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A fine collection
on 10 October 2011
Like most collections of short stories, the quality and interest of the individual stories varies. I found the final one - "Pulse", from which the volume gets its title - the most satisfying, if that is the right word for a story told by a man whose own marriage is disintegrating and whose elderly parents are facing serious health problems. In thirty pages Barnes creates a poignant picture of three people who are determinedly resilient in the face of life's problems. There are several further similarly sad stories, whilst others are lighter, for example the four separate "At Phil and Joanna's" stories which recount the dinner party conversations of a group of friends. I would like to think that these conversations are meant to be a caricature of the sorts of conversations that slightly smug middle class people might hold at dinner parties, since each participant seems to be trying to impress the others by how clever he/she is, and in the process they all come across as rather unlikeable. I quite enjoyed reading these stories once I had decided to view them as caricatures, but I can't help wondering whether this was really Barnes's intention. Perhaps he really does talk to his friends like this! As usual with Barnes's writing there is plenty of wit; I particularly enjoyed his observation on page 180 about a group of four noisily quarrelling people that "Mozart would have happily set this operatic quartet to music".
The short story format is a challenging one for a serious novelist, since it doesn't provide the opportunity for extended development of characters and themes. It is therefore difficult for even the very best writers to write anything memorable in this format. As an illustration, what are your ten favourite books? I suspect that virtually no-one would include a collection of short stories in his or her list. So, it's perhaps sensible to assess the quality of such a collection against that of other similar collections rather than against full length novels. I tried this with Barnes's volume. I have recently read or re-read three other similar collections: Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes; Graham Greene's Twenty-One Stories; and Doris Lessing's The Story Of A Non-Marrying Man And Other Stories. For me, Barnes doesn't come near to matching Lessing, but this is hardly a serious criticism since she probably represents the gold standard in terms of modern short fiction. I thought, though, that Barnes's collection was much better than Ishiguro's and also somewhat better than Greene's. So, Barnes can stand his ground with some of the best, and I think that this collection deserves to be widely read.