Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"A Possible Life" by Sebastian Faulks

Can you not be sure of what's going on and still like a book?

The packaging of "A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts" hints at something other than a collection of short stories.

But after a pleasurable once-through, highwayscribery is not exactly sure what binds these otherwise tasty tales together.

In the fifth and final piece the narrator dwells on what might represent a common thread/unifying principle to the work under scrutiny here.

"I was almost sixty years old, but I didn't understand anything. It all in the end seemed to have been a matter of purest chance. But for a succession of tiny pieces of good fortune, I might never have had a glimpse of Weepah Way [his upstate New York farm], or Anya King [the subject of this tale]. Yet I also new that if any of those bits of luck had fallen out in a different way and I had had another life, it would in some odd way have been the same - my heart existing, as Anya put it, by a different name.

Or not.

Let's see. The first story involves Geoffrey, whose "middle rank" may have been the determining factor in his internment at a Nazi concentration camp. The harrowing portrait of that experience, and the gentler one of the peculiar life in prep school England stand out.

The second story involves Billy, who lives in England during the second half of the 19th century. Poverty might have been the overriding factor to his existence, save for his personal moxy, which sets up the kind of Horatio Alger yarn gobbled up so readily by we Yanks.

Guess our Protestant work ethic came from somewhere.

Here, author Sebastian Faulk's recuperation or remembrance of the workhouse where parents sent children they could not afford to feed and clothe is strong coffee, and will make you feel lucky (if you haven't been in a workhouse yourself).

"Elena" takes place in 2029 and, with the exception of a few "scanners" and some commentary on the rundown nature of an industrial democracy - Italy - fails for the most part as future lit.

It does set up the kind of face-off conjured by Herman Hesse in "Narcissus and Goldmund." Elena is precise, rational and scientific. Bruno emotional and feeling. These two youths struggle to find a common ground that will accommodate their strong mutual attraction.

The fourth story, or "part" as the author proposes it, features Jeanne, an illiterate, rural lumpen proletarian. She lives with a petit bourgeois family in provincial France and Faulks does a nice job of helping us see the world through the eyes of a person whose life is burdened with quite so many disadvantages, eyes lacking the clarity of enlightenment.

The fifth part is the story of Anya as seen through the eyes a successful musician of the 1970s rock and roll scene. It's a lovely recall of those buzzy fuzzy times and a remembrance of how the people then "lived" music as much as they listened to it.

Anya herself is something of a siren, a unique talent, if damaged goods thanks to an unsteady childhood, accessible, but alone as any ship on sweeping sea.

Perhaps these are all lives in which environment is the ultimate arbiter of life direction.

Or not.

Maybe you can figure it out. To be sure, the writer's clean prose and even-handed story-telling make the challenge worth a shot.

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