Monday, May 14, 2012

The Sense Of An Ending

There's a film, Angel Heart, that only really makes sense when it doesn't make sense, which is to say the optimal mode of experiencing it is on late night television, and only if you stumble into it a minute after it has begun, but because you're in a drunken stupor, you believe you've missed the first half hour that would have explained all the portentiousness. Sober, it's a pile of rubbish; drunk, it's a masterwork.

Angel Heart is based on a novel of the same name, which is much worse than the movie (who says Hollywood ruins everything? The same people who think Michael Bay ruined Transformers by overcommercialising them?), and at the centre of that book's plot is a concern about the failure of memory. Which gets us, eventually, to The Sense of an Ending.

I knew it wouldn't be a happy book, because it won the Booker, but I didn't realise it would be a work of horror. I suppose this is a trend in Booker winners that has gone on for decades; think back to Midnight's Children, or more recently the nastiness at the end of Amsterdam, or, for shortlists, the sausages-and-death of Magnus Mills' The Restraint Of Beasts.

It's not horror in the flailing man in a rubber suit sense, but the horror of a life wasted, of the fallibility and unforgiving nature of memory, the horror of recognising you too might be an unreliable narrator of your own life. Egocentric, believing yourself powerful enough to curse somebody, and not realising that in acting like a wanker you might be being a wanker. Literally and figuratively.

It was a work I read with increasing gloom. I'm glad it's only 150 pages because I don't know how upset I'd be if Barnes had spread it out over a normal novel length. I'd probably be being talked down from a windowledge by a Singaporean copper right now, and that would disrupt the regular schedule of this blog. Perhaps there's a secret society that shields us from this; they keep the full 600 page edition of The Sense of an Ending locked in a vault somewhere, along with the three-volume version of Marukami's South of the Border, West of the Sun and all the other books that would drive you to suicide if you read too much of them. Or maybe I'm just paranoid.

There is a worry as you approach, and steam past middle age, that your chance to be great has passed, and no matter how good you are, that's all you'll be. A Sense of an Ending frames this very well, even if the ghastly ending of the book, as you begin to realise how grindingly dull, yet how grindingly awful the narrator and his life both are, is almost too much. I suppose beyond the implausibility of the final twist (or if not implausibility, the way it fails to cohere just as one would hope), is that worry that if the narrator is ordinary, we might be too. And if we're ordinary too, might we be like him?

It's not a fun read, then, but I think it's a good piece of art because it makes you confront what you should have been, or what you think you should have been, but I worry that you'll either read it too early, when you're too young to worry, or too late, when you've no way to heed its message.

Perhaps I should have watched Angel Heart instead tonight. Nobody got depressed watching Robert de Niro peel boiled eggs with his ridiculous fingernails.


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