Alfred A. Knopf: 227 pp., $25
Of our leading novelists, Julian Barnes has one of the richest historical imaginations. "Flaubert's Parrot" (the title is more or less self-explanatory) and "Arthur & George" (based on a true incident in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to the rescue of an Anglo-Indian lawyer falsely accused of a heinous crime) are smoothly seductive masterpieces, which conclusively demonstrate the writer's ability to reconstruct the past in an utterly unselfconscious, entirely persuasive manner. Put simply, you never get the impression that he's swotted up the details and stuck them in, willy-nilly, to prove he's done his homework.
That virtue is occasionally present in "Pulse," a collection of short stories: Garibaldi puts in an appearance, and there's a long, intricate story set in 18th century Vienna as well as a nicely rendered sketch of an itinerant (and mute) portrait painter set somewhere in the past.
But Barnes' main business here is the present, particularly that portion of it that includes bright, relentlessly articulate people encountering the first pangs of aging and its discontents — death, divorce and, perhaps above all, the feeling that they are not going to accomplish all they thought they might, either emotionally or in their careers.
Indeed, what seems the best story in this volume is "Marriage Lines," in which a newly widowed man revisits the island off Scotland where he and his late wife habitually vacationed. There he learns — perhaps predictably, but nevertheless poignantly — that an encounter with the timeless geography of the past cannot fill a suddenly emptied heart. "He had thought that grief might be assuaged, or if not assuaged, at least speeded up, hurried on its way a little, by going back to a place where they had been happy. But he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him. And in the months and years ahead, he expected grief to teach many other things as well." I don't see how this point can be more simply — and unsentimentally — put.
Not that Barnes is always or usually lugubriously inclined. There are four stories — each titled "At Phil & Joanna's" — about dinner parties, told almost entirely in undifferentiated dialogue; that is to say, you can never tell which character is speaking or, for that matter, how many people are gathered for these conversations. Which is precisely the point of these exercises. Barnes' chattering classes — they all appear to be in their late 30s and working in or near the media — have only one set of opinions, and only one politically correct way of expressing them. They meet only to reinforce their sense of superiority from the rest of humanity (not that they'd ever admit to that feeling), which means, of course, that there is really no need for them to meet at all. These characterless people give Barnes the opportunity to demonstrate his sly skills with dialogue and, more important, the ease with which he deploys his gift for pointed, yet dispassionate, social observation.
Readers of his marvelous 2008 disquisition on death, "Nothing to Be Frightened Of," know that Barnes' heart lies more with the lower, as opposed to the middle- and upper-middle bourgeois classes: with their undramatic, good-natured struggles to lead decent, modest lives in fairly modest circumstances. This collection's title story recounts the summer when its narrator must deal with his mother's death and the mysterious illness that robs his father of his sense of smell. It's a tender, seriocomic tale, seamlessly worked out, and it includes the failure of the narrator's marriage to a woman who would have felt right at home at one of Phil and Joanna's soirees. His parents do their best to accept her, but the best she can do is carelessly patronize them. She's a figure who appears in other guises in these stories. And she is the avatar of Barnes' discontent with the uneasy, unfulfilled ways we live now.
His stories tend to be quietly observational, rather traditional in manner, and his characters are never tragic. They are inhabitants of a gray-scale world, plugging on through life chastened by the experiences Barnes recounts, but not devastated by them. That may be why we identify with them so easily, so instructively.