Literary fiction is, mostly, realist fiction, except for the prize-winning literary fiction that's a touch surreal (Rushdie, Garcia Marquez, etc). Julian Barnes' fine novel The Sense of an Ending isn't at all surreal, but it's won prizes, which means what, kids? Especially given that it's as British as the day is long? Realism. Letter-perfect realism. Greatly to be admired, etc, but also ... disappointingly normal.
Our man Tony is getting on now, around 70, and he spends the bulk of this short book reliving angst of one kind or another, mostly different senses of inferiority. He turns out not to have been The Smart One of his school chums, he's never really been successful with women, he's failed to hang onto his friendships: we've read this novel, seen this movie, lived this life, before. Most of his sense of inferiority is justified, but not all of it, and we're meant to identify with him, more or less, so we get to map or extend our own anxieties onto his and hence to suffer with him through the undignified complexities of a man's unravelling life. So far, so ... good, I guess.
I'm a little uncomfortable with my position on this novel, because reviewers have mostly been competing to see whose praise can be most heavily larded with absolutes and cliches ("a highly wrought meditation," said the Guardian; "A slow burn, measured but suspenseful, this compact novel makes every slyly crafted sentence count," said the Independent; "There is a fierce and unforgiving lucidity about The Sense of an Ending, a mature reckoning with ageing that makes its competitors seem petulant and shrill," according to the Australian; "Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden," said the New York Times. "He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam"). Thank goodness for Michiko Kakutani, even if I'm not usually on her reviewing side.
In my view, Barnes has done a remarkable job in The Sense of an Ending of doing AGAIN what so many British or British-influenced writers -- and actors -- have done over the years, namely to put a human face onto internalized class struggle. Good on him, as far as this goes, but (God forgive me for by blasphemy) I couldn't help seeing in Tony a little bit of Mr. Bean....
Maybe it deserved the Booker this year, I haven't read the other nominated volumes, but it just has to be one of the most predictable winners in a while: not unlike Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan a few years ago, it checks all the boxes for formula elements of a prizewinner, and yet somehow I never got past the conspicuousness of the artistry that itself prevented my investing in reading the novel.
The book club probably liked it, though: I'll find out tomorrow, and then I'll go all Tony and doubt myself, hence proving Barnes a genius beyond compare. Stupid literature and its perceptiveness.