This Booker winner of 2011 is a short novel that takes you to peaks of insights and intellectual probes into life. But the plot nosedives to the standards of mediocre thrillers with the suspense revealed at the end. The author is a brilliant writer and hence the reader is not left disappointed in spite of that apparent flaw.
What is life? This is the most fundamental question raised by the novel. Can it be understood and explained by logic and reason? Can people live together without causing “damage” to one another? How do we react to the ineluctable damage? Is life mostly about the damages and our responses to them? “Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.” (44)*
Adrian and Anthony are two of the four fast friends at school who are brilliant and are conscious about their superiority too. But Adrian ends up killing himself at the age of 22. “In the letter he left for the coroner he had explained his reasoning: that life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.” (48)
There are a couple of allusions to Albert Camus’s argument that the only question worth answering in life is that of suicide. Is life worth living? What makes it worth living? Can Camus’s answer, “intellectual honesty”, satisfy us fully? Do we need something more than mere logic and reason to sustain us through life? What about that terrible subhuman part of our being, the dominant part, the emotions?
Julian Barnes packs a lot of fiery material in his small novel of 150 pages. Almost every page of the novel puts some spark into your brain and makes you think deep. About life. Its meaning. The worthwhileness of putting up with it. If one can really see through life, see life with complete transparency and objectivity, would one still choose to put up with it?
In spite of all the intellectual acumen, will life leave you feeling terribly “average” in the end because you haven’t understood what life is really about? “Average, that’s what I’d been, ever since I left school,” the protagonist of the novel realises. “Average at university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt, at sex.... Average at life; average at truth; morally average.” (100)
Most lives consist of “compromise and littleness” (140) and does the ego of the intellectual permit him to accept that simple fact? Is the intellectual above the compromise and littleness? “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather facing them. Time ...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.” (93)
And the time comes at the end. When death approaches. Too late. Or does it come at all? Will our life rather be “merely the story we have told about life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves”? (95)
A lot of big questions are raised in this small novel about life and its meaning. Reading the novel is like taking a plunge into a metaphysical pool. The suspense revealed at the end comes as a terrible anticlimax, a thumbing of the nose at all the intellectual quests and questions. Is the author telling us that life is nothing more than what Shakespeare’s Macbeth described as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?
* All page numbers refer to the 2012 Vintage paperback edition of the novel.