The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Posted on November 27, 2012
I’ve become increasingly “statusy” over the past few weeks. After most exciting (or mundane) experiences, I fire up Facebook, click in the status box, and briefly mull over how best to encapsulate my doings. The criteria for my status updates are as follows:
- Must be punchy: self-referential without seeming self-involved.
- Subjects and articles are dispensable.
- Must aim to entertain/delight.
- Must portray my life as a series of interesting (read: enviable) events.
- Must elicit likes/comments.
- Must be grammatically correct (grammar errors are seriously shameful to English teachers).
- Must seem as if all previously mentioned criteria were adhered to in a spontaneous–not calculated–manner.
This is a problem. Or at least it feels like it. Liking is but distantly related to true appreciation; it is only like other things–not a thing itself. And if I am chasing Likes, then I am literally chasing the figurative. For more of this, see Jonathan Franzen’s excellent article, “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.” A brief quote from it:
“If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick.”
Ouch. That hurts. I have just been accused and convicted of pandering. And while I might plead the defense of “everyone’s doing it,” it doesn’t change the fact that I am being–subtly but surely–drawn into the snare of equating self-worth with digital footprint.
But there’s more to the Facebook phenomenon than how it subverts self-esteem. Recently, Facebook foisted upon their unwitting users a new (and improved!) format: the Timeline. For those unfamiliar with Facebook, Timeline presents everything you’ve done or that has happened to you on Facebook–from commenting on your Nephew’s baptism pictures to being tagged in less than savory New Year’s photos–in a slick, two-columned chronology. As you cascade down your stacks of stuff, your past-self shoves its way into the gaze of your present-self. And often, it looks ridiculous–a mash-up of comedy, tragedy, and farce. Did I really use WTF and LOL in the same sorry excuse for a sentence? What was I thinking always wearing that ratty, red baseball cap to class? (I shudder to imagine what the high schoolers of today will think, after the passage of a few years, of their YOLOing.)
Luckily, If you are ashamed, ambitious, or editorially inclined, deleting parts of your past-self is as easy as the click of a button. Flirty wall exchange with a former flame? Gone. Status update alerting all your friends of your newfound love for “My Chemical Romance”? Deleted. Photo comment conversation with a former roommate involving several iterations of “dude,” “rad,” and “righteous”? NEVER EXISTED.
Oddly enough, as it is with Facebook’s Timeline, so it is with our own memories. We subconsciously redact, revise, and reorganize (the three R’s of memory alteration) our experiences to fit within the confines of our self and world concepts. Perception is not reality; perception is reality plus bias/minus dissonance.
No book gets at this notion quite as we’ll as Julian Barnes, “The Sense of an Ending.” A slight book (approximately 150 pages), it took me about a day to finish. I suspect, however, that it will linger in my mind for quite a while longer.
“The Sense of an Ending,” takes as its theme the mutable, imperfect, and untrustworthy nature of memory. The narrator, Tony Webster, (now an older British man) is looking back on his life, remembering and misremembering old schoolmates and romances. His surety of how things were is shaken when he comes across a letter he wrote to his former best friend and girlfriend (at that time involved together in a romance of their own). In the letter, he is cruel and vindictive–something that doesn’t jive with his memory of events. Deeply unsettled by the letter, he attempts to reconcile himself to his former girlfriend.
I won’t give anything else away, but be prepared for a pretty major twist. Or two. Also, prepare yourself for some seriously somber sentences. For instance, Old Tony offers this glum little jewel:
“I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However . . . Who said that thing about ’the littleness of life that art exaggerates?’ There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.”
I’ll admit it: I am a little afraid that this paragraph describes me. Thankfully, I really like mowing grass. And I think there’s more adventure to be had in earnestly living your life than desperately chasing an image of happiness.
If I had to sum up my review of this book in a status update, I’d probably write something like, “The Sense of an Ending” is the bomb! Lucky for us the world is not Facebook, and thoughts are still given more space to breathe than a tiny status box. But please, feel free to Like or Comment upon this post. 🙂