THE ONLY STORY. By Julian Barnes. Knopf. 254 pages. $25.95.
Early in “The Only Story,” Julian Barnes’s 23rd book, his narrating hero professes, “I’m not trying to spin you a story. I’m trying to tell you the truth,” a sentence that should set off alarms in readers of his work.
Barnes specializes in novels punctured by gaps and evasions. He often dissects the sensible life overturned by unrest. Paul Roberts, his narrator, enters the novel as a 19-year-old fresh from his first year at Sussex University and leaves it as a man approaching 70. Over the passage of time, he adheres to the only story he has to tell, at least, he says, the only one that matters.
The story he spins makes for a claustrophobic little book. With its small cast and meager incidents, “The Only Story” thrives on what it omits. Many of the early events have a sepia charm. Can this be how Barnes catches us off-guard? Nothing seems to happen until everything has happened.
“The Only Story” begins innocently enough. Home for the summer, Paul lets his mother convince him to join the local tennis club, perhaps in hopes that he’ll meet a nice Christine or Virginia to marry. Instead, he meets Susan Macleod, age 48, and so begins the story. Although Paul tells us that milieu doesn’t matter, it does. Paul is a product of the “stockbroker belt” 15 miles or so south of London. It’s a replica kind of place, with half-timbered houses and cricket on the green.
The village inhabitants shock easily. Paul clearly relishes thumbing his nose at propriety. When he and Susan become doubles partners at the tennis club and begin a fling, the shock value is part of the attraction. In short order, they’re evicted from the club and from nice houses. Paul knows very little about love. The opening pages are full of platitudes, mostly equating love and suffering. Susan, although married and the mother of two girls, isn’t highly experienced either.
Paul tells his story in three chapters. The first-person narration of Chapter One sets the stage for nostalgia and regret later. They are English lovers, with only the “morally laden English words” to express their feelings. Paul admires what’s admirable in Susan: “She laughs at life. That is part of her essence.” Like her character on the court, the youngish Susan is calm and reliable. She admits she’s “part of a played-out generation” and is just “looking for a place of safety.”
Neither Paul nor Susan seems able to forecast how far their romantic leap will take them. Most readers will know they won’t land in a place of safety. Paul makes himself at home with the Macleod family, in spite of occasional assaults from Susan’s husband, Gordon. The first time he sees Gordon, Paul mistakes him for the gardener, Adam, Susan jokes. As a young man, Paul considers Gordon irrelevant, but even in Chapter One, there are hints that they will all fall together.
In Chapter Two, Barnes switches to the second person, as if he’s telling himself a story. Susan buys a house in London, they move in together, and Paul becomes a solicitor. Things fall apart when Susan begins nicking alcohol from the tenants. One stage rolls seamlessly into another, as Paul says, and soon he’s getting calls from the transport police at Waterloo Station, telling him about a lady in a “distressed condition.”
Friends spot her in alleyways with the bottle to her lips. Paul learns the terrible lesson that love can curdle. There follows “the handing back of Susan,” as if she were a parcel. Since he can’t save her, he has to save himself, he explains. After his failed attempt at fidelity, Paul spends the rest of his life moving on, “being agreeable with new people,” a story he tells in Chapter Three.
In the final chapter, Paul shifts to the third person and begins to imagine counterfactual possibilities. Paul’s pursuit of the “untaken path” is the opposite of his romantic way of thinking. Instead of telling himself one story — that his life course was sealed when he stepped on the tennis court with Susan — he recasts his own tragic story as a haphazard one that might have evolved differently. Parallel timelines and alternate realities challenge the idea of a single personal fate.
Along a continuum of experiences, he now imagines, almost anything might happen to anybody. What if he had begun helping Gordon Macleod in the garden? Or taken up golf as well as tennis? What if the Macleods had come for sherry and begun to socialize with his parents? Idle what-ifs proliferate in Chapter Three, but imagination also serves Paul in one of the last tasks of his life, as he sees it: to remember Susan back to innocence.
The forensics of memory are central to Barnes’s aesthetic. He often deals with narrators who try to cordon off the past, whether to keep it pure, as a sacred text, or to protect themselves from its effects. At any rate, protecting the self and protecting the story amount to the same impulse. Barnes writes a moral tragedy, but his hero learns the wrong lesson. It’s the aftermath that haunts. Paul doesn’t elect a worthy replacement life. Instead he chooses nothingness. He just sinks into a diminished world and serves out his time like a ghost.
At the end of “Levels of Life,” his own grief memoir, written shortly after the death of his wife, Barnes makes clear that the hard knock of grief is the flip side of love: “The thing is, nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.”
Paul’s final tragedy is that he deals in facsimiles and remnants. Barnes gives him an incomplete grasp of his own experience, stalling out at heartbreak. In the end, the story is that he doesn’t let his life’s only story matter as much as it’s worth.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.