Sunday 17 November 2019

Faulks' symphony of life fails to find a united voice

The writing is brilliant, but the author can't tie together stories that are too condensed

A Possible Life

Sebastian Faulks

Random House €25.52

Sebastian Faulks' new novel A Possible Life consists of five disparate stories searching for a connection. In a pre-publication video, the author talks of this work as a symphony with distinct voices which hopefully will cohere and show that we are more than mere individuals in the cosmos and in different eras -- that we are all connected in a way perhaps like Jung's collective unconsciousness, although it is our awareness rather than unconsciousness that Faulks emphasises as our link with one another.

The stories, which are set in various locations and different times, have themes as diverse as the horrors of an extermination camp where a young English man is imprisoned during the Second World War; a Victorian tale, Dickensian in its depiction of a workhouse; a futuristic story of loneliness and science; a fable of an illiterate maid in 19th-Century France; and finally, a stand-alone tour de force about the power of music which is set in 1970s America.

So does Faulks pull it off? Does he link all these stories? Not really. There are some resonances of war and mental hospitals and cricket (perhaps overdone) and the Bible and Jews and -- possibly the most moving reverberation -- of meeting a loved one after a long absence and imagining the person unchanged.

But such echoes are tenuous. Maybe the consistent link that Faulks is showing us is in ourselves as humans and even in our parts with the foreknowledge of our own annihilation which separates us from animals.

Ultimately, however, as Marcel in A Door into Heaven points out, not even the philosopher knows the working of the human mind, for when he saw a man's brain on the battlefield he declared, "It looked just like something in the butcher's shop in Treignoc".

But does it matter if there are no obvious, overt links? It is a book of engrossing short stories, although sometimes the pace is so hectic that events are skimmed over, particularly in the first story A Different Man which at times is reminiscent of a Readers' Digest Condensed Book: "Geoffrey had been a schoolmaster for only a year when war broke out and he went to ask Long John Little permission to volunteer."

And the same character's stay in a mental hospital after the war where a nurse absurdly says to him, "Pull yourself together" is skipped over with "three months later Geoffrey was out, discharged".

Such abbreviating could be interpreted as a weakness in the delineation of character (no time for freeze-framing here, which is symptomatic of most of the characters in this book); there is simply no opportunity to reflect, and there is a definite link here in that they all, privileged and poor, appear to accept stoically whatever life hurls at them.

However, the quality of the writing for the most part is far superior to anything condensed. Faulks has a botanist's eye for trees and shrubs such as acanthus and oleander and an epicure's taste ('anchovy essence', 'tisane'), and who could not be moved by the telling succinctness of the sentence, "Parts of human were dropping on him" when Geoffrey was trying to soften the blows with his French language while translating the harsh German orders for the doomed prisoners.

Faulks shows great versatility in his wide-ranging writing -- the fluctuations in time and sequence bring to mind John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman.

The words of the songs in the story You Next Time are wonderful and he shows technical skill in his knowledge of the music industry:

We said goodbye to Larry Becker and sent a tape back to John Vintello in New York. We'd have to go back to listen to an acetate on lots of different speakers -- plastic bathroom radio, automobile rear shelf -- and fiddle around with sound quality on the master...

It is thorough research that gives his narrative authenticity and spine-chilling accuracy.

For instance, in A Different Man, when the number being killed was more than the gas chambers could process, the gassing time was cut to 10 minutes with the result that some of the 'corpses' that Geoffrey had to incinerate were still living.

Despite the predominant morbidity in the stories, they are not without humour as when the most rounded character, Anya the singer, retorts to her concerned manager, when he thought a pervert was looking up her short dress to get a view of her panties, with, "Don't worry, I wasn't wearing any".

All the imagined people that one can be as an artist is perhaps what Faulks, approaching 60 now, is about here in this rumination on mortality: the purpose and maybe the consolation is to be able to define oneself by subdividing oneself time after time into a multiplicity of possible lives.

James Lawless' latest novel Finding Penelope has just been published by Indigo Dreams

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