Julian Barnes' Latest: Brilliantly Written--and Derivative

The Only Story: A Novel (2018)
By Julian Barnes
Alfred Knopf, 254 pages.

Have you ever seen The Graduate (1967)? Imagine what would have happened if the protagonist, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), had stayed with bored, boozy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) instead of taking up with her daughter Elaine. Now make Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson British and toss in another daughter for good measure. How would that turn out? 

This is pretty much the story arc of Julian Barnes' latest novel. His Benjamin is Paul Roberts, a 19-year-old about to head off to university, though with little enthusiasm beyond escaping The Village, a Greater London version of soulless suburbia populated by interchangeable bourgeois "Hugos" and "Carolines." At the local tennis club Paul is paired with 48-year-old Susan MacLeod, who is decidedly not a Caroline, though she's just as weary of her social script as Mrs. Robinson. Paul will go off to university, but he and Susan will also become lovers—and I'm not talking about just a summer fling.

Do you see my dilemma in evaluating this book? No matter what other trappings Barnes adds, his tale is essentially The Graduate. Paul is every bit as passive as Benjamin, and Gordon MacLeod is as bombastic and as prone to violent outburst as Mr. Robinson. The Only Story even begins at roughly the same time period.

Let me add a dimension. I admired the fact that Barnes antiseptically dissects the next several decades of the Paul/Susan affair and does so without casting moral judgment. Barnes writes, "… [E]veryone has their love story. Even if it was a fiasco, even if it fizzled out, never got going, had been in the mind to begin with: that didn't make it any less real. And it was the only story."  Therein lies Barnes' thesis. Maybe love doesn't make the world go 'round, but it defines the human experience and is indeed, Banes opines, the only story. He sets us up in the book's opening query: "Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less and suffer the less?" If you think the answer (or the question) is obvious, or that we can say from the outset that Paul and Susan's relationship is repugnant, Barnes counters: "In love, everything is both true and false; it's the one subject on which it's impossible to say anything absurd." You can't "capture love in a definition;" only "in a story."

Well damn! That's great writing. It's succinct, provocative, and burns with the sort of incendiary heat that only a master wordsmith can stoke. What's a critic to do, admire the prose, or slam the book's lack of originality? It seems to me one is honor bound to do both. Is it clever or derivative to write a thinly veiled sequel to The Graduate? More the latter, I think. Especially given that the only new character of note is Susan's lifelong friend Joan, who is also occasionally plays the role of Paul's superego. Joan is, however, just about the only character beyond Paul and Susan with dimensionality. A measure of this is that Paul's putative pal, Eric, has only incidental presence and no last name. Nor do most other male characters in the book other than Susan's husband, and a fleeting reference to Paul's own surname.

This, of course, is deliberate. Love is, after all, the only story.  Or so Barnes avers.  It often seems as if Barnes' intent in this novel was to construct a skeletal narrative frame upon which he could hang his observations about life, suffering, games playing, ageing, and the unreflective passivity of English males. Paul makes a number of choices that are at best cheaply rationalized, but are better characterized as amoral. If all of this sounds rather familiar, it's because Paul is too much like Tony, the protagonist of Barnes' celebrated The Sense of an Ending.

Ahhh, but the prose…. It all comes back to that. If a glorious singer warbles random names from the London telephone directory, does that in any way diminish the quality of the voice? Barnes is simply too good to toss aside lightly. In the end, all we can do is bask in the heat of his sentences—even when they take us places we've already been.

Rob Weir   

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