By Julian Barnes
Knopf. 275 pp. $23
Reviewed by Richard Tillinghast
A French intellectual in this talky new novel by Julian Barnes quotes a writer he calls "one of my fellow countrymen, one of those old soixante-huitards of the last century" to the effect that "all that was once directly lived has become mere representation." The fellow-countryman is someone like Roland Barthes, and his idea is familiarly postmodernist. "The French intellectual was a slight, neat figure in an English tweed jacket half a size too big for him; with it he wore a pale blue button-down shirt of American cotton, an Italian tie of flamboyant restraint . . . and a pair of tasselled French loafers." The sartorial melange points not only to the man's cosmopolitan image but also to Barnes's gift for detail in this satirical tour de force set sometime in the Third Millennium.
Acting on the idea that tourists prefer a neatly packaged experience to the messiness, bad smells and unpredictability of the real world, a British firm creates a microcosm and calls it "England, England." Disneyland meets poststructuralism. The British firm is Pitco, the personal empire of Sir Jack Pitman, "entrepreneur, innovator, ideas man, arts patron . . . less a captain of industry than a very admiral," as this self-made tycoon vaingloriously sees himself.
First Pitco, purveyor of Quality Leisure, surveys potential customers and compiles a list of the "Fifty Quintessences of Englishness," from the Royal Family through Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, down to the BBC, double-decker buses and the Magna Carta. Then they build their little kingdom on the Isle of Wight. They even convince the king and queen of England, "Kingy-Thingy" and Denise, to take up residence there in a down-sized replica of Buckingham Palace.
Underneath the tomfoolery, England, England, shortlisted last year for England's Booker Prize, is about national self-identity and how outsiders view the country Shakespeare called "this sceptred isle . . . this precious stone set in the silver sea" and its people. "How do we advertise the English?" asks a Pitco man. "Come and meet representatives of a people widely perceived, even according to our own survey, as cool, snobbish, emotionally retarded, and xenophobic. . . . I mean, I know you guys like a challenge . . ." During the coverage of Princess Diana's funeral, we were treated to hours and yards of speculation about the New Britain. Part of the interest of this book for me lies in observing the way American speech has invaded -- note the "you guys" above -- the language spoken in this re-invented country.
The novel sags under the weight of having to sustain a single running gag for most of its length. Not that the writing is not consistently good, and entertaining up to a point. The dog is simply too shaggy.
The only character we are meant to regard as a real person rather than an object of satire is Martha Cochrane, who starts off as Sir Jack's special consultant and then succeeds in overthrowing him in a palace coup. To me the most appealing part of the book is the 20-odd-page prologue where we glimpse Martha growing up in a village in England (the real one). One of her favorite things is piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of the nation, county by county. When her father deserts the family, he leaves with Nottinghamshire in his pocket. Thus a child's real anguish underlies the project of creating England, England.
But Barnes fails to bring even Martha to life, often shorthanding her emotions unconvincingly: "So while her heart opened, her mind had remained anxious. Paul [her lover] behaved as if their relationship were already a given: its parameters decided, its purpose certain, all problems strictly for the future." This is too bad because on the micro level Barnes writes gorgeously. His descriptions and similes are often brilliant: Sir Jack "swiped at a thicket with his stave and disturbed a pheasant, which rose heavily into the air, its fairisle sweater aflap, whirring off like a model aeroplane with a wonky propeller."
In the end the real England changes its name back to the ancient Anglia and reverts to old ways. Martha abandons England, England for this retro realm, where "A new chic applied to fountain-pens and letter-writing, to family evenings round the wireless and dialling `O' for Operator. . . . Cities dwindled. . . . Coal was dug again, and the kingdoms asserted their differences; new dialects emerged, based on the new separations." Readers fatigued by this relentlessly au courant, often brilliant book will say Amen to that.
Richard Tillinghast is the author of six books of poetry, most recently "Today in the Cafe Trieste."