Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 6 February 2012

"Pulse" by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, 2011)

In the first story, "East Wind", the characters behave in a way convenient for the plot. After that there are pages of clever banter

'You rode that hobby horse to death last time, darling.'
'Did I?'
'Riding a hobby horse to death is flogging a dead metaphor.'
'What is the difference between a metaphor and a simile, by the way?'
'Which of you two is driving?'
'Have you made yours?' (p.49)

I like "Carcassonne" but isn't it an essay? Finally there's the title story, which makes the book worthwhile. A man reflects on his parents' marriage when his own fails.

About eighteen months into the marriage, Janice accused me of not being straightforward. Of course, being Janice, she didn't put it as straightforwardly as that. She asked why I always preferred discussing unimportant problems rather than important ones. I said I didn't think this was so, but in any case, big things are sometimes so big that there's little to say about them (p.214)

His father's quiet. There's friction between his wife Janice and his parents - Janice "used to complain to your mother about how difficult you were to live with - somehow implying that it was your mother's fault" (p.225). His father starts to suffer from anosmia (losing the sense of smell) just before his mother's diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Her father tries acupuncture, which he doesn't believe in, but he goes along with it. "In Chinese medicine there are 6 [pulses], 3 on each side" (p.201); "Oh for Christ's sake, Dad. There's only one pulse" (p.206), says the narrator. And yet, the acupuncture seems to help. The narrator also has ideas about relationships

  • "If we're looking for someone who matches us, we only ever think of their good matching bits", p.215
  • "You would think, wouldn't you, that if you were the child of a happy marriage, then you ought to have a better than average marriage yourself - either through some genetic inheritance or because you'd learnt from example?", p.217

Smells are a running theme - perhaps a shade too pervasive

  • When the narrator first met Janice he thought it was "a slightly off-centre tweak to her nose that I found instantly sexy", p.201
  • "Jake used to say I had a nose for trouble", p.206

Pheromones and compost feature too. When his mother's comatose on her deathbed his father rubs fresh herbs beneath her nose, believing that the sense of smell is the last to go.

Other reviews

  • Rachel Cusk (Guardian)
  • Tim Adams (Observer)
  • Tim Martin (Telegraph) - "many of these pieces are still masterclasses in the form, full of the sidelong wit and intelligence that make the writer one of our most consistently deft short-form stylists"
  • Leyla Sanai (Independent)
  • Michiko Kakutani (New York Times)
  • Kate Saunders (New Statesman)
  • DJ Taylor (Financial Times) - "Short stories nearly always suffer from being assembled in volume form. The reader starts to see the joins, work out how the tricks are played, looks on knowingly as the next artful metaphor begins to uncoil, and in this particular case to wonder whether the Trades Descriptions Act couldn’t usefully be invoked. The four pieces entitled "At Phil and Joanna’s" are simply exercises in the higher banter, smart-alecky conversations"

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