The Short Version: Tony Webster is an average man. He has lived an ordinary life, with ordinary adventures. He has comfortably receeded into later middle age with a comfortable divorce, a comfortable retirement, and a comfortable sense of his history. This changes when he receives an unexpected bequest and is forced to starkly re-examine the life he thought he’d lived.
The Review: This just struck me as I was doing up the summary there: this book and Open City are kindred spirits. They are both fantastic examinations of what it means to ‘remember’ something – and how we can so easily change our memories to reflect better on ourselves. In fact, it’s a sort of defense mechanism, isn’t it? Julius forgets his particular sin – and so too does Tony. Or, in Tony’s case, he doesn’t so much forget it as he changes the importance, allows the hot feeling of youth to dissipate with age. But when we’re confronted with a stark piece of reality, proving that our changed memory is incorrect, what does that do to us? How are we then to see ourselves?
This is a trend we’ve been seeing more frequently in novels – a sort of logical progression, I suppose – of the unreliable narrator then become conscious of his unreliability. It’s a meta-narrative conceit but it doesn’t present itself as such, like the author winking at the reader. But nor is it that realization that Patrick Bateman is an unreliable narrator even as he continues to believe he’s doing just fine. Tony is conscious, throughout the novel, of not having had the entire picture. There’s a sense of vague menace about the whole thing, in fact. A sort of gray cloak, like a cloudy day that won’t bring rain. The blurred cover (the UK version, anyway) adds to that unease. That sense of things blurring, benig smudged. Of seeing something through a rainy pane of glass and assuming that what you’re seeing is right in front of you, unrestricted and perfectly clear.
I don’t entirely understand the revelations of the end of the book, to be honest. I was sorely tempted, this morning, to immediately flip the book over and start it again – something I rarely do, if ever. It’s such a short punch of a book that I thought I might’ve missed something, blown past it and not noticed it… and that’s when I realized that was exactly how I was supposed to feel. In 150 pages, Barnes manages to perfectly capture what it is to…. well, I guess what it is to be human. To be an average ordinary human. Sure, on one level this novel fits right into the WMFU novel category – and that is certainly a valid criticism – but on another level, it speaks so succinctly to something that every single human being on this planet, whether they’d like to or not, will have to deal with: the fact that we are always the hero of our own story.
Tony’s life is not unfamiliar to me. Not by a long shot, actually. I mean, sure, he’s going to school in England in the 60s so I’m certainly not associating in that close of a sense – but I understand it. I understand the clique of boys, the ridiculous things we’d do, the teachers who encouraged our thought and gave us a little more reign than we thought they should. I understand being a little sexually naive and rather overwhelmed with hormones. I can even directly associate with the Veronica thing on two levels – from both Adrian and Tony’s perspectives, albeit in different ways. (In many respects, I associate myself more with Adrian than I do with Tony – Tony reminds me of the type of guy I twice called my best friend.) The crucial sequence of the book, or at least one of them, takes place when a young Tony goes to visit his then-girlfriend Veronica’s family for a weekend. He’s intimidated by the bluster of the father, the effortless cool of the brother, the strange melancholy of the mother… but none of that really matters because all he wanted to do was “sleep the sleep of the wicked” and that moment where Veronica walks him to his room and kisses him was so pitch perfect that I was flashing back to the one time I went to visit a girl and her family for a weekend. Not surprisingly, I feel a bit the same about that girl & our relationship as Tony does about Veronica.
There’s a moment where, reflecting on the mysterious scrap of equation that Veronica first sends Tony after he contacts her, Tony begins to consider what he would’ve been in he had been something else in some way – but then he stops himself by coming to the philsophically self-evident summary of the line of thought: if he were something else, he would not be himself. We craft these lives for ourselves, out of real events yes but also out of memories… and so we create our own identities every day. Some do it more enigmatically than others – Jack White, for example – but most aren’t even aware that it’s what’s going on. They simply go about their lives and their minds make them who they are. That seems like such a simple concept but when you really start to think about it – and this book will make you think about it, quite deeply – it becomes almost overwhelming. The heat of youth and passion can make us say things and do things that we, looking back, cannot fathom having said or done. I know there are things I’ve done that I look back on and think “that was me?” – but all I can truly say, when faced with the proof, is that might’ve been me then but is not me now. Quite often, that’s seen as a terrible excuse for something you once did (show of hands, who’s had a significant other shout at them in this vein?) but in reality it is the most human of natures. We are ever-changing and we cannot EVER see everything for the realities of the situation.
Rating: 5 out of 5. I struggled with this. Not because it wasn’t a good book – au contraire, I actually think it is an objectively great book – but because of struggling with the construction and the way nothing is resolved. The way there are huge mysteries left clouded, hidden behind that next door. The frustrations, I suppose, of the first person narrative. I wanted to know just what happens – or, more accurately, what had happened. There were so many possibilities, so many things left hanging. But, as the boys discuss in that history class, history is written by the victors. Or, actually, Adrian’s quote might’ve been more accurate: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” This novel, then, is a perfect history.