Pulse: Stories

  • Julian Barnes
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 227 pp

Intimacy, obsession and sensory details in the nuanced world of social interaction.

Reviewed by Harriet Douty Dwinell

Julian Barnes came into my life at a time when I was seeking intimacy. It wasn’t the experience of intimacy I sought but an understanding of it, clues to the ways in which human beings, and especially men and women, relate to one another: the meaning behind the slanted glance, the impact of the words left dangling in the silence. I wallowed in films such as “The Squid and the Whale” and read works such as Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” In this context I discovered the novels of Julian Barnes. No one does intimacy better than Barnes.

Intimacy factors largely in Pulse, a collection of 14 short stories and vignettes; it is Julian Barnes’s 13th work of fiction, his third collection of short stories. Nine of the stories have been previously published, four in The New Yorker, the remaining five in English newspapers and magazines. An elegiac note pervades these stories, a sense of irretrievable loss, whether by death, divorce or the end of a long relationship. In late 2008, Barnes lost his wife of 29 years, Pat Kavanagh, a leading London literary agent, after a short battle with brain tumor. Two stories, “Marriage Lines” and the title story “Pulse,” deal in part with the mournful end of a long and happy marriage. Fear not that poignancy and pathos reign, however, for Pulse is filled with sly wit, humor and downright comic situations.

The collection is divided into two parts. Part 2 is cleverly made up of stories that center on one of the five senses. Part 1 contains stories that aren’t. Many stories in both parts feature obsessive 30- and 40-something men who try to negotiate the world of ordinary social interaction. Yet Barnes, master magician/musician that he is, can take the same three notes — obsessive men, failed relationship, new love interest — and create music that differs in the way a dirge differs from a polka.

Two stories admirably illustrate this point. “East Wind” takes place in a dreary seaside resort made up of shale beach, strips of concrete, “a bored sky” and an expanse of space left open when a group of ruffians burned down the beach huts. At a beach-front seafood restaurant amusingly named “The Right Plaice,” the recently divorced Vernon strikes up a conversation and then an affair with Andrea, a robotic and compliant waitress whose accent places her origins as somewhere in Eastern Europe. Andrea seems to have had all personality traumatized out of her; she can only ask Vernon if her behavior is good or bad. When, after making love, Vernon comments, “Gosh, you’re strong,” Andrea asks, “Is strong bad?” As Vernon begins to feel he is falling in love, he becomes obsessed about finding out who Andrea is, so much so that he steals and duplicates her apartment key. While she is at work, he pokes into her private life and he finds evidence of a heartbreaking past.

How different is “Trespass.” Same set of circumstances — obsessive young man just out of a relationship, seemingly passive young woman — yet how different the tone and outcome. Geoff keeps a walking log and in it notes that by hiking alone instead of with his previous girlfriend Cath, he saves 45 minutes on a given hike. Soon, he is hiking with Lynn, who shows up for their first hike in jeans, a sweater and sneakers, no water, no waterproof jacket for the rainy English climate. Not to worry. Geoff soon takes Lynn to a sporting-goods store and at his own expense decks her out in hiking boots, three pairs of ergonomic trekking socks designed to absorb pressure peaks, three pairs of inner socks, a day pack, a water bottle and a waterproof jacket.  He wonders if he dares to get her a trekking pole and a compass, in case he turns his ankle and she has to seek help. In the end, on a day trek to Curbar Edge, Lynn screams. She screams because she feels like screaming. And “if you felt like screaming again,” Geoff asks, clueless about the impulse toward spontaneous behavior, “what would it feel like?”  “It would feel like wanting to scream again,” Lynn replies. That night, Geoff sleeps diagonally in his bed.

Obsessions are not just the province of men in Barnes’s universe. In “Gardeners’ World,” Ken and Martha “had reached the stage, eight years into their relationship, when they had started giving each other useful presents, ones that confirmed their joint project in life rather than expressed their feelings.” In this story, Barnes’s insight into intimacy is on full display as Ken shakes and prods the birthday present before him in an effort to disguise any possible disappointment that might arise from the gift itself, in this case, a soil-testing kit. Thus begins a subtle war cloaked beneath the everyday patter of married life and its ally, secrecy. Martha wants what Ken derisively calls a “water feature.”  Ken wants a vegetable garden, which Martha feels would be an eyesore.

Near the end, at a dinner party held outdoors to celebrate the new garden complete with water feature, the guests miserably crouch over their “pear, walnut and gorgonzola starter,” freezing and insensitive to the water feature, the sound of which prompts one guest to ask if the hosts have left a tap on somewhere. Ken stalwartly supports Martha in this embarrassing moment and then announces that he had secretly applied for and won an allotment in a community garden.  When asked what he intends to grow, Martha pipes up before he can answer. “Blackberries,” she says, smiling tenderly at Ken. Because Martha handles the mail in their marriage, she had noted his order of two blackberry bushes. Marital crisis averted, but for how long? As Ken slaved earlier in the garden to do Martha’s bidding, he wondered if he loved Martha just as much as ever, or if he was merely performing a husbandly routine from which others were invited to deduce how much he loved her.”

Not every reader will come to Julian Barnes through the lens of intimacy. Some will come for Barnes’s literary cleverness, which is amply on display in Part 2. Not only are these stories subtly centered on the five senses, but each is written in the style of a different genre. Both “The Limner,” a moving story about a deaf and dumb itinerant painter in early America, and — the least engaging story in the collection — “Harmony,” about a piano prodigy blind from the age of 3½, set in 18th-century Germany, might very well have been written in the times they portray. “Complicity,” the story related to touch, progresses by an accumulation of seemingly disjointed scenes, only to end with a breathtaking, “And then I touched her.”

The story centering on taste, “Carcassonne,” is more essay than story. It includes some conventional (one might say) observations about taste in that it explores the effect of different foods on the taste of semen. But its artful focus is on taste in the sense of “discernment” or “appreciation.” A previously unpublished story, it allows Barnes to cleverly work in allusions to other stories in the volume, in the same way he does in a series of four contemporary vignettes — both annoying and compelling — in Part 1, titled  “At Phil and Joanna’s.”

“Pulse,” the title and concluding story, brings together a number of themes. It explores two parallel marriages, that of the unnamed narrator, 30 when the story begins, an obsessive runner, whose brief marriage ends in divorce; and that of his parents, which ended, readers might speculate, with the death of his mother after about 29 years of marriage, the same number of years that Julian Barnes and his wife, Pat, had been married before her swift death. In “Pulse,” the mother is diagnosed with motor neuron disease and dies after a brief period.

Yet the deft Barnes has centered this story around the father and his sense of smell, lost in a condition called anosmia. Only one aspect of the condition drives the him to seek medical help:  it was, he tells his son, “when I realized I couldn’t smell your mum. ... Not her perfume. Her skin. Her ... self.” Concern for the father allows the mother to hide her growing awkwardness until it is too late and she receives her dire diagnosis. As the mother lies in a hospice, needing to be turned every four hours and devoid of all senses except hearing and smell, the last to go, the father brings in packets of herbs. Closing the curtains around her, he crushes the herbs beneath her nostrils, hoping to awaken memories of happy travels together in foreign lands. “He didn’t want others to see this intimate moment,” the son explains.

Intimacy, the son realizes, goes beyond sex. Speculating earlier about his parents’ sex life, the unnamed narrator says that “it didn’t matter one way or another if they were actually having sex. Because their intimacy was still alive.”

No one does intimacy better than Julian Barnes.

Harriet Douty Dwinell, a Washington writer, gained an appreciation of English subtlety as a student at Battle Abbey School and University College London.

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