Monday, November 21, 2011

The Sense of an Ending


On the back of the hardcover, just above in the ISBN barcode, in the tiniest font, the book helpfully tells you that this is "Literary Fiction". Not just "fiction" but "Literary". This separates The Sense of an Ending from the rest of the unwashed masses of fiction, the novels without ambition to be about things. Certainly, Julian Barnes' Booker Prize-winning novel is about things. The first paragraph announces these great big themes of time and memory, alerting the reader that this is a Great Work of Fiction about Great Themes.

While this sounds facetious or dismissive, The Sense of an Ending is a readable novel. It helps that its length is easily manageable in one or two sittings. The best compliment I can pay this novel is that at 150 pages, it certainly doesn't overstay its welcome. Its brief length should not distract from the novel's lofty ambitions of theme.

Every novel should aspire to be something other than a ripping good yarn. This is particularly a factor in what differentiates a novel from a story: it does something new. The Sense of an Ending has great aspirations for telling a story about memory, ageing, and history wrapped up in a man's self-centered and average life. Tony Webster, the protagonist, pontificates endlessly about his own history, repeating the compulsion to pick over memories ad infinitum. Memories come to light after being forgotten for forty years, and then eventually, new history comes to light, changing how he perceives everything.

One can see that The Sense of an Ending wants to be a big novel packaged into a shorter more accessible work. It is the novel's compulsion to be literary that makes this story seem less. If there was ever a novel that felt like pure artifice, here it is. The reader can feel Barnes hovering over every sentence, filling it to the brim with meaning and symbolism, until the rather short novel topples over from the author's ambitions to be taken seriously. There is just so much material in this novel that pertains to the classical goals of high art that the story positively suffocates.

Anytime the story threatens to get interesting, Tony/Barnes derails it with long paragraphs about the fickleness of memory, or aphoristic language about old age. This is a novel where each sentence is designed to be the epigraph in another novel. This is not a compliment.

It might appear that I disliked, or even hated, the novel. Far from it. I enjoyed it for what it was, which was a rather simple and cleverly structured novel about history and memory and where the two should meet (again, another theme announced constantly with aphorisms). What prevented me from thoroughly appreciating the novel was the author's unsteady and forced hand, a presence wholly unwelcome. The story, characters, and theme should have done all the work, rather than the author or his arsenal of aphorisms.

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