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by Julian Barnes

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


Pulse by Julian Barnes
© Knopf
Knopf, May 2011

Julian Barnes's Pulse is a well-tempered anthology of subtle dramatics. By dividing the stories in Pulse between two distinctly different sections, Barnes reminds readers that a short story collection can have a remarkable amount of craft in its structuring.

The first section of Pulse presents Barnes as director; his stories are filled with taut dialog and blister with the slow burn of a rising argument. In "Gardener's World," Ken and Martha grow increasingly tense over Ken's interest in a vegetable patch, "the one which she said there was no room for, and anyway no need for, given the farmers' market every Saturday...." In "Trespass," Geoff joins a hiking club with hopes to reclaim his independence after a particularly tough breakup. Despite his best efforts, loneliness (or a general need for symbiosis) creeps in, and Geoff moves too quickly in trying to secure himself a new walking partner.
After "Marriage Lines," a wistful story of grief and the search for closure, Barnes takes a breath, turns the volume down, and steps into the second section of Pulse. Remarkably meditative, these final five pieces showcase Barnes's devastating control as an author as he grapples with stories of sensory deprivation and man's limitations. The story "Harmony," about a young blind girl, is nearly devoid of any dialogue as Barnes pulls readers through experimental treatments and the tensions between the girl, her family and her drive as a pianist. "Complicity," possibly the best story in Pulse, reflects again on heartbreak but is carried by a masterful poetic focus on a person's hands and the tremendous amount of emotion that can be expressed through touch.

The stoic placidity of Pulse's second phase is where the collection is at its finest, but the contemplative silence of these stories might make readers reevaluate Pulse's earlier pieces as empty chatter. It's difficult not to feel the heavy weight of Barnes's "At Phil & Joanna's," a four-part conversation that spans nearly sixty pages, almost a quarter of the entire collection. With the exception of a preamble and a closing paragraph, each part of "At Phil & Joanna's" is composed entirely of untethered dialogue, just line after line without any indication of who says what. These stories feel like watching a one-act play blindfolded, and although this limitation subtly connects "At Phil & Joanna's" to the later, sensuous stories of the collection, many readers will find these scenes to be lacking any sort of memorable impact:
"But that's another sort of British trait we cling to. Not accepting reality."
"Like hypocrisy."
"Don't get her started on that. You rode that hobbyhorse to death last time, darling."
"Did I?"
"Riding a hobbyhorse to death is like flogging a dead metaphor."
"What is the difference between a metaphor and a simile, by the way?"
"Which of you two is driving?"

These conversations need a substantial amount of untangling, but often don't seem worth the trouble. It's a fascinating move to force readers to rely only on their ears, but it's unnecessary to revisit this format four times with the same results.

Still, there's no doubt that Pulse is one of those rare short story collections that achieves meaning through its collectedness. Although at times this collection can feel filled-out and padded, it's obvious these stories belong together in some way. Each story acts independently, but manages to become something much greater by being presented as a whole.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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