have recognized, or is it a literary flourish added by the author as a way of foreshadowing the "broken egg" that would result in the deficient child Adrian 2.0?

What responsibility does Tony have for Adrian's death? Adrian sent a letter to say he was dating Veronica, and Tony sent a curt reply on a postcard. The picture on the front was of a bridge, somewhat famous as a suicide site. Did Adrian get a message that Tony hadn't intended to send? Did he intend to send that message? How much venom was in that snotty letter Tony wrote, and did it strike a target?  Was Adrian happy in his last months--and was he happy with Veronica, or with Sarah? Why did he kill himself?

It's hard not to read this book like a Victorian novel, where every detail tells a story that is hidden beneath the surface of the prose. The meaning of the egg that morning in Chislehurst; the meaning of the horizontal gesture Mrs. Ford gives instead of a goodbye wave as Tony leaves; the reliability of memory; the completeness (or incompleteness) of documents to carry the entire story; the shifting perspective from youth to age. Was Adrian really the genius Tony thought him? Or was he just precocious? Or just smarter than Tony?

And so this book becomes a mediation on aging, on memory, on responsibility, on blindness. How do our actions affect others far beyond what we imagined, and do we have moral responsibility for that? The past is not fixed, but can be revealed to us to be utterly different than we imagined it to be. Barnes uses the Severn Bore as an event and as a motif in the book: the bore happens when the tide pushes water up the river, opposite to the usual flow of water. Suddenly, what you had expected of nature is reversed. The same is true of history--even one's own.

All of this is why this book is so praised--and it deserves every bit of the praise. Yet at the beginning, I called it a "terrible" book, and I still mean it. I respect it, I admire it, I see the craft and thrught and talent that went into it. I just cannot love it, and that is because is it such a boy novel. Tony is such a male, so caught up in his own needs and wants and blind to the women around him. To be fair, this may be intentional on Barnes' part, but it's horribly off-putting. In his schoolboy days, girls existed as mysterious beings, objects of sexual desire but of very little interest other than for their bodies. Even as he was dating Veronica, Tony was obsessed with the sex he wasn't getting, fixated on how to get "more," and broadly so self-centered that he really had no idea what Veronica was trying to say to him most of the time.  He was callously interested in Adrian mostly for the status that Adrian conveyed to him--if he was Adrian's best friend, that gave him status relative to their other two friends. In fact, these other two friends barely make any impression at all, despite allegedly being his very best mates in the entire world.

His treatment of Veronica in their sixties is equally blind and self-centered to the point of obnoxiousness. Invariably, he reads her interactions with him as come-ons, as invitations, when they are at best attempts to minimize interaction with him. She is curt, rude, and harried--he read this as manipulative, intriguing, and worth pursuing.

So Tony starts out early as a man I don't like, well before the weekend in Chislehurst. I find him self-aggrandizing and unattractive in ways that don't get repaired over the course of the book. He doesn't intend to be obnoxious, but that doesn't excuse him from the fact that he manages to achieve obnoxiousness anyway.

Even the end of the book suffers from his utter inability to see anything from anyone else's perspective--the man is utterly socially and emotionally clueless. The life tragedy of younger Adrian, the rupture of the family it must have caused--Sarah usurping Veronica's boyfriend, delivering this life-long burden into her life. This is a boy-man who must have someone care for him, a job that now falls to Veronica, since her parents are both dead and her other functioning brother lives abroad. Veronica is the tragic heroine of this story, and Tony simply cannot see it. It's not entirely clear to me that Barnes sees it either--I might like the book better if I believed that Barnes sees the real twist ending of the book as Veronica's story, not Tony's.

I have questions about the way the plot operates, which turn mostly on the psychology of the women in the story--women who I feel are deeply short-changed in favor of minute examination of Tony the Galoot.
  • Did Sarah "mean" anything in her interactions with Tony during that awkward weekend? Did she repeatedly prey on Veronica's boyfriends?
  • Why did Sarah want to put Tony in her will at all? Was the money just a conveyance for the diary? Why did she want Tony to know all of this anyway? He couldn't possibly have made that much of an impression on her in one weekend.
  • Why did Veronica start calling herself "Mary" to her brother Adrian?
  • What was the point of the "algebraic" formulations in Adrian's diary? Did he believe Tony had some responsibility for the birth of this child?
  • Why did Adrian commit suicide anyway? 
I am obviously going to keep reading reviews and spoiler discussions about this book. It's worth discussing, it's short, if it weren't for the rampant male entitlement and the short-changing of women, it would be a perfect bookclub choice. 


Ti said...

I cannot believe there are no comments on your review. You did a great job of summing it up. I just finished it this morning and have so many questions. I listened to it on audio and felt sure that I missed something, but I see that I did not!

I do believe we are on the same page with what went down, but the hand gesture is odd to me. I can't make out what it could have been but knowing it seems significant. Another blogger suggested the gesture to indicate masturbation.

I also do not understand the Veronica/Mary reference. Why call yourself Mary when your name is Veronica? Many bloggers seems to think that V was a pimp for her mother. That she regularly pimped her boyfriends out to her mother. That seems out of character. Anyway, just checking out blogs to see what everyone else has to say. I don't know how I will ever write the review for this one.

Annora Eksteen said...

This is so wonderful to read as I was all sympathetic with Tony and Adrian, but now, after reading this... Veronica. Most possibly abused by her mom all her life. Shame, she probably felt like the virgin Mary later on. I went through major abuse by my religious freak of a mother (it takes different shapes... the abuse of little children,) but in the end it is true... what I remember (after 50 years trying not to really face it,) is probably very different than what my siblings remember. Adrian was very complex, he lived with unbearable emotional pain and that is why he committed suicide. A tragic story, but I'm glad Tony and his ex-wife could remain friends... or kept in touch. I couldn't.

Unknown said...

In it Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam.

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