Monday, May 30, 2011

Pulse by Julian Barnes

Pulse, by Julian Barnes, is a collection of 14 short stories about "longing and loss, [and] friendship and love".  Barnes is a quintessential British writer who has been short-listed for the Man Booker prize three times. 

This collection of short stories starts with a terrific opener, "East Wind", in which an Englishman courts a Eastern European waitress and tries to uncover the root of her unusual behavior.  Suddenly, the Englishman and the reader are jarred with the waitress's story.  Four of the stories, entitled "At Phil and Joanna's", form a single narrative in parts.  It is essentially a drunken conversation among four friends ranging from sex to politics (very left wing) to loss.  One story, "Sleeping with John Updike" is a funny (and sad) story about the relationship between two female writers who did not quite make it to the top of the literary world.  Two of the stories are set a few centuries ago.  A few of the stories read more like essays than short stories.

Barnes captures conversation beautifully.  For example, the "At Phil and Joanna's" cycle of stories is just a long conversation between four characters.  There are few indications of who is actually speaking but it feels very real.  While the writing was magnificent, the point of that cycle of stories was lost on me.

Some of the stories were simply amazing.  Others, such as Phil and Joanna's and one or two of the essays, were well written but didn't capture me.  Based on the reviews I've read of his other works, this is not his strongest book.  Barnes is obviously an excellent writer but this is not his finest piece.  If you want to give him a try, I would start with one of his Man Booker finalists: Flaubert's Parrot, England, England or Arthur & George (a fictional story about Sherlock Holmes' creator).  The last one is on my "to be read" list.

The Paris Review interview with Barnes here.

Barnes talking about how the business of publicity for writers works.

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