Review: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

>>Published: August 2011

>>Finally got around to it: August 2012

Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.

Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire—and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from the future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records—in words, sounds, pictures—you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’

***

Memory is a difficult matter. It’s intangible, even malleable, yet relied upon for definition—both of self and of others. With the passage of time, memories, despite our best efforts, fade and recede, wider and wider gaps appearing like tattered holes in a favourite sweater. In some cases, the process is accentuated through tragic genetic inevitabilities like Alzheimer’s or senility; in others, through denial and the inability to see beyond one’s self and individualized problems.

Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning novella, The Sense of an Ending, deals exclusively with memory and its associated pitfalls. The story is Tony Webster’s, cleaved between the friends and associations cultivated, and obliterated, during two defining times in his life: first as an arrogant, sex-starved teenager, in love with his own intellect and sense of humour; then as a retiree with a marriage, a divorce, and a successful career to his credit.

As a youth, Tony meets Adrian Finn—a quiet, highly intelligent young man deemed, by some, to be too clever for his own good. Adrian quickly falls in with Tony’s small, high-on-the-food-chain group, adding an austerity and a degree of condescension to their interactions. As years and their university careers pass, the small quartet is slowly divided, then ruptured entirely. As an adult, with Adrian and their falling out a part of his past, Tony, via an unexpected will, is once more brought into a world he thought he’d been freed from decades earlier. To add further reason for these plot turns would be to reveal too much.

The Sense of an Ending is a success. Barnes does not waste one page of this novella. The result is a prime example of effective economical story telling. Tony is an intriguing unreliable narrator—not because he is lying to the reader so much as he has, over decades, constructed a reality based in fact, but lightened through a fictional cheesecloth placed over past events:

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

This novella is Tony’s education—his enlightenment through which he comes to understand the reality and impact of hateful actions made in haste during one’s youth. Though forty years have passed between the two halves of the novella, Tony, despite changes in his personal life, has clung to his emotional immaturity; he is too reliant on the wit and charm he can recall from his youth as being indicative of his supposedly inoffensive qualities as a man. It is a single event, however—a letter written in his twenties, from a place of hurt and anger—that undermines his evolution and forces him to re-examine the life he’s lived and his lingering effect on those once closest to him.

The novella format allows for a degree of breadth and investigation not typically afforded to short fiction, while at the same time maintaining an urgency and simplicity of execution. Barnes doesn’t necessarily take the time to construct adequate histories for side characters like Tony’s first girlfriend Veronica, rather he carefully positions them as signposts around which Tony’s trajectory is shunted. They are given enough back-story and detail to give the illusion of depth, while the story’s focus remains firmly on Tony, his own particular sort of tunnel vision, and the slow pulling back of the curtain. Indeed the final pages of The Sense of an Ending offer revelations that encourage a second reading, without sacrificing believability or emotional impact for the sake of a sudden, shocking twist.

The Sense of an Ending is masterful story telling. Not since Amélie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin have I walked away from a novella so entirely satisfied. Highly recommended.

Review: Bullettime, by Nick Mamatas

>>Published: September 2012

Sliding into him is like living in an alcoholic who can taste the Jack Daniels on her tongue in every glass of juice or soda, right before she finally says, “Fuck it,” and marches out to get laid, get drunk, and get royally fucked by the world she’s determined to toss herself out in front of. Kallis Episkipos is Dave Holbrook, with free will reclaimed.

And me? I’m Dave Holbrook too—where Kallis Episipos has free will, I have no will at all, no way to affect the world or my own life. But I get to see it all; every moron mistake and anguished inevitability. Somewhere along the infinite planes of the Ylem, there must be a way out, a way to live and a choice to make that frees us from the grip of Eris, that frees me from this waiting room of raw experiences. I just need to find it.

***

>>Ylem

>>Y-lem. Noun. The initial substance of the universe from which all matter is said to be derived. (source: Dictionary.com)

This basic concept is key to understanding Nick Mamatas’s Bullettime. Mamatas’s novella tracks the many tragic lives of New Jersey native and teenage cough syrup addict Dave Holbrook. Tripping back and forth between first- and third-person narration, Mamatas gives a rough sketch of a boy teased, bullied, beaten, stabbed, and quite simply shit on with every step he takes in life. But Dave isn’t content to exist as a Hamilton High punching bag. He steps up, makes decisions that can’t be unmade—life destroying decisions—but whose outcomes can be experienced through the ethereal omniscience provided by the ylem.

Think Run Lola Run by way of the Columbine massacre and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how things unfold.

Ylem is an interesting concept that, in practice, boils down to a series of butterfly effects: by taking a gun out at such-and-such a point, things unfold one way; shoot up the school at another point and his limited life unfolds in an entirely different matter. Portrayed as a canvas to which all possibilities are painted, the ylem offers Dave a strange sort of guardian angel’s perspective on things—Dave by way of the “I” of the narrative, and not the “he.”

At the heart of it all, as Dave’s lust interest and personal Greek goddess of discord, is Erin/Eris, at once the Eve and the apple-pushing serpent of the tale (with a cache of weapons to call her own). In none of Dave’s lives is Erin a positive influence—a spark, an igniting force, absolutely, but always a sharp object pushing in the small of his back.

And there it is—the knife pushing Dave ever forward, rushing him to his pre-mid-life demise every time, in every life. Whether the final straw comes from the unknown who stabbed him with a pen, the classmates who call him faggot and treat him like dirt, or the parents who are equal parts insane, neglectful, embittered, and abusive, the end result is invariably the same: the desire to step up and no longer be looked down upon, by whatever means necessary. Dave’s a weakling, a life-long target naively searching for his sword and shield.

Bullettime is a noir steeped in teenage misery and revenge, with some basic ideas about fate and predetermination tossed into the mix. Its experimental structure is high on concept, but unfortunately low on characterization: Dave and others are drawn in fairly one-dimensional patterns, with little to them beyond their surface attitudes and struggles. That’s not to say they aren’t a colourful bunch (Lee and Oleg especially), but with such a scattered through-line it’s difficult to feel a personal, emotional pull towards any one individual and whatever temporal stream they currently occupy.

On a conceptual level, Bullettime works more often than not. I wish Mamatas had given us more detail regarding the ylem and its presence and/or purpose within the narrative, but lacking that information does not irrevocably hamper one’s enjoyment of the book.

Those seeking a tonal shift to the discussion of fate and destiny will find much to like in Bullettime, though it’s unlikely Dave and Erin will stay with you for too long after the final page has been turned.

Review: The Prestige, by Christopher Priest

>>Published: November 1995

>>Finally got around to it: August 2012

Nor are the mental aftereffects, which so scourged me at the outset, a problem any more. I suffer no agonies of depression, or self-doubt. To the contrary (and I confide this to no one, and record it in no other document than in this secret and lockable diary), the wrenching apart of my body has become a pleasure to which I am almost addicted. At first I was disheartened by the imaginings of death, of living in an afterlife, but now I nightly experience my transmission as a rebirth, a renewal of self. In the early days I was concerned by the many times I should have to perform the trick to keep in practice, but now as soon as I have completed one performance I begin to crave the next.

***

Christopher Priest’s 1995 pseudo science-fiction mystery The Prestige is centred on the rivalry between two London-based magicians at the tail end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth—a rivalry that crosses the boundaries of legacy, shadowing their respective families for a further one hundred years.

Rupert Angier is an aristocrat who falls in love with magic at an early age. Though his imagination is lacking, his commercial drive and sense of performance distinguish him from his contemporaries. He quickly makes a name for himself, conducting fake séances for grieving families, before trying his hand at the centre stage.

Alfred Borden is his counterpoint—a working-class magician with a creative eye and the will to maintain his unique magician’s secrets beyond what most men would find them selves capable. When Borden, frustrated by Angier’s séances, confronts him during a performance, he inadvertently injures Angier’s wife and kills their unborn child in the process, thus igniting the rivalry around which The Prestige is constructed.

Told primarily in an epistolary format, The Prestige offers differing degrees of insight into the minds of two men driven equally by professional curiosity, competition, and a growing need for vengeance. Split primarily between Borden and Angier’s journals, detailing the methods that drive their respective madness, and interspersed with a present day mystery between two of their descendents, The Prestige is a magic trick in its own right. Priest makes fine use of a pair of semi-unreliable narrators to tease his endgame without ever fully pulling the rug out from under the reader; the extremes to which both men are willing to go are rooted in emotions that stem more clearly from their mutual compulsion to have the answers behind one another’s most notorious tricks than from the desire to physically wound, injure, or kill the other.

Though intriguing, The Prestige suffers from a few key shortcomings. However, to discuss them with any sort of depth, I’m going to have to dive into spoilers for both the novel and the 2006 film adaptation, directed by Christopher Nolan.

Last chance—if you’ve not yet read the book or seen the film, turn away and do so. Both are certainly worth your time.

The “prestige” of The Prestige is predicated on the trick illustrated in the very beginning of the film adaptation, where Cutter (played by Michael Caine) causes a small bird to disappear, crushing its cage beneath a handkerchief. With the cage gone, he reveals with his other hand the bird, alive and well, to the delight of a little girl named Jess (who, as one eventually learns, is Borden’s daughter). But it is not the same bird. The original bird was crushed within the collapsing cage and swept off the table and into a secret compartment. The “prestige” is in fact a double—a simulacrum of the first bird. In both the novel and the film, Angier’s curiosity is piqued by Borden’s most famous trick, THE NEW TRANSPORTED MAN, in which he disappears in one closet only to reappear in another, on the other side of the stage, only a second later—too fast to have travelled by any means known. Angier spends years and a small fortune pursuing a better form of the trick. He refuses to accept what Cutter assures him is Borden’s method—the use of a double. The man who comes out of the second closet is no hired hand dressed up to look like Borden—rather he is identical to Borden, right down to the smallest details. What Angier is able to accomplish, through Nikola Tesla’s help, is a device that not only transports him across vast distances through the vague use of science and large amounts of electricity, but also creates an unfortunate double—an exact clone of Angier that must be done away with so as not to arouse suspicion or to expose his method to the world. In essence, the man on stage is the bird in the collapsing cage, crushed and swept off the table so that the clone may take the original’s place.

The secret to Borden’s trick? An unconventional, unexpected double—an identical twin brother. However, since the two brothers have not ever been seen together in public, Angier refuses to believe it to be true, as that would mean the unthinkable—that two men are living half lives for their art, neither able to exist as a full and complete person, in public, with the women they love, with the audiences they entertain. In essence, both prestiges are sacrificial in nature: Angier’s sacrifice is literal, dying, in a sense, in every performance he gives; Borden’s sacrifice is spiritual, choosing to deny oneself a full life in order to better serve one’s art. One man choosing to die over and over again, while two men choose to live fragmented, unsatisfying lives, no matter the cost to those that love them.

This theme of mutual sacrifice is explored in both the book and the film, but more expertly in the film. Whether as a result of the epistolary format or the overwhelming focus on the rivalry and how their pasts brought them to certain extremes, the novel The Prestige lacks dimension, most specifically that of the lives surrounding the two magicians. Their wives, mistresses, and their working relationships are all touched upon, but with seemingly little impact to their own character and development. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Borden—more specifically, with the two Borden’s and the half-lives they were forced to lead to remain forever a mystery. The film gives greater weight to Borden’s method and its reveal through the use of Sarah, the wife of one of the Borden brothers, her suicide, and the sad, broken man the surviving Borden is revealed as at the film’s conclusion. While the film sympathizes clearly with the Bordens, the novel falls in Angier’s court, placing him as a spectre of a man, lost, without payment for the crimes Borden committed against him.

The reversal of sympathies between the two mediums is interesting, but where the film succeeds its source material is in the development and maturity of the remaining Borden brother, and how, with their rivalry finished, he has surpassed Angier and all his sacrifices, growing beyond the need to live through tricks and illusions. In the novel, Borden seems forever a child in a man’s body—never willing to let bygones be bygones, and unfortunately, never revealing himself as more than one man when he was in fact two. Because of this, the novel feels emotionally two-dimensional, its signifiers limited to rather basic methods and responses. The film’s success is in the development of Borden’s brother, but without ever developing him in direct on-screen fashion. In essence, the prestige of the film, the reveal of the Bordens’ half-lives and its impact on the brothers (the survivor and the condemned), is what cements the narrative’s themes of sacrifice and perseverance for the sake of art. The prestige of the novel, on the other hand, is more focused on the supernatural, the impossible, and not on the reason behind its existence.

Though this is one of only a few instances where a film adaptation has improved upon its source material (thus joining the illustrious ranks of No Country for Old Men, The Lord of the Rings, and Children of Men, the latter of which is quite a terrible book), Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige is certainly a worthy read. I was surprised at how much it differed from the film, but pleasantly so. While it struggles to give proper definition to several characters, the rivalry between the two ambitious magicians is engaging enough to keep one reading until the very end.