This is an exploration of memory, exquisitely written as the thoughts of an old man, looking back on his life - good enough to merit 5*, despite the somewhat contrived ending (ironic, given the title).
It opens with six images (an unexpected word in several of them makes them more vivid), each of which form part of the story:
“I remember, in no particular order:
- a shiny inner wrist;
- steam rising from a wet sink as a frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
- gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
- a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torch beams;
- another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
- bath water long gone cold behind a locked door.”
Tony and his three friends were somewhat pretentious teenagers, from moderately privileged backgrounds (“one of those suburbs which has stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute, and ever since, smugly claimed rural status”), on the cusp of university. As they go their separate ways, they stay in touch to greater or lesser extents, but events of their youth echo across the years, and as he approaches retirement, Tony tries to draw the threads together and make sense of his life. Very self-absorbed (and not especially likeable), but if anything, I think that makes the book more interesting.
In particular, there are two rather unbalanced relationships that left their mark: with Adrian (who joined school later than the others) and his first proper girlfriend, Veronica. He suffers “pre-guilt: the expectation that she was going to say something that would make me feel properly guilty”.
Despite this, and a couple of shocking incidents, Tony is not unhappy, though he is not entirely happy either. His reference to the “small pleasures and large dullnesses of home” is apt. Although he was at university in the sixties, “Most people didn’t experience the sixties until the seventies”, though he experienced a confusing mix of the two. Nostalgia doesn’t help, “the powerful recollection of strong emotions – and regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives”. Can you reverse remorse to guilt and forgiveness?
The recurring theme is the accuracy, or inaccuracy, of memory, coupled with the effects of time. Tony is forever musing on memory, history and truth. Revelations prompt further re-evaluation and interpretation. Maybe none of this is true (some elements of the plot and the behaviour of key characters are implausible, or at least, not adequately explained), but does it matter anyway? Surely that is the point Barnes is making.
Tony is honest about his dishonesty as a narrator (except that he constantly says his relationship with his daughter is closer than it seems from what he describes), and constantly ponders on it:
* “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed.”
* “If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impression those facts left.”
* It gets harder with age: “As the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been”, and “memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches”.
* “When we are young we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”
* “The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent.”
* “History is that certainty produce at the point where the imperfection of memory meets the inadequacy of documentation.”
* “Mental states can be inferred from actions… Whereas in the private life, I think the converse is true: that you can infer past actions from current mental states.” Similarly, X “thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought. Whereas most of us… do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it”.
* “It takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”
In the end, the meaning of life is “to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”!
Some people dislike Tony so much that that it taints their enjoyment of the entire book, but to some extent Tony is everyman and we are all Tony, which leads me to wonder if the dislikers are TOO like Tony for their own comfort!
This is SO much better than another of his multi-decade life stories, dating from 25 years earlier, Staring at the Sun (review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/326236744).
Another short book in which a grumpy aging man reflects on his life makes an interesting contrast with this - though Yasmina Reza's "Desolation" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/631678854) doesn't come out of the comparison favourable (only 2*).