There are three nearby coffee shops I frequent to get some work done. I like them all equally for different reasons – one has superior coffee, one has a nice array of breakfast sandwiches, and one seems to have a lot of moms and/or grandparents with toddlers. One of the above also has a group from a community organization that meets often. They are kind of loud and judgmental – and I love it and I hate it. I love it because it’s entertaining and I just can’t turn away (even though it looks like I’m just tapping away at my laptop). I hate it because they are just. so. damn. smug.
Here are some recent conversation topics (some details changed to protect the loud): Why do people think New Englanders think they’re so superior? We are not! (Followed by conversation that points to: Yes, they think Massachusetts residents are superior.) Group leader’s detailed description of his family in a non-New England state and his siblings’ beliefs. (Cue uproarious laughter.) Discussion about teenagers and poor food choices. (Followed by a description of group leader’s self-righteous child-and-food philosophy, which is interesting because I can’t imagine this young guy has teenagers. Oh, just you wait!)
Listen, these folks already had their narrative all set. And, yes, I’m picking on them, but all of us at one time or another have had our own narratives – our way of how we see the world – all set. We also probably have a “story” that we’d like to put forth and that, hopefully, others will adopt when they think of us.
I wonder what that table would have to say about a 48-year-old woman who takes up with a 19-year-old boy/man after meeting him at the tennis club. This is the basic premise of The Only Story, Julian Barnes’ most recent novel, published earlier this year. And I think if most of us were confronted with this situation, we’d be very much like the people at the coffee shop, loudly judging.
But aren’t people more than the cheap narratives we assign them based on cursory details and easily defined categories?
Very soon into the book, Barnes gives these words to Paul, who narrates the first section of the novel: “Perhaps you’ve understood a little too quickly; I can hardly blame you. We tend to slot any new relationship we come across into a preexisting category. We see what is general or common about it; whereas the participants see—feel—only what is individual and particular to them. We say: how predictable; they say: what a surprise!” In other words, the coffee shop people would be quick to pin Paul and Susan in an easy category.
I wrote about another Julian Barnes book – the Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending – back in 2012 for The Curator. I concluded that that book, on its surface, didn’t seem “redemptive” because Barnes chooses not to reveal the entire story. His main character, Tony, narrates: “How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.”
In The Only Story, Barnes takes this concept (life as story) and does something a little different: Paul is always the central character, with Part 1 in first person (where he seems to be addressing the reader), Part 2 in second person, and Part 3 in – ta da – third person. Susan, the much-older woman whom Paul spends his life with for over a decade, is always there, and of course always written about in the third person. Susan is “Susan and she,” but Paul is “I, you, and he” all within the same book. Are the nuances of the story different depending on how it’s told? Maybe. And such is life, I suppose. After all, even Paul intersperses the two: “You understand, I hope, that I’m telling you everything as I remember it? I never kept a diary, and most of the participants in my story—my story! my life!—are either dead or far dispersed.”
What happens when a story is either not told, or if the facts of it are ignored or obscured by don’t-want-to-know indifference?
Paul and Susan keep their “story” under wraps, sort of. While everyone knows what’s going on – after all, they move out of their Sussex village into a London flat together – it’s never quite acknowledged. It just “is.” According to Paul, “…no one…acknowledged the story’s existence. The Village tom-tom might have been beating, but not everyone chose to hear its message.” In general, people either like to really, really acknowledge a story – at least according to the narrative they believe it to have – or just let it languish. And if it isn’t fully acknowledged, does it really happen? Those are the two extremes, but I think our stories fall somewhere in the middle – personal, nuanced narratives that are only known to the people who care to listen.
Now, if Paul were my son or Susan my mother, I feel like I would pretty definitively not care what the heck the “story” was here – I’d be livid, and I’ll cop to that. But I’m not, and in this case, I’m a reader, and that role allows me to see behind the veil a bit. While Susan’s “cougar” relationship with Paul is the backdrop for the entire book, readers learn about the ways Susan is hurting and how Paul – barely an adult and trying to find his way – both helps her while learning about selfless love.
Toward the end of the book – after Barnes describes a tragic, and drawn-out crescendo of Susan and Paul’s story, but one that many other couples have experienced – Paul wonders how he would react if he were in a movie, in a story about his life as it were. Now, back to first person and reflecting on “some moments from [his] own private cinema,” he thinks, “But after a few minutes of this, my mind began to wander. I couldn’t keep it on love and loss, on fun and grief. I found myself wondering how much petrol was left in the car, and how soon I would have to find a garage; then about how sales of cheese rolled in ash were suffering a dip; and then about what was on television that evening.”
So even the most dramatic of stories is dotted with the mundane and nuts-and-bolts details of everyday life. Let’s use an extreme example here: Even Monica Lewinsky goes the grocery store, buys birthday gifts for friends, and pays the electric bill. (Or I don’t know, maybe some “government official” does all these things for her. Conspiracy alert!) But to most of us, she just lives on in a blue dress, and that’s it.
Are you a story or a novel? A novel can be written in first person as well as second- and third-person, such as The Only Story. Our own story may be different even to ourselves depending on how we choose to look at it, as Barnes does with Paul. It’s a little tricky, and the reader has to pay attention to get the full, well, story.
We’re all more than the stories that others tell (and maybe that we tell about ourselves) as a way to pigeonhole us and create an easy narrative. I’d like to think that we’re novels (see quote above), full of complexity and different interpretations. It’s a nuanced and interesting world out there – go find someone else to sit at the coffee shop with. (But PLEASE, turn down the volume if it’s a coffee shop where I’m trying to work.)
24 Hours in America. The New York Times published this photo/essay piece a couple of weeks ago. It is magnificent; please read it.