Authenticity, New is Always Better, and Julian Barnes’s “England, England”

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I’m not an overall fan of weirdly written narratives. Julian Barnes is a writer of weird lines. He drops you into his language without trying to warm you up or rope you in. The first few pages of a Julian Barnes novel are confusing, difficult to follow, and sometimes even annoying. The story he’s trying to tell is already being told, but he doesn’t feel the need to pause and bring the reader up to speed.

For a while, this was hard for me to deal with. I was tired from already having finished one novel that day, I was exhausted by the change in genre, and I didn’t really get the subject matter of the book. But I’d already read two other Barnes novels and loved them, so I stuck around. And I was glad I did.

There are two things I really liked about this novel, that I really like in all of Barnes’ books. 1) no matter how confusing his language can get, it will always pay off and the story will never disappear under the weight of the subject matter the book is trying to deal with, and 2) although the novel may involve a lot of philosophical meditation, it is not an authoritative declaration on the nature of the universe.

Barnes novels are very philosophical, and they tackle big existential issues about the place of man in the universe. But Barnes doesn’t give the impression of a judge declaring the difference between true and false, or a philosopher mentally masturbating about the nature of the universe. Barnes’s authorial voice makes you feel like he’s a friend, an interesting friend who thinks about a lot of interesting things, and if you’re interested here’s his take on the universe, which you might like, but you don’t have to because he’s not sure about it himself.

In this novel, “England, England,” Barnes tries to tackle the issue of authenticity. What does something being “real” or “true” mean, anyway? How can a person be true to themselves if they’ve been constructed over the course of their lives? Does it matter if something is “real”? Can it be made real? And circling around back to; If nothing matters in the bast expanse of the universe anyway, what does real even men?

The novel offers an ultimate challenge to the idea of authenticity by presenting an egomaniac knight who wants to build replicas of all of England’s best cultural offerings on a tiny island. The island will have the royal family, Robin Hood, Stonehenge, and much more, all available at easy access to tourists. People will declare it “better than the real thing.”

Through an often intensely weird, but always honest novel, the threads of questions run continuously  The questions don’t have easy answers, and they may not have answers at all. And I think everyone who reads this novel will get something different out of it. Pretty neat trick, I’d say.

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