Pulse by Julian Barnes Book Review

scanned cover to Julian Barnes Pulse

Going in to this, I should probably point out that I have something of a prejudice to slice-of-life stories, although that’s largely because I’ve read too many of them.  So frequently, I’ll read through the New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly fiction section, or read portions of the America’s Best Short Stories volumes that are put out each year, and I’ll mostly find stories about newly divorced people in their forties who watch the sunset, have some purplish epiphany, then the story ends with a touch of schmaltz.  While on the one hand, I like older stories like those by Chekov or the stories from Dubliners, after a while I start to really long for the traditional beginning-middle-end story, not just middle.

Coincidentally, I first read one story from Pulse titled East Wind in The New Yorker a long time ago.  I recall being quite happy with this one because it was a fully formed story, one that didn’t seem ellipsed in puffed up sentiments.  It’s the story of a reserved man in his forties starting a relationship with a mysterious woman he meets on a beach one day.  Part of my mind while reading the premise thought “uh-oh,” but happily the story takes on real depth.  I was quite happy then to recently see East Wind reprinted with 13 other stories in Pulse.

Many of the stories in the collection are fluffy slices-of-life, more or less variations of the sort of stories you’d come across in a collection by John Updike–not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that.  I’ll admit there are perks of slice-of-life stories.  While I almost always find the endings unsatisfactory, such stories do frequently contain poetic descriptions that you wouldn’t find in most genre stories.  Julian Barnes thankfully brings something else to the table: a sense of humor.  So even when the plots didn’t do much for me, a lot of the stories collected here at least had me laughing aloud.

In part 2 of the book, all the stories are quite good.  In The Limner, Harmony and Carcassone, Barnes displays the talent for historical imaginings he likely developed while writing Arthur & George, his fictional book about the life of Arthur Conan Doyle.  The Limner (a limner is a portrait artist, and I only know this because I had to look it up) is the story of a limner who travels to a rich estate to sometime in the 19th century presumably (I can’t recall if the story was specifically dated) to paint the portrait of a rich, gibbering heel who constantly commands he look “more dignified;” meanwhile, the humble limner takes a greater interest in the pleasant servants whom he finds greater nobility in.  Harmony is a stand-out story, one taking place sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, and again concerns itself the mixing of social classes.  The main character is a doctor referred to only as M—-, a parody of the polite conventions utilized in old novels to avoid accusations of roman a clefs, and he is a doctor who specializes in curing people through the use of magnetism.  The story is about how he attempts to use his magnetic charms to cure the blindness of a talented young piano player, as well as the scrutiny he falls under from the girl’s parents.

Bottom Line: Pulse features a handful of truly excellent stories, mixed in with ones you can take or leave.  I wouldn’t pay $25 for it (which is the asking price of the hardcover) but it’s definitely worth checking out from the library.

If you like Pulse by Julian Barnes, it’s possibly you’ll also like A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch and The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis.

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