Pulse, by Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 228 pages

Some years ago at the King’s Lynn Fiction Festival, I watched Julian Barnes being interviewed by the late Beryl Bainbridge. “The thing about your books, Julian,” pronounced Dame Beryl, “is that they’re all about death.”

This is true, of course, but Barnes’s work does have a second fixation: stuff. If anything gives the 14 stories in this patchy new collection a unifying link, it is their fascination with what might be called the humdrum materials of existence: the everyday routines and preoccupations that tether his characters to their lives can sometimes severely limit their room for manoeuvre.

A sentence in “Gardeners’ World” gestures at the way in which Barnes’s short stories work. Ken, who has been married for eight years, has been given a soil-testing kit by his wife. “PH, he learnt, was a number used to express degrees of acidity or alkilinity in solutions, formerly the logarithm to base 10 of the reciprocal of the concentration of hydrogen ions, but now related by formula to a standard solution of potassium hydrogen phthalate, which has value 4 at 15 degrees centigrade.”

Barnes, being a “stuff” merchant, can’t resist all the enticing detail about leafcurl and black spot. The reader will be aware that this bears huge metaphoric weight, while noting that Ken and his wife, stuck in this figurative jungle, are struggling to achieve any life of their own.

It is the same with “Trespass”, which is about rambling in the countryside, and “East Wind” (estate agent hero), which only just escapes the embrace of its property gazetteer lingo (“1930s semi, pebbledash, multi-occupation, metal window frames rusting up badly”, Vernon notes of his beloved’s bedsit).

These are tight, rueful and almost desperately ironic stories whose characters are in permanent danger of being engulfed by the things they do. So Geoff in “Trespass”, taking his lady friend out on exacting route-marches, seems a much less solid proposition than the “Bowden Bridge car park, the reservoir, pick up the Pennine Way to the Downfall, right at Red Brook” itinerary that Barnes has filched from the Ordnance Survey map. The scenery is more arresting than the man marching laboriously through it.

Perhaps, in a way, this is Barnes’s point, and the thraldom in which his characters are held by their environment in Pulse are a ground-down lot: resigned divorcees (the phrase “he didn’t mind one way or the other” recurs); the world-weary middle-aged, lately arrived at the peak of life’s parabola and now careening down the other side. Life, thinks Alice, the ageing writer in “Sleeping with John Updike”, is “the gradual loss of pleasure”. Self-destructive tendencies abound, and can rarely be kept in check. “Was it that, deep down, he had an urge to fuck everything up?” broods Vernon the estate agent, as he legs off in pursuit of a stolid east European café waitress. Ultimately Vernon goes too far, discovers the secret of his new girlfriend’s buried life and is summarily abandoned.

Short stories nearly always suffer from being assembled in volume form. The reader starts to see the joins, work out how the tricks are played, looks on knowingly as the next artful metaphor begins to uncoil, and in this particular case to wonder whether the Trades Descriptions Act couldn’t usefully be invoked. The four pieces entitled “At Phil and Joanna’s” are simply exercises in the higher banter, smart-alecky conversations of the kind that presumably illumine north London dining rooms after the children have gone to bed. By the more exacting definitions, “Complicity” and “Carcassonne” hardly count as short stories – just Barnes delightedly passing on interesting facts he has picked up and joining one or two of life’s vagrant dots slyly together.

When the absorption in subject matter can be overcome, things really start to shift. “East Wind” gathers its figurative threads up into a single, spectacular knot with Vernon, staring once more out of the café window and finding the view the same “except that there used to be a row of beach huts ... Then someone had burnt them down.”

Meanwhile, “Marriage Lines” is a haunting sketch of a newly widowed man returning to the Scottish island where he and his wife went annually on holiday. In “The Limner”, Barnes turns in an atmospheric historical piece about a deaf-mute Yankee portrait-painter, while in the title story he subdues a temptation to luxuriate in the detail of his hero’s evenings at the running club to offer a nicely observed account of a young man’s marriage failing against the backdrop of his parents’ declining health.

The jury is still out on that eternal debate about Barnes the essayist manqué, but it is a fact that what weakens the less successful stories in Pulse is their surfeit of information.

DJ Taylor is the author of ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’ (Constable)

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