Marriage and relationships are the main preoccupation of Pulse, Julian Barnes’ third short story collection and seventeenth book. In most cases, these are the relationships of middle-aged, middle-class British people much like Julian Barnes himself, or awkward second attempts bearing the patina of past betrayals, divorces, and personal failings.
The subject takes on a certain poignancy given this is Barnes’ first book since the sudden death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, to brain cancer in October 2008. Kavanagh’s death was preceded, with tragic irony, by the publication only months earlier of Barnes’ last book, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a memoir in which he ruminated extensively on his obsession with death. Although Barnes’ marriage was a long one, it was notoriously disrupted in the early 80s when Kavanagh left him for a time to be with the writer Jeanette Winterson, who claimed to have written her novel The Passion for her.
Those hoping to gain autobiographical insight into Barnes’ personal life through these stories will be tripped up by the fact of chronology, however. Many of them, including the tender, finely wrought “Marriage Lines,” about a recently widowed man who returns for the first time to the place he and his wife used to vacation in in the Scottish Hebrides, were written before Barnes’ own loss.
Pulse is bookended by two very strong pieces. “East Wind,” deploys Barnes’ trademark emotional sang froid to searing effect in the tale of a divorced real estate agent’s graceless courtship of a taciturn local waitress. Andrea has an accent that Vernon assumes to be eastern European, but he never bothers to ask where she’s from even after they start sleeping together. Instead, he lets himself into her sparsely furnished apartment and rummages through her drawers searching for clues. But his attempt to get the upper hand backfires when a comment dropped in the bedroom reveals his hand and sabotages his chances with Andrea completely.
The titular “Pulse” is the book’s tour de force. In it, a middle-aged man takes the measure of his own failed marriage in light of his parents’ more successful one, now coming to an end because of his mother’s terminal illness. All the while the narrator and his ex accused each other of psychopathic tendencies, his mother and father found effortless contentment in their British taxpaying sensibleness, any problems simply taken in stride: “Dad had a bit of a drink problem when I was little, but Mum sorted him out and turned him into a purely social drinker.” These are parents so reasonable that “Mild sarcasm from my father had the force of rage from anyone else.” Barnes is often acerbic, but he’s also capable of wrenching sincerity. A scene where the narrator’s father rips open plastic packages of herbs then crushes them in his hands so that his dying wife can smell them is one of the saddest, sweetest images I’ve come across.
“Gardener’s World,” a brilliant showpiece for Barnes’ caustic wit, turns a couple’s garden into a staging ground for the creeping, passive-aggressive discontents of marriage. To friends, Martha dismisses Ken’s blackberry bush as a “hideous mass of brambles.” He, on the other hand, smiles smugly when the sound of her mosquito-breeding “water feature” prompts their guests to ask whether a tap hasn’t been left on somewhere.
Less successful is the dialogue-driven, four-part “At Phil & Joanna’s” series, based on the idle chat of two couples at dinner. The characters’ arch, prurient commentary on everything from marmalade to politics to visits to the proctologist may be accurate, but it quickly induces the irritable fatigue that comes from eavesdropping on a conversation between people convinced that they’re funnier and cleverer than they really are.
Barnes divides Pulse into two parts, ostensibly to give some coherence to the sudden shifts in time and place that occur in the second half—“The Limner,” Chekhovian in its structural perfection, tells the tale of a deaf, travelling portrait artist who undermines a rapacious customs collector. “Harmony” is a slightly flat account of Franz Mesmer’s true, unsuccessful attempt to cure an 18-year-old female musical prodigy of blindness in the late 1700s using his dubious theories of “animal magnetism,” while “Carcassone” offers an essayistic take on love using Garibaldi’s legendary romance with his Brazilian wife Anita Riberas as a starting point.
Pulse may lack the sustained brilliance of 2004’s The Lemon Table, but Barnes can do more in a single story than many lesser writers can accomplish in a whole novel, and the fistful of nuggets that are here make this collection well worth taking up.