The Only Story by Julian Barnes
Readers who were a little disappointed by Barnes’s last political fiction The Noise of Time will be glad to know that he is back in top form with The Only Story, a novel that has all the zesty elegance of great vintage Barnes. The plot is minimal this time: nineteen-year-old Paul falls in love with Susan, a woman almost thirty years his senior. He lives to both cherish the memory and regret it. Despite this pared down storyline, the reader remains spellbound to the end of the story. As Geoff Dyer – another minimalist plot-eschewer – has argued, “the more style you have the less plot you need”. I couldn’t agree more, even if both Dyer and Barnes ultimately provide more than just style.
Barnes’s latest novel offers the reader a narrator who is both thought-provoking and humorous. His talent for the creation of period atmospherics also plays no small part in keeping the reader in thrall. The Only Story takes place in the fifties, sixties and seventies at the heart of the Sexual Revolution when “deep lust and emotional lightness became the order of the day”. Yet the unorthodox heroic couple find themselves at a tangent to both the old and the newly dominant Zeitgeist.
From the start, Paul is intent on not ending up in suburbia “with a tennis wife and 2.4 children” but he’s also totally uninterested in casual sex. Susan initially embodies both rebellion and depth, but finally too much of both for him – or anyone – to handle. Although the relationship brings the sting of social stigma and much heartbreak too, the narrator remains faithful to his mature lover, caring for her while taking pride in fluttering the dovecotes of the narrow-minded.
While the narrator’s expenses are initially funded by Susan, his married lover, he doesn’t sit comfortably in the category of the sugar baby. There is nothing played out about this set up, even if Barnes gives us an interesting double perspective of love and its players as both unique and conventional at the same time. As always, he manages to infuse standard situations and stock characters with poignancy, humour and philosophical aptness, dismissing gender-bias and the other kinds of standard expectations that beset us.
All goes well between the two lovers until half-way through the novel when the narrator informs us that the relationship will come to an end twelve years into the future. But this postmodernist self-spoiler doesn’t really spoil the ending. In many detective novels, it’s not who the murderer is, but how he will be caught that holds your interest. In Barnes’s novel, it’s not even how it happens that matters either. We know quickly enough who kills the relationship and how it’s going to end. It’s clear soon enough that Susan is hurtling on a path of unstoppable self-destruction. What we’re left guessing until the very end is why she does it, only to be frustrated in our quest for understanding in the resolution too. In true postmodernist indeterminacy, the issue of what Susan feels for the three or four men in her life is left partly in doubt, as is her possible frigidity. Until the end, she remains opaque and unknowable.
Reading the second half of the novel is like watching a car crash in slow motion. In fact, the premonitory objective correlative in the early stages of the novel dramatizes a minor car crash that allows us to intuit that the relationship is at some point going to reach the danger zone.
Throughout the second, doom-laden half of the book, the relationship is blighted by something enraging and elusive, and when the emotional war of attrition sets in, the narrator pulls us through each station of the via dolorosa. It would be unfair to fault Barnes for the repetitiveness of this final section as the plight which afflicts the heroine inevitably condemns her to endless repetition of the same self-destructive act.
Susan’s slow fall from grace and Paul’s growing alienation are movingly rendered and the narrator’s shift in personal pronouns (from ‘I’ to ‘you’ to ‘he’ and back and forth again) translates this sense of self-estrangement effectively. Events in the novel are also strangely distanced. There are actually no central defining dramatic moments. Just as Paul has difficulty remembering their first kiss, the reader fails to remember exactly the moment that initiated the heroine’s decline. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be one. Barnes’s rendering of psychological realism is such that he manages to hold your attention without drama or epiphany.
By Erik Martiny