cover image Pulse: Stories

Pulse: Stories

Julian Barnes, Knopf, $25 (240p) ISBN 978-0-307-59526-3

Companionship—the search for, the basking in, and the loss of—binds Barnes's first-rate collection of short stories, his first since 2004's The Lemon Table. In a lesser author's hands, a single story composed almost entirely of dialogue—let alone four of them—would collapse under the pressure of carrying off such a task and still moving along the narrative. But Barnes proves himself an erudite fly on the wall in his "At Phil and Joanna's" series, which involves the postdinner conversations of a group of London friends discussing everything from the 2008 election to marmalade, sex, and testicle operations—and each character comes alive despite the slightest hints of description and exposition. Vernon in "East Wind," on the other hand, takes the notion of observing a step too far during an awkward courtship with a German waitress in a seaside town. Though their circumstances couldn't be more different, the characters in "Sleeping with John Updike," "Gardeners' World," and "Harmony" all find themselves at one time or another content in the knowledge of the space they share with a friend, spouse or healer, yet it is when this companionship is just out of reach, as in the dryly witty "Trespass," or snuffed out, as in the poignant title story, that Barnes shines brightest. (May)