Friday, December 30, 2011

The Sense of an Ending

There's a good possibility Julian Barnes' Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, will be my final completed book in 2011. And it's a good way to cap off the year!

My first experience with Julian Barnes's work wasn't really any experience at all. I was scheduled to take a Contemporary British Literature class to cap off my undergraduate degree in 2003, but I ended up dropping the class in favor of a different British lit class with a professor with a bigger, badder attitude. I can't say I regret it, as the class I opted for introduced me to one of the most influential of authors I've ever read: T.S. Eliot and my all-time favorite poem, "The Waste Land". The bigger, badder professor also turned out to be a life changer, leaving the university to pursue the priesthood, largely influenced by T.S. Eliot and his work. His influence drove me to get a graduate degree in English. What's not to love about that?

Why am I wasting your time with this remembrance? Because it is formative and my memories are memories I consider concrete, unchanging, certain. The main character in Barnes's novel, Tony Webster, discovers that his own memories are not so certain. The book is split into two long chapters, the first of which details Tony's adolescence with his three best friends--namely the enigmatic Adrian Finn--as well as his naive fumblings with girlfriend, Veronica. The latter half of the book is Tony's realization that his has been a fulfilling but lackluster adulthood. When he receives an attorney's letter in the mail he's left scrambling through those earlier memories to put together pieces of a puzzle that will thoroughly unsettle him.

This is a great book in a number of ways. First off, it's only 170ish pages in print, and it was only 107 on my Nook. The amount of character building and the sense of realism Barnes is able to infuse in a story of this length is quite an accomplishment. I'm a proponent of short stories, so it's probably not surprising that I would enjoy what amounts, in my mind, to a novella, but I guess the impressive part is the sense of realism Barnes imparts with a lot of different issues swirling around the characters. Issues of time, philosophy, class, relationships, sexuality, and suicide.

To build on that, this novel is a lit-gasm, y'all. There is a ton of talk about literature and literary devices, philosophy, and a good many intertextual references. In the beginning, Tony is reflecting on his experiences in school, and Adrian tends to be pretty brilliant, so the banter about philosophy and literature was really fun for me. I also knew there was an intertextual reference in the title, but it wasn't until I stumbled upon a review in Vogue that I figured out what it was (because I'm too lazy to Google it): "Barnes’s title is taken from critic Frank Kermode, whose landmark analysis of fiction examined the consolations of narrative and the corrections authors make to bring meaning and order to a chaotic world." 

The title says so much about the novel. The biggest issue at work in this little book is Tony's struggle with memory. He remembers his first girlfriend as much more of a cold fish than she probably was, he idolizes his friend Adrian more than necessary, and quite honestly, he remembers himself in a much nicer, more flattering light than was true. It's only when he looks back at a letter to Adrian and Veronica that it really dawns on him how fallible memory can be.

I'm SO not doing this book justice. Tony is a regular guy who experiences a big slap to his ego and a big snap back to reality in light of who he and his friends really were in their youth. The only thing that left me slightly unsatisfied was the ending. There is a surprise ending in this book -- a revelation that honestly surprised me, though looking back through my notes and highlights, it probably shouldn't have surprised me. While I was satisfied with the surprise itself, the novel only lasted a few pages past the surprise. As a reader, I wanted Tony to grapple with the truth a bit more before the novel closed. It's a small complaint in the grand scheme of things.

While I am absolutely certain I'm impressed by this book, especially from a technical perspective, I'm not sure how long it'll stick with me. I wasn't touched on an emotional level (which I tend to prefer in picking all-time faves), but I found myself in a constant state of analysis while reading. Barnes is a good storyteller and a thoughtful evaluator of issues. While I'm interested in reading more of his work, and while I appreciate this novel, it didn't win me over on visceral level, but it sure impressed me on the cerebral plane.

Snuggle (more like a firm handshake with a professor) -- Skewer

Pub. Date: October 2011
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Format: E-book
ISBN-13: 9780307957122
Source: Purchased by me.

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