There are a million reasons to read Julian Barnes’ novella The Sense of an Ending, but I can think of only one reason not to: you have special disdain for the delicacy of language struck by a fine author operating with prodigious grace at the height of his powers. Yes, that annoys me, too. And, as I think about it, there may be another reason: you like your plots linear and single-layered, formulated by the author as he goes along, rather than the tight, polished narrative sculpture of The Sense of an Ending, a lump of coal conceived when the author first touched the pen to pad, pressed, fired, and hardened into a diamond of many faces.
Oh, and here’s another reason not to read the book: you like sleep, and you can’t get it when a little book makes you tingle with a sense of possibility as you follow its winding path toward disclosure. These reasons I’ve given are some of the reasons it was rumored that the Booker Prize committee used all of half an hour to honor The Sense of an Ending in 2011. I get it. It’s all very irritating. (And, since this is a family publication, I should mention that there is much s-e-x talk in the book, and Barnes doesn’t spare the details, so you may genuinely find that a reason to hold off.)
No Events, No Regrets
Those first two paragraphs were an extended exercise in flippancy. It’s the kind of flippancy Barnes recounts so skillfully, and to considerable comparative effect, in the first third of The Sense of an Ending. The story begins with three sex-starved teenage boys in 1960s London, one of which is your narrator, Tony Webster, who tells us that the friends’ hormonal impulses remain unrequited because the sixties were the sixties “only for some people, only in certain parts” of England. Barnes puts perfectly-pitched flippancy in the mouths of Tony and his friends Colin and Alex: high on self-importance and in possession of some smarts, having read a little literature, stilted by frustrated desire and a bourgeois sense of unattained possibility, they make everything into a joke, told with a straight face, which is itself part of the joke.
The shallowness of the boys’ flippancy is thrown in sharp relief with the arrival of a new friend, Adrian Finn. Adrian is brilliant, earnest, contemplative. At once naïve and wise beyond his years, Adrian urges his new friends “to believe in the application of thought to life, in the notion that principles should guide actions.” In a history class discussion, he suggests an unusually refined way of thinking about what caused World War I that awes even his instructor. The friends wonder whether Adrian’s enlightened commentary on the world is in fact mocking, so conditioned are they by their own inability to treat any subject as seriously serious.
The flippancy of Alex and Colin and Tony tells a kind of story about the world, about the end of man and the attitude we ought to have about it. Adrian’s earnestness tells a different story. One could probably say that some story about the world is embedded in every mode of discourse. For its part, flippancy is unique in its conception of the end of human affairs, in that it assumes that the end of those affairs is unknowable, weightless, and ephemeral. Flippancy embodies a story a story about an end that does not matter, which is a different story than is told by satire or more humane forms of humor. Is flippancy less than that, just kids’ stuff, just hipster stuff? Probably to some degree. We are, after all, always casting about for new ways to be funny.
But what makes flippant humor funny? What separates it from other forms of humor, including the kind of humor one finds in this publication? Surely, it is the assumption that no human fact is too grave to merit mockery. Or maybe it is the opposite assumption: that every human fact is too grave to bear earnest examination. And, far from being just kids’ stuff, flippancy is found in much more respected sources than the nattering of a few British adolescents. Nabokov is a very influential writer whose fictions are self-consciously meaningless, whose only achievements lie in the circus-like quality of their plotting intricacies. And so flippancy bears a cultural imprimatur.
Hence when Tony and his pals find out that a schoolmate hung himself after impregnating his girlfriend, Tony can only express jealous dismay that the boy had sex, and the boys can only consider the bloodless technicalities of the incident:
There was no mention of disease, a bicycling accident or a gas explosion, and a few days later rumour (a.k.a. Brown of Maths Sixth) supplied what the authorities couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Robson had got his girlfriend pregnant, hanged himself in the attic, and had not been found for two days.
“I’d never thought he knew how to hang himself.”
“He was in the Science Sixth.”
“But you need a special sort of slip knot.”
“That’s only in films. And proper executions. You can do it with an ordinary knot. Just takes longer to suffocate you.”
Meanwhile, Adrian strikes in with Camus’s proposition that every other philosophical question depends on the question of suicide’s validity. Tony, Alex, and Colin get the logic of the point but cannot approach it as a genuine question worthy of spiritual inquiry. They can only judge Robson’s suicide as “unphilosophical, self-indulgent, and inartistic,” as if the only primary deficiency with the suicide is its lack of cleverness. Tony, Alex, and Colin can read the letters of Robson’s note (“Sorry, mum”) but they cannot feel his flesh and blood. The boys too attached to the story of flippancy, too used to living out that story; they are incapable of the emotional prerequisites of tragedy. If Tony, Alex, and Colin were young people in America, they would be active Facebook users and specialize in concocting pithy and clever status updates. They have become desensitized to the weight of actual occurrences. And no actual occurrences means no regrets.
The Certainty of Actual Occurrences
Flippancy is the latest stage of a long-proceeding cultural revision. It is the by-product and bellwether of our uncertainty and our attitude toward that uncertainty, our attempt to live peaceably with it. The first stage of the revision was one of skepticism; the second stage one of irony; and the third flippancy: I care but I do not trust; I am unsure whether I can trust at all; I do not care at all. Flippancy is the next, coarser medication for the depressive effects of human naiveté, for modernity’s intensifying doubt that any received story about the world’s ending corresponds with reality, or that there is any reality with which to correspond. It is in one way an understandable response to centuries of learning that makes us wonder whether there is anything concrete in the world that is nothing more than a piling-up and attendant hardening of our innumerable biases and mental fictions.
But we have seen what occurs when the community declines to question whether a particular mental abstraction is rooted in something concrete, in something sustainable. “The validity of one’s opinion of the Jews can be proved,” explained Frank Kermode, “by killing six million Jews.” Flippant communication is what happens when the theorists wisely identify the self-indulgent fictions underlying the abstractions that produced the gas chambers but lack faith in the existence of any fiction more concrete, sustainable. We have total faith in collapsing all the abstractions but no faith in propping anything up. The casualty is belief in actual occurrences, in sensitivity toward the Jew thrust into the gas chamber, in faith in any lasting reference point. One wonders what the stage after flippancy holds, whether the speakers in that era will be able to communicate at all.
But actual occurrences come to pass. History leaves a trail more real—whatever that means, if the term can be theorized at all—more concrete than an image. That is why you never meet an actual human being who fully lives the flippancy with which he banters along with his friend. That is why you never meet a critical theorist who treats his own love, heartbreak, disappointment, joy, or the gas chambers with pithy marginalia on an internet message board. The real is difficult to theorize but it takes up space and tugs at the heart.
For example, in The Sense of an Ending, Adrian kills himself. Earnest, brilliant, Adrian takes his own life while the boys are in college.