The Sense of an Ending
Two novels in a row. They’ll pull my union card if this keeps up.
Years ago, I worked for an entrepreneur who favored enigmatic statements. Why, for example, address a staff issue when you can say, “A job is a problem that takes care of itself.”
Unfortunately, I picked up the habit. Here’s a favorite: Time–linear, measurable, quantifiable time–doesn’t exist. It is a purely human invention laid atop cyclical, cosmic time, which is real.
Julian Barnes, one of those writers who emerged in the 1980s that I’ve kept an eye on, might concur. While my initial attraction to Barnes may have been the parrot, he continued to write thoughtful literary fiction. I took to him in a way I still can’t muster for his English contemporaries.
Back then, in the 80s, age differences meant a lot more. Men over thirty seemed old codgers compared with those of us a decade younger. Now I realize our shared experience is greater than that small difference. At the time, though, it seemed as wide as the mouth of the Amazon.
Living has a tendency to even things out . Or maybe not.
How you react to those two statements may frame how you react to the present novel. This slim read packs its punch into two sections–too vast to be chapters, too small to be books–that take up all of 163 pages. It is, at its core, a rumination on human time.
We’re all human, aren’t we? Escaping time is like escaping your past. I doubt it can be done and I think Tony Webster, the protagonist of this tale, would agree. At least he proves unable to escape his own past, which comes roaring back at him after more than four decades.
We first meet Tony near the end of his school years. Those would be the high school years here in the States; the educational systems are just different enough to warrant a definition. His school, to which he commutes from an unidentified suburb, is in London, which is, this is the mid-1960s, swinging. I’m less certain about Tony. Mostly I think he and his crew are feeling their adolescent Cheerios®.
Tony is a member, originally, of a troika with Colin and Alex. Together they form a trio besotted with intellectual parlor games. Those would be the type that involve wise ass responses to teachers and sentences that begin, “It is philosophically self-evident…” These three are soon joined by a newcomer, the truly erudite Adrian Finn.
As Tony notes, the prime difference between his crew and Finn is that they were always “taking the piss out, except when we were serious.” Finn took the exact opposite approach. That tension goads our lads on as they work their way through school and the death of a classmate who, it seems, got his girlfriend preggers and just couldn’t face it.
This strikes our chums as ridiculous. Full of schoolboy notions fueled by first readings of Camus and Nietzsche, they view suicide as a noble and rational choice. It’s as though the terrible ordinariness of Robinson’s reason for hanging himself offends their heightened sensibilities, a point of view only a teenager can fully embrace.
Unable to consider suicide as a possible course for myself, I recognize that some see no other way out. That doesn’t automatically elevate the act to a matter of high principle. Maybe we can only understand that after suffering through loss ourselves.
Back in the book, our friends graduate and move along. Adrian’s off to Cambridge, Tony to Bristol, the others stay local, I think. Colin and Alex start, as high school friends often do, to move towards the periphery. Then Tony meets a girl, Veronica, and he’s turned inside out.
Most of the first section, in fact, is about Tony’s college years. Veronica keeps him at sixes and sevens in the sex department (in general, really) and like many a lad before him, Tony is unsure of his emotional state. They spend time together. They stay up all night to witness the Severn bore. He visits her home where he meets her family–an avuncular dad, a skittery mom, a soon-to-graduate Cambridge brother–and he has her come to London to meet the lads.
The wheel turns. Tony and Veronica are no longer a couple. He receives word that she has taken up with Adrian. He sends a drunken, poison pen letter. He graduates and heads to America where he bums around for months, experiencing a freedom he didn’t at home. He returns to England where he learns Adrian has committed suicide. In meeting with his old friends and discussing the details they decide it was an entirely principled action.
And then it’s the present and Tony is in retirement. Already! Yes, and he’s had exactly the sort of uneventful life any parent that lived through World War II would wish for their child. Work, marriage, child, home, divorce, grandchild. Even the divorce was amicable and he remains close friends wife his ex-wife, Margaret.
At which point a letter arrives. Posted from a solicitor, it informs Tony that Veronica’s mother has remembered him in her will. The legacy is £500 and, this is the critical part, Adrian’s diary. The cash is forthcoming. The diary is in the possession of Veronica and she’s being uncooperative.
Presented with the possibility of communication from nearly beyond the grave Tony obsesses. He tracks Veronica down. She hasn’t changed. He persists. She teases, sending him a photocopied page of the diary which shows what I recognize as a technically rendered philosophical argument regarding suicide replete with numbered axioms.
Tellingly, the last words on the facsimile page refer to Tony which feeds his obsession. He tracks Veronica down and forces her to meet. Actually they meet several times. Each time she calls him obtuse. She’s explaining, in her way but he’s too fixated on the damn diary–and maybe himself given the tantalizing excerpt and his role as its recipient–to see what’s coming. A lot of long-held, unquestioned beliefs are at risk.
I’m not going to spoil the tale but I will note two things. The first is that watching of the Severn bore. If time is a river, what should we make of a river running backwards? And while the bore is real it is also an illusion because when the tide subsides the river remains, flowing as ever.
The other item of note are the opening paragraphs. Flipping back for another reason I found myself rereading them. They are as haunting and beautiful a set of images as you’ll encounter anywhere.
And they are central to the tale, which you won’t want to miss.