Talk about reader relief! Julian Barnes’ short story collect “Pulse” manages bold surgical exam of coupledom — without resorting to the current lit-fiction glut of she- and he- alphas and their end-gaming sex. For this author, intimate, complicit partner relationships are “more of pulse than of thought.” Born in a moment of recognition. These are lean tales of finely traced intuitions.
In this two-part volume, first comes Barnes’ take on love’s bleak, wintry closure. He moves to the rich wellspring of the human heart in the second. In the joyous “Carcasonne,” after an evening of talk and drinks, the narrator’s friend suddenly confesses: “I had the best fucky-fuck of my life in Carcassone… a real ‘coup de foudre'” (a thunderclap). Announcing that often sexual, always intimate relationship we call “love.”
No such thunderous love word in English. So Barnes has invented his own. “Pulse” is also title to the moving final tale. The narrator’s mother focuses the family on her husband’s minor-ailment cure in acupuncture’s busy body-pulse checks. While she silently notes her MDR symptoms accelerate. After the funeral her son studies the rare souvenir photo of his parents when they were very young: “sitting on a pebble beach…she in a polka-dot dress, looking out at the camera with passionate hopefulness.” Yes, he thinks, that’s it.
In stark contrast, section one sketches love’s sudden or slow death. There’s a fraught, long-term dependency friendship between two elderly spinsters. There are sexual couples. Four of the male/female tales are almost total dialogues. The same voices, in after-dinner conversations, over time. Frankly, such brittle, darkly wry dinner chat is no news. So it’s a surprise to find that four of these tales together do work. Charting the death of marriage, across the moving years: Geoff takes a cheddar flake left on the table. Joanna: “It’s what we don’t talk about. Love”
Barnes does talk about it. Deftly tracking that flicker in the coursing veins that say: This person, yes. That one, no.