January 14, 2013

The lives they could have led

“Life never assures which part of ourself is life.”

“Life never assures which part of ourself is life.”

— From “The Dolphin” by Robert Lowell

“A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts” by Sebastian Faulks (Henry Holt and Co., 304 pages, $25)

You don the doctor’s white coat. Tap the stethoscope. Then squeeze the rubber sleeve on your patient’s bicep until the blood pressure blurts out its pulsating numbers.

Diagnosis: uncertain.

Testing the health of virtually any artistic genre hinges on how well the form changes over time — still clinging to its definitive, beating heart, of course, but molting the features that no longer fit the Zeitgeist.

Painting provides the strongest example. In the early 20th century, Cubism exploded the paradigm of what counted as subject matter for pigment and brush. Much the same happened with music and poetry: The modernist chant “Make it new” led to the discovery of liberating dissonance, innovative diction and unsettling dances.

Only the novel seemed impervious to this trend. The distance from Gustave Flaubert to John Updike, from Henry James to F. Scott Fitzgerald, from Marcel Proust to John Banville remains dramatically foreshortened.

Even James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” virtually impenetrable to most readers, strains to tell a story amid its bewildering welter of words.

Thus, no matter the voice, the setting, or the flow of time, the novel’s narrative heart pumps to a familiar beat — its lifeblood pooling in a unified story, in a recognizable verbal form.

Until now, that is.

Sebastian Faulks, one of England’s most successful and popular novelists — author of “Charlotte Gray” and “Birdsong,” both reincarnated as films (for the big and little screens) — tries to reinvent the nature of the novel in “A Possible Life,” deeming five disparate stories about five disparate people in five disparate places and five disparate times as a single narrative whole.

Faulks’ bravado is tantamount to the Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte’s painting of a pipe, accompanied by the words “This is not a pipe.” The five short stories loosely grouped together as “A Possible Life” are not short stories at all, apparently, but “parts” of a novel — elemental and essential, obliquely united by the author’s intent.

The reader must provide the missing link, however, the secret that connects the lives of Geoffrey Talbot, a tri-lingual, athletically inclined schoolteacher who enlists in the English Army in 1938, joins the French resistance, then survives a Nazi concentration camp; of Billy, an illiterate child laborer who rises to the rank of landlord in Victorian London; of Elena Duranti, an introverted, socially awkward scientific genius, who “solves” the problem of human consciousness in mid-21st century Italy; of Jenne, a simple, devout housemaid in early 19th-century France, who makes the difficult choice to resist an unholy alliance with a young priest; and, finally, of Anya King, a moody, wildly talented singer-songwriter of the 1970s, willing to suffer almost anything for her art.

Some reviewers have already dismissed as quixotic the quest to find a unifying thread among these unlikely bedfellows. Simply go with the flow, they counsel; don’t sweat the aesthetic details.

But quixotic does not mean pointless. And like all great literature, “A Possible Life” interprets itself. It provides ample — if subtle — connections of the souls of its characters. Staying alert to these clues, from beginning to end, means simply paying attention.

For those who do, Faulks beautifully executes the move on which the entire book hinges: In an expert stroke of symmetry, the middle story of Elena, set 16 years in the future, casts a slanting light backward on the other four.

For all her social ineptitude, Elena sees directly into the human dilemma: “Knowing one was comprised of recycled matter only and that selfhood was a delusion did not take away the aching of the heart.” That aching is for “the fearful joy of communion with another person”— what Faulks understands as the true substance of selfhood, the arena of struggle for all five characters.

As Elena muses to herself, “She had one life to live. And surely every human being in history had been born into a world that was in some way peculiar: blown out of shape by cataclysm.”

This cataclysm, in turn, leads to a life-changing encounter with each character’s ego. They exchange one set of existential possibilities for another.

“I was resigned to all the lives I wouldn’t now have time to lead,” says Jack, the narrator of Anya’s story.

What lends “A Possible Life” its “symphonic wholeness,” in Faulks’ words, abides in the enigma of the self and its links to historical, biological and spiritual life.

The yearning for connection — to be for another, to be in another — drives each story to its poignant conclusion.

In the end, love and memory emerge as the core of the mysterious “I” — a source of grace for Geoffrey: “He felt with joy and resignation that he was not the same man.”; of enigma for Elena: “If we change, can love exist outside us? Is such continuing love the embodiment of our former selves?”; and of wonder for Jack: “All humans are the same, this miracle of thought in flesh.”

So, has Faulks finally brought the novel up to speed with the modernist movement that invincibly invigorated other art forms in the 20th century? Again, it’s for the reader to decide.

If “A Possible Life” is not precisely a novel, it clearly resembles a five-act play. Either way, as Jack concludes, “I think we’re all in this thing, like it not, for ever.”

That’s a sentiment that no novelist need improve on. It remains at the heart of every great art form — always surprising and familiar, ever new.

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