Literature can offer very few thrills that can beat a good short story collection. A short story is about being sharp and specific. Sometimes a short story is the best way an author can assert his artistic powers (John Updike), sometimes it’s the only way (Raymond Carver). And sometimes we are talking about collections like Dubliners, Heavy Water & Other Stories, May We Borrow Your Husband?, etc. These offer a new, different, exciting angle on the greatness of their author. It’s to this latter category that Pulse belongs.
Pulse was published last year, which makes it two classic books in the course of one year for Julian Barnes. The other of course being his masterful Booker Prize-winning novel A Sense Of An Ending.
Pulse (which collects the most recent of Barnes’ short fiction) is the writer’s third short story collection. And if there’s something that distinguishes it from 1996’s brilliant Cross Channel, it’s a sense of overwhelming, occasionally almost desperate maturity. Maturity that tends to be a trap for the book’s characters, and so rarely an asset. We’ve got sad old ladies not realizing how sad they are, we’ve got people waking up to the world’s commanding cruelty, we’ve got marriages broken or doomed (sometimes, ironically, doomed to longevity).
The collection is divided into two parts. The first one has to be my favourite, not least because it contains these four witty, upbeat conversations, breathers to brighten things up a bit. They are called “At Phil & Joanna’s” and feature a group of house guests discussing random topics – from sex to politics to philosophy. It’s amusing, and is brimming with ‘spontaneous’ aphoristic delights, and overall is a welcome refreshment amid densely depressing stories like “Marriage Lines” and “East Wind”. These are populated by restless people, haunting pasts and haunted memories. The Chekhovian “Marriage Lines”, for instance, tells of a man trying to make peace with the loss of his wife by going to a remote Scottish island they had both visited together numerous times. Reliving the memories to try to let go of the past and the gruesome, suffocating feeling of grief and dismay. These stories tickle you with senses, emotions – they rarely have much of a plot.
The second part is not necessarily weaker – it’s different. While the title story and “Complicity” are more of what we have already seen in the first part, stories like “The Limner” and “Harmony” are set in older times. The former is about a portrait-painter who can’t hear, and the latter is about a young piano player who can’t see. It’s interesting that this way or another this second part of the collection revolves around human senses. We’ve got wine tasting in “Carcassonne”, we’ve got the importance of touching in “Complicity”, we’ve got smelling problems in “Pulse”. Coupled with the memories of the first part, Pulse masterfully presents a full, compelling picture of a man’s universe. And, to paraphrase one of the book’s best lines, sometimes life’s clichés are literature’s astonishments.
Pulse is a bit like A Sense Of An Ending broken into pieces. With perhaps a little more humour thrown in. Written in Barnes’ exquisite yet practical style, Pulse is very adult entertainment – but that does not necessarily mean that I stress the first word. It’s both.