Clever writing, fast-flowing dialogue

2011-05-04 00:00

PULSE is a collection of 14 short stories­ by British writer, Julian Barnes. While the stories are written with a light touch and a breezy pace that makes them easy to access and process, they are nevertheless weighted with a degree of middle-aged resignation, even sadness.

Of the nine stories in Part One, four form a sequence titled At Phil and Joanna’s, and are presented as late-night conversations at a series of dinner parties. Written almost entirely in post-prandial non-sequiturs, the conversations feature current political and social issues, domestic projects, illness, ageing, and, intermittently, sex. It is clever writing, producing fast-flowing dialogue­, with directionless direction and no identifiable individual speakers, yet creating a whole that raises a host of contemporary concerns.

The remaining stories in Part One focus on relationships, often failed ones. Marriage, idealised by the protagonist of Gardeners’ World as “a democracy of two”, seems doomed, and in a number of stories men, freshly separated from their partners, explore new possibilities. Perhaps the most tender piece, an essay on the nature of grief, is Marriage Lines, in which a recent widower returns to a remote island where he and his wife regularly vacationed.

The five pieces in Part Two each deal — though not always centrally — with the absence or loss of one of the senses. The Limner features a deaf-mute itinerant portrait painter who realises that he has the power to show his clients to themselves as other people see them, not as they see themselves in reflections. Inevitably, though, clients are seldom pleased with the way they are perceived.

In Complicity, a woman has bad circulation that numbs her fingers and affects her sense of touch. Harmony­ concerns a blind C18 virtuoso pianist whose ability as a performer is seriously threatened when attempts are made to restore her sight. Amusingly, in Carcassonne, Barnes questions the reliability of human taste when he describes falling in love as “the most violent expression of taste known to us”. Finally, the title story, Pulse, deals movingly with the passing of the narrator’s parents, and, in particular, with his father’s anosmia (loss of smell).

An accomplished, insightful writer, Barnes does not fail his readers.

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