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September 14, 2012 9:57 pm
A Possible Life, by Sebastian Faulks, Hutchinson, RRP£18.99, 278 pages
Is this a novel? Though billed as such, A Possible Life is a novel really only in the innovative, tenuous way that David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten or Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days were. It consists of five stories of varying lengths linked by theme and, in the odd case, by recurring details: a chipped plaster Madonna with a “one-eyed, minatory stare” survives from the earliest story, set in 1822, to the last one, set in 2029; an incidental character called Cheeseman shows up as a boy in one story and a grown man in another.
The stories are jumbled in time and space. “Geoffrey”, opening in 1938, tells of a young schoolmaster who serves in the Special Operations Executive in occupied France before being taken prisoner. “Billy” (1859) makes his way from the workhouse to the lower middle classes but experiences marital complications en route. “Elena”, in an Italy of 2029 returned to semi-feudal status by financial crisis, is a clever, solitary child of scientific bent whose soulmate is her faintly Heathcliff-ian adopted brother. “Jeanne”, in 1822, is an orphaned peasant who serves as life-long maid to a household in a Limousin village, and is “said to be the most ignorant person” there. The concluding story plops us into 1971, with “Anya” – narrated by a middling rock star who falls for a beautiful, ethereally talented singer-songwriter.
Faulks is interested here in turning points and transformations. The first story closes with a fine obliquity – “he felt with joy and resignation that he was not the same man” – and each that follows has a variant on the thought. Billy tells his wife after she recovers from catatonia: “I’m not the man you left behind.” Elena, after a long separation from her brother, realises: “He was changed; he had become a different man.” At the climax of Jeanne’s story, “She felt the burden of her life shift inside her.” Looking back on his life, the narrator of “Anya” says: “I don’t feel I’m the same person as the kid who walked across the park to school each day.”
Faulks at his best is a superbly economical and unshowy creator of imagined worlds. They’re fully furnished. You see that drear 1930s pub, or taste the “warm sardines on a half-slice of toast” and “cupful of deep chestnut brown” that’s the staff dinner in a second-rate provincial prep school. You knock the walls in these stories and they don’t, for the most part, sound like plasterboard.
The stories are uneven, however. “Geoffrey”, for instance, opens in the darkly droll spirit of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, with a drunken schoolmaster, a one-eyed head, and a botched military training exercise that costs a life but seems to be played, very nearly, for laughs. When the same story takes us to a Nazi death camp, the swerve is tricky to manage. SS officers are forever barking “Schnell!”, shooting the lame and halt and making free with metal-tipped whips and rifle-butts – which, no doubt, they did: but by now probably even real Nazis would feel like stage Nazis. It’s not a problem Faulks overcomes.
When it comes to love, especially in the long, rather kitschy final story, Faulks can get awfully mushy: “When she turned her face up to mine again, my heart filled with love. She looked so mournful, so proud, so wrecked [...] I kissed her and held her for a moment. Then, without a word, she turned and began to walk back along the corridor towards the stage. My heart was aching as I followed.” A grief, within a couple of pages, is first “a wound that never ceased to seep and throb”, and then “a weight across her shoulders”.
Awkwardnesses noted, though, Faulks is to be admired for his ambition. What he’s getting at, from various angles, is the million-dollar question. What does selfhood mean? How does it persist – or fail to persist? How is it complicated by altered mental states, by institutionalisation, and by the border control crisis we know as love? And what happens to it when the material atoms from which it seems to arise go their separate ways?
That these questions are, well, tricky is given slyly absurdist confirmation in the central story – by making Elena the scientist who discovers the answers to them. Where is human identity to be located? In a neural loop “between Glockner’s Isthmus and the site of episodic memory”, it turns out. This is established by brain-scanning a man whose head was accidentally impaled on a fence-pole (“Kebab Man Puzzles Greek Doctors”).
It seems apt that “Glockner’s Isthmus” has a ring of “Shatner’s Bassoon” – the part of the brain said to be affected by Chris Morris’s spoof drug “cake” in the 1997 TV series Brass Eye. After the Eureka moment, Elena’s colleague turns to her: “It seems almost an anticlimax,” she says. “Over the Adriatic they toasted their discovery of why humans are as they are with Prosecco from plastic glasses.”
Sam Leith is author of ‘The Coincidence Engine’ (Bloomsbury)
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