The 2011 Man Booker was announced earlier this week, going to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. But did the award get it right this year? Deputy Reviews Editor Mike Harvkey and News Editor Gabe Habash each have something to say about it, and the argument will be settled via cage match. Time to put the children and weak-stomached to bed.
Gabe Habash: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes has faults I can count on one hand: a clunky first page and an unearned sense of time and place. Everything else in the book is masterful. It’s 163 pages of get-down-to-business prose, a story told retrospectively by an aging Londoner named Tony Webster uncovering a secret. But the juicy secret is just the dangling carrot; Barnes’s book is really about memory: its existence on two planes—the immediate, morphing memory we have closely at hand (which is not necessarily to be trusted), and the objective truth of past events (which we may never fully recall, but which is the purest form of existence remembered). Though the latter may never be attained, Barnes’s tale shows the ideal of bringing the former as close as we can to it. If that sounds highfalutin, that’s just me doing review-speak—what you really need to know is that you’ll care about the characters (Barnes keeps his cast very limited) and you’ll be plowing through pages to get to the end to figure it all out. And without giving anything away, I’ll just say that you’ll be satisfied when you finish. The Man Booker got it right this year. What say you, comrade Mike?
Mike Harvkey: I’m intrigued by your delineation of memory from Barnes’s novel, Gabe. I would find it almost the opposite, I think. There’s nothing objective about my personal recollections; not a one of my distant memories can be trusted. Memory—or more accurately, history—also plays a role in Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, the shortlisted title that I was personally pulling for. Set in the lawless mid–19th century, as gold fever grips the American west, two freelance killers, the loving if bickering Sisters brothers, Charlie and Eli, are hired by the Commodore to kill Hermann Kermit Warm. Why kill him? While the question doesn’t bother Charlie, it plagues the more sensitive Eli, who provides the book’s narration and soul. I’m not sure that I could count this book’s flaws on one hand, because I don’t actually find any flaws at all, beyond, perhaps, what the book doesn’t do, which is likely why it didn’t win. But I hate judging books for what they don’t do, and more than anything, deWitt wants to entertain. Though the novel traffics in darkness, history, and “big themes” like greed, violence, and redemption, the forward march (or ride, rather, as much concern is paid to the brothers’ horses, Nimble and Tub—poor Tub) of the quick-tempered Charlie and his younger, larger brother Eli drives the book. Personally, I found this tight focus a strength. This novel is in the realm of Portis, not McCarthy. What do you think, Gabe— does a book have to tackle grand issues head-on in order to be considered serious enough to win a statue?
GH: It seems like both Barnes and deWitt value narrative economy, and that’s probably a big reason why both books are so readable (which has actually been a point of contention among critics of the Man Booker shortlist this year). And while The Sense of an Ending does address some grand issues, the book is such a neat and tidy package that it feels sneakily grand—in a good way. Barnes is telling us a small mystery, and you get so swept up in Webster’s detective work that the ruminations on memory’s unreliability and life’s unpredictability never feel pedantic—they feel like natural pieces of the puzzle. And while I wouldn’t necessarily call The Sense of an Ending “entertaining,” I would call it compelling, and I think the two are very similar. It’s very possible that deWitt’s book was hurt because it doesn’t seem grand or important or serious enough, but I wouldn’t use any of those words to describe Barnes’s book, either. The Sense of an Ending was the shortest book on the shortlist this year and it has a pinhole scope, so that undercuts any potential claims of grandiosity or importance. And though it’s not a laugh-out-loud funny book, it never takes itself too seriously (“Yes, of course we were pretentious—what else is youth for?”). I think it won (and deserved to win) the Booker because Barnes installs a compelling story as the book’s hub, and every other aspect—character, structure, tone—feels like it’s fully in service of that story. More than any other book I’ve read in a while, The Sense of an Ending gets out of its own way. As a result, it has a full head of steam by the time it gets to its incredibly rewarding closing pages.
MH: I imagine you’re right, Gabe, and all of that sounds fine. The similarities are interesting, and I could even describe The Sisters Brothers as a book about aging men uncovering a secret as well, a secret that fuels their employer to ask for Mr. Warm’s head and finds its foundation in the alchemy of the age, and functions, as in Barnes’s book, as the dangled carrot. Once it’s revealed, however, it also makes the novel’s biggest impact—at least on the characters, changing the fate of everyone involved. The more I write about this book, the better I like it, Gabe! Permit this glimpse at this book’s first page, which I think you’ll agree is the opposite of clunky:
“I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called Tub. We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that. Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it was not as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by.” Eli feels that “Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner. He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day. I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.”
The brilliance of deWitt’s opening page is the economy with which it, like all great novels, establishes the book’s main characters, concerns, and relationships. Because the most moving relationship in the book, it turns out, is the bond that forms, despite his initial assessment, between Eli and his horse Tub. Poor Tub. He just couldn’t catch a break in this life.