"...but what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed.
We live in time — it holds us and moulds us — but I've never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing — until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return."
The Tournament of Books opened this week, and the very first matchup in my favorite annual bookish throwdown was The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes versus The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. Now while the "dead dogs nailed to giant makeshift crosses, guns of all shapes and sizes, prostitution and murder and fake teeth resting on a stick of butter" of the Pollock novel certainly have their time and place, my alcohol consumption of late has been insufficient to support such a readerly investment. And I own the Barnes. So I picked it up and read it yesterday on a whim. And delighted in the delusions and denseness of the unreliable narrator and the elegant and effortless prose.
Narrator Tony has led the most unspectacular of lives having reached his sixties without feeling or thinking or acting in any way out of the ordinary with his tapped-down love of straight, clean edges. When he receives a letter that he has been bequeathed 500 pounds and a diary of a school days friend not from said friend, Adrian, who has been dead since their youth, but from the mother of an ex-girlfriend who dated Adrian after she dated Tony, he is understandably confused. His subsequent examination of the related events of his life beginning with his school days with Adrian and two other friends reveal both the mediocrity and predictability of his life as well as his own obtuseness. More unpredictably, at least to Tony, are the glaring weaknesses of his own memory.
"I could only reply that I think - I theorise - that something - something else - happens to the memory over time. For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions. I press a button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs, the usual stuff spools out. The events reconfirm the emotions - resentment, a sense of injustice, relief - and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed. Which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be a contradiction. But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change?That ugly letter of mine provoked remorse in me. Veronica's account of her parents' deaths - yes, even her father's - had touched me more than I would have thought possible. I felt a new sympathy for them - and her. Then, not long afterwards, I began remembering forgotten things. I don't know if there's a scientific explanation for this - to do with new affective states reopening blocked-off neural pathways. All I can say is that it happened, and that it astonished me."
We all to some extent create our own histories as it suits us or to the extent that self-preservation dictates. But told in this backwards way and given the opportunity to bumble along with this expertly drawn bumbler, a reader can easily feel both their own missteps in assessing their past and a sense of superiority in thinking that such miscalculation, such a lack of insight is reserved for a "special" few. The ending of this one has been met with more than a few WTF reactions, but honestly, I think that the ending could have been anything, any manner of ridiculous crap pulled from the air. Tony wouldn't have gotten the full picture no matter how facile or complicated or unpredictable it was. And that is part of the point.
Enjoying this one prompted me to rethink the way I will enjoy the Tournament of Books this year. I am a little weary of simply ranting about how this book or that one reached the highest level of competition. Of bemoaning the current state of popular fiction. This year, I am going to try to ride the wave. Just going to read the winners in each round (or at least try) and find the highlights. And The Sense of an Ending was spot on. Let's see how many winners I feel this way about.