Variety spices latest Julian Barnes collection

Book review: 'Pulse: Stories,' by Julian Barnes. Knopf, $25.

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Short story collections often are limited by the similar nature of the material, but Julian Barnes' newest set of stories is distinguished by its variety.

Granted the first grouping of pieces focuses on couples, some long-term, others without a future. The centerpiece is a quartet of repartees between tipsy dinner guests at Phil and Johanna's English home, clever, quite funny as well as vulgar and ultimately depressing.

The women seek answers to serious questions while the men make wisecracks with a snide sexual content, just the kind of smart, cynical conversation you'd expect at a gathering of educated, well-off people. "Men talk about sex, women talk about love," is one of the many observations, just to give you an idea.

The pieces could be easily turned into one-act plays in the fashion of Harold Pinter, sharper intellectually, though, and without the bow to predictable melodramatics.

Perhaps the one remark that captures the theme of Mr. Barnes first group of stories would be:

"Is there anything to match that (sex and love), do you think, in the field of human emotional endeavor? The force of longing for sex and love when you haven't had either?"

An exception is the wryly funny "Sleeping with John Updike," a quick read about two aging fiction authors who continue a slumping schedule of bookstore appearances as a team. Their fading memories and age-old presentations make a gently cynical view of today's publishing scene.

The second group of stories resists categorization, offering different small gems of short fiction. The title story is part of this section, but I feel "The Limner" is Mr. Barnes' best. The title character is an itinerant portrait painter living in the early years of the United States.

Wadsworth is a careful, conscientious worker who cannot hear or speak. He prefers painting children rather than their parents because they "looked him in the eye and when you were deaf, you heard with your eyes."

Communicating by writing, Wadsworth endures the indifference and conniving nature of his clients, finding his only company with servants and his dependable horse. Once away from settlements, he shouts his frustration incoherently "into the silence of the forest."

Mr. Barnes writes the story in the third person, subtly creating a sympathetic narrator of the painter's kindness and unhappiness, lending a deep poignancy to this brief but moving story.

"Pulse" concludes the collection. A young man, the only child of ordinary parents in a city outside London, faces the inevitable decline of his aging mother and father with the confusion and uncertainty of someone who had always expected his parents to be part of his life.

The narrator marries briefly, but Janice is frustrated by her husband's devotion to his parents, particularly, of course, his mother. The frustration kills the marriage, much to the narrator's relief.

Here, Mr. Barnes sensitively plays with the dynamics of that three-way relationship, one that most sons grapple with when they marry, and one that is seldom resolved satisfactorily. Although here the solution is too simple -- divorce -- the play of emotions is realistic and heartfelt.

"Pulse" is a collection of stories that engages the reader's intellect and heart, the best of fiction's traditional concerns.

"PULSE: STORIES"

By Julian Barnes.

Knopf ($25).

Short story collections often are limited by the similar nature of the material, but Julian Barnes' newest set of stories is distinguished by its variety.

Granted the first grouping of pieces focuses on couples, some long-term, others without a future. The centerpiece is a quartet of repartees between tipsy dinner guests at Phil and Johanna's English home, clever, quite funny as well as vulgar, and ultimately depressing.

The women seek answers to serious questions while the men make wisecracks with a snide sexual content, just the kind of smart, cynical conversation you'd expect at a gathering of educated, well-off people. "Men talk about sex, women talk about love," is one of the many observations, just to give you an idea.

The pieces could be easily turned into one-act plays in the fashion of Harold Pinter, sharper intellectually, though, and without the bow to predictable melodramatics.

Perhaps the one remark that captures the theme of Mr. Barnes first group of stories would be:

"Is there anything to match that (sex and love), do you think, in the field of human emotional endeavor? The force of longing for sex and love when you haven't had either?"

An exception is the wryly funny "Sleeping With John Updike," a quick read about two aging fiction authors who continue a slumping schedule of bookstore appearances as a team. Their fading memories and age-old presentations make a gently cynical view of today's publishing scene.

The second group of stories resists categorization, offering different small gems of short fiction. The title story is part of this section, but I feel "The Limner" is Mr. Barnes' best. The title character is an itinerant portrait painter living in the early years of the United States.

Wadsworth is a careful, conscientious worker who cannot hear or speak. He prefers painting children rather than their parents because they "looked him in the eye and when you were deaf, you heard with your eyes."

Communicating by writing, Wadsworth endures the indifference and conniving nature of his clients, finding his only company with servants and his dependable horse. Once away from settlements, he shouts his frustration incoherently "into the silence of the forest."

Mr. Barnes writes the story in the third person, subtly creating a sympathetic narrator of the painter's kindness and unhappiness, lending a deep poignancy to this brief but moving story.

"Pulse" concludes the collection. A young man, the only child of ordinary parents in a city outside London, faces the inevitable decline of his aging mother and father with the confusion and uncertainty of someone who had always expected his parents to be part of his life.

The narrator marries briefly, but Janice is frustrated by her husband's devotion to his parents, particularly, of course, his mother. The frustration kills the marriage, much to the narrator's relief.

Here, Mr. Barnes sensitively plays with the dynamics of that three-way relationship, one that most sons grapple with when they marry, and one that is seldom resolved satisfactorily. Although here the solution is too simple -- divorce -- the play of emotions is realistic and heartfelt.

"Pulse" is a collection of stories that engages the reader's intellect and heart, the best of fiction's traditional concerns.


Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com . Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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