The Sense of an Ending. Julian Barnes.

Barnes, Julian. The Sense of an Ending. Vintage Toronto 2011. F;05/12.

This Booker Prize winner is very short for a novel but packs quite a slug, although it ends up impacting the target more like birdshot not quite at close enough range, I’d say.

I imagine that “serious” fiction these days is using plot twists in a semi-ironic way, the authors confiding, “You want Lee Childs? I can do that with one hand tied behind my back and will if I have to, to get you to pay attention to the much more important things on my serious literary mind.” But it feels like this guy got so preoccupied with the double plot twist at the end (which is critical to the main action and ideas) that it steals the emphasis and scatters the characters and otherwise impressive thinking and leaves us scratching our heads and finally without much feeling of satisfaction.

Male hero Tony back in university, angry at much smarter male buddy and recently-estranged girlfriend for connecting up, writes a fabulously nasty letter to them. This comes back at him in late middle age (PLOT ALERT), and we discover on the last page that buddy’s suicide was in the setting of fathering a mentally retarded boy with the girlfriend’s mother (not the girlfriend as we were still reeling from discovering a few pages back). Hm. So this means what?

Well, Tony’s letter contained a sarcastic suggestion that buddy ought to spend some time with girlfriend’s mother (so did he cause the tragic seduction?  END PLOT ALERT). Main philosophical sub-idea is that memory and rendering of past events, analogous to the way history is construed and taught, is an essentially plastic (read human) thing. So how can we ever make moral sense of it? Buddy (unconvincingly I would say) puts the whole thing into pseudo algebra which looks like an attempt to make him more ethereal and intellectual. He’s ethereal and intellectual enough. And now we’re worried that Mr. Barnes thinks he is but isn’t.

Tony our transparent narrator is self-effacing, always pointing out that there are other more unappealing ways of interpreting what he’s thinking about himself. But this wears thin especially once it starts to look like a strategy to emphasize the big (ethereal and intellectual) moral ambiguity message.

In the end for me it comes off as more of a narcissistic trickster exercise than the polished deep roundness of The Cat’s Table for example. But this is just taste I think, English smarty-boy versus Canadian Northrop Frye tweedie. I want the dead center of the target gone and the rest of it left perfect, not to have the whole thing riddled to shreds. I wonder what the Booker Prize competition was? 8.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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