Julian Barnes has often made a virtue of the ordinary. His first novel, Metroland (1980), spins a yarn out of growing up in the suburbs; in The Sense of an Ending, which won the Booker Prize in 2011, the narrator is a retired bureaucrat who rakes up his regret at a friend’s suicide decades earlier. Geoff Dyer crumpled up the latter in the New York Times when he condemned it as ‘excellent in its averageness’.
A Mrs Dyer has a walk-on part in Barnes’s latest novel as ‘an old char’ mopping other people’s floors in suburbia. In The Only Story, we are firmly back in commuter territory and the prosaic world of the London stockbroker belt in the late 1960s. The narrator, Paul, has returned from his first year at university to the family home in ‘the Village’, their ‘particular zone of suburban sprawl’ in Surrey, ‘from which suited men went up to London Monday to Friday’ and in which ‘the chemist would sell verruca plasters and dry shampoo in little puffer bottles, but not contraceptives’. It’s a place in which no one does much more than pass the time – with the crossword puzzles and mixed doubles tournaments that faintly repulse Paul, and the lazy drinking that alleviates the domestic torpor to which, in his callowness, he is largely oblivious. ‘Middle-class England had a thousand ways of avoiding the truth,’ he recalls.
Joining the local tennis club ‘in a spirit of nothing but satire’, Paul is paired with Mrs Susan Macleod, who is ‘somewhere in her forties’ and who flirts with an enthusiasm and humour that seem all the more lively in the somnolent context of the Village. A few lifts home later and they have begun the affair that will come to define his life. In the first part of the novel, Paul recounts the busy excitement of the early years of this relationship; Barnes catches well both the feeling of how first love can seem awfully grown up and the partiality with which we reconstruct our jejune emotional lives from a distance. Even with some half-century of hindsight, Paul fails to fully recognise the disconcerting aspects of a scenario that he normalised in his youth: his persistent presence at the Macleod dinner table, for example, alongside Susan’s grotesque, abusive husband, Gordon, as though adopted by Susan as well as taken up as her lover. ‘Susan’s a kind of mother-substitute for me,’ he blusters to one of her daughters.
Despite the age difference, Susan – at least in Paul’s recollection – shares with him the inexperience of a teenager. But her words and behaviour make clear that she has lost the optimism and idealism of youth, and indeed that there are many distressing features of her family life to which Paul remains heedless. At one point, he drives her to Harley Street in a hurry, convinced that she is going to have an abortion rather than the emergency dentistry that she needs after Gordon has attacked her. ‘The thing you have to understand,’ she tells him, ‘is that we’re a played-out generation.’ Her unhappiness, she claims, derives from the constrained choices available to her in the aftermath of the war. ‘All the best ones went,’ she says. ‘We were left with the lesser ones … That’s why it’s up to your generation now.’
Throughout Paul’s account there is a sense of foreboding, as though he is fending off information that unsettles his memories and complicates his motivation for setting them out. In the second part of the novel, the grounds for his exculpatory tone become apparent. Susan has moved in with Paul, who is now training to be a lawyer, in London. Their ordinary fairy tale soon descends into an everyday nightmare as she falls for another brutal lover – alcohol. Barnes writes sympathetically of the painful normalcy of alcohol addiction, of how it distorts but somehow also sustains domestic routines (‘the bottles under the sink, under the bed, behind the bookshelves, in her stomach, in her head, in her heart’). Paul becomes an increasingly poignant, if pathetic, figure, caught between his loyalty to the idea of love, ‘addicted to’ Susan, and his mounting disgust at the signs of her deterioration: ‘when she is drunk, you think of her, suddenly, as a drunk old lady.’
The trouble is that for all its local realism and honesty about how lovers delude themselves, Paul’s narrative suffers from the mundaneness of his circumstances. Barnes specialises in unreliable narrators, or at least self-deceiving ones, but this novel lacks the traumatic payoff of The Sense of an Ending or the compelling irony of Flaubert’s Parrot. By the final part of The Only Story, Paul has become a ruminative pensioner, dabbling as a cheesemonger in Somerset while playing platitudes about love on repeat in his head (‘Love is this, love is that, love means this, love means that’). He is a humdrum narrator, his language never receiving the stylistic booster shot from Barnes that might have made his insipidness seem more captivating.
There is some structural tricksiness, though, in the novel’s slide from first to second and eventually to third person – suggesting how, over time, we all harden into the leading character in the novels of our own lives, and drawing attention to Paul’s difficulty in facing up to the nuances of the self. ‘Perhaps love could never be captured in a definition,’ he thinks. ‘It could only ever be captured in a story.’ As a narrator, alas, his own storytelling falls short – and at times labours even to catch the attention.