Book review: Pulse

BY JULIAN BARNES Jonathan Cape, 228pp, £16.99

Of the group of young novelists who became stars in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Julian Barnes was the most elegant, the most literary and the most elusive, hardest to categorise.

Two of his best books, Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10 Chapters, were unusual but successful hybrids: part fiction, part essay.

Arthur and George was a fictional reconstruction of a strange case and miscarriage of justice investigated by Arthur Conan Doyle.

One of the most pleasing stories in this collection, "Carcassone" , dealing with the marital history of the hero of the Italian Risorgimento, Garibaldi, offers the same mix of fiction, speculation and reflection as Flaubert's Parrot. It is, like that book, very good indeed.

Then there are four stories which are scarcely stories at all. Written entirely in dialogue, with some of the participants scarcely identified, they are reports of dinner-party conversations.

The speakers are, one gathers, middle-aged; they all belong to the same metropolitan class.

They all know what the fashionably correct opinion is, even though they may express nostalgia for what is no longer considered a correct activity such as smoking, and doubts about fashionable concerns like global warming.

They grumble realistically and tease, or seek to score points off, each other. One could very easily believe that Barnes had brought a recording machine to the table, even though the apparently rambling conversations are artfully structured.

For example: they are discussing a report about health costs which appeared in the New York Times.

"And this was the thing. Smokers were the cheapest. Next came obese people. And all those healthy, non-obese, non-smokers ended up being the biggest drain of all on the country."

"That's amazing. That's the most important thing anyone's said all evening."

"Apart from how good the lamb was."'

Four of the stories in this collection were first published in the New Yorker. They have the precision and neatness characteristic of that magazine's fiction. The best of them is "East Wind", set in a seaside town in the east of England.

"Nothing between here and the Urals. That's where the wind comes from. Nothing to stop it." A lonely man, recently divorced, picks up a waitress in a restaurant called The Right Plaice (sic).

She comes from Eastern Europe - "there was some town in Lincolnshire which was suddenly half Polish". She is friendly but uncommunicative. They go to bed several times. She resists questioning and when he probes more deeply, she disappears. It is only then that he discovers her sad history. A bleak story, but a very convincing and beautifully managed one.

Barnes has always been good on relationships, the yoking together of people who seek union but, often, resist understanding - they move tentatively towards each other, only to find the presence of another trying. Even when, as in "Complicity", the story seems to promise a successful relationship, the reader is left with doubts as to the likelihood of it lasting.

There is one excellent comic story, "Sleeping with John Updike". Two female novelists are returning on a train from a book festival. Over the years they have become an established double act. They need each other, while having doubts about the value of the other's work. They play off each other, and snipe at each other - but the sniping always falls short of provoking the sort of quarrel or resentment that would break their partnership. The story is a delicious comedy , and rings absolutely true. Did either actually sleep with Updike? Read it and find out.

The title-story, "Pulse", is the best. The narrator is the only child of a happy marriage. "I think it's different when there is only one child, because there aren't two natural teams, kids and adults. There are just the three of you, and though I might have been more coddled, I also learnt from an earlier age to live in an adult world, because that's the only game in town. I may be wrong about this. If you asked Janice if she thought I was fully grown up, I can imagine the answer.."

Janice is his wife, but Mum comes first. What makes this story distinctive, is that it subverts the way such a mother and daughter-in-law clash is usually presented. It does so convincingly, though Barnes is a sufficiently subtle analyst to allow one to speculate that the narrator's interpretation, no matter how plausible, may not be quite right. Things always look different when you turn the coin over. Janice is rather awful and decidedly difficult, but this doesn't mean she is wrong.

The promise shown by some of the other bright young stars of Barnes's generation has faded or fizzled out. His own star continues to shine. This is a delightful collection.