This may not be his best, but even a decent effort from Julian Barnes is well worth some attention.
With The Only Story, Julian Barnes returns to the theme of memory that brought him such acclaim in The Sense of an Ending, but with an intensified imperative. His protagonist, Paul Casey, wants nothing to do with the cloudy vagaries that erode all our stories over time. He desires to preserve the truth behind the events and motivations that led to the great love story of his life, a 12-year long affair with Susan Macleod, a married woman 30 years his senior. In accordance to the title, our love stories hold a special place in our inner monologues where they are replayed from all angles. We all get to play the hero and the villain depending on the indulgence of our mood. Whether joy or heartbreak, the love story is the only story that comes under such examination. Barnes’ project here is to pose the question whether we do ourselves and our stories any service with this replaying.
Paul is Barnes’ great invention for this novel. His desperate mission to fix his memories of his time with Susan in a kind of mental amber gives the book propulsion and a nonlinear structure that affords the author room for surprises. These are the reminiscences of an old man, but the character loses none of the rebellious arrogance of the 19-year-old he describes as the book begins. Paul and his friends are the first generation to grow up in England after World War II, and a great deal of the absurdity he’s against is derived from the way British society attempts to cling to normalcy despite the devastation it faced. The village he was raised in comes to represent the country as a whole, where sherry, tea and the goings-on at the tennis club provide a comedy of manners that hides the alcoholism, infidelity and spousal abuse as common in the middle class as television sets. Paul is Holden Caulfield with more arrogance than angst, who sees the phonies around him and works to defy them with style.
While home from university, Paul gets a summer membership to the tennis club and finds himself in a mixed doubles tournament where partners have been chosen at random. Fate pairs him with Susan, whose humor and beauty evaporates the differences in their ages. Though she’s old enough to be his mother, he sees her as an aberration in terms of her generation, being less rigid and more interested in life than his regimented parents. She even offers an explanation for his opinions, calling hers a “used up generation.” The best of them went to war. The least of them survived it.
Paul becomes a fixture at the Macleod residence, drawing the suspicion of Susan’s two daughters and the general ire of her husband, Gordon, a pencil pusher whose hobbies include gardening and excessive drinking. Initially, Paul is more an emotional cuckold, but his relationship with Susan becomes sexual, creating the inevitability that they will have to escape the village and head to London where their relationship will draw less scrutiny.
Paul’s memories sit upon the page like leaves waiting for a strong wind to cause a rearrangement. While the truth is his ultimate goal, memories lead to unexpected places. He clearly marks every unexpected avenue he comes upon, drawing attention to both the futility of his quest to honor both Susan as a person he loved and their relationship with unvarnished truth while drawing attention to his reliability as a narrator. To mask this, Barnes’ most daring turn comes in employing different narrative tenses when Susan begins to unravel from the strain of her decision to leave her marriage. Paul’s voice has guided us through events in the first-person to that point, but the distancing yet indicting second-person comes into play in the London years when the arrogant teen transforms into an adult in a codependent relationship who is barely coping. “You” starts nearly every sentence, and while the events of your personal love story will differ from this fiction, the constant “you” opens an empathic gateway to the long agony of a relationship coming to its end. However, the overuse of this tense acts as a drag on the narrative, appearing like a strategy to spruce up what is an all too common downfall. Paul is at his best in his own voice, seeking his own answers to his personal recriminations.
The book is a mixed bag, and in the process of its telling Barnes manages to both buttress his reputation for genius and mire his reader in tedium. He is a writer willing to pick at scars to see what he uncovers, but on occasion, he misjudges the poignancy of the quotidian for what is truly banal. This may not be his best, but even a decent effort from Julian Barnes is well worth some attention.